Extreme Ownership in the Classroom

Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s book Extreme Ownership unpacks leadership principles they learned as Navy SEAL commanders, both in training and in battle. Both of these men now work as private advisors for business executives, so their book applies most directly to the business world. The principles are useful for leaders in any field, however. In this post, I’d like to explore how they apply to teachers and to school staff in general.

Extreme Ownership

The main principle is stated in the title: Extreme Ownership. Essentially, this means that leaders must take responsibility for the success or failure of their team, regardless of whether or not they caused the mistake. “The only meaningful measure for a leader,” the authors say, “is whether the team succeeds or fails” (8). For a teacher, this means that if your class fails to achieve the goals you’ve set for them, you have not led them. Effective leadership is defined by success.

This brings up an obvious question: what is your goal as a teacher? Since teachers are themselves part of a team that operates under a leader, their overarching goal is defined for them by the school mission statement. All of the tasks a teacher does every day must work towards accomplishing the overall goal of the school. This goes for lesson plans as well as for class discipline. A good leader takes ownership of the overarching mission and leads his team to accomplish smaller tasks that help accomplish that mission.

Taking ownership does not simply mean admitting that it’s your fault when a student fails to accomplish a goal you’ve set, although it does include that. Taking ownership means finding out why that student has failed and giving them the resources (time, attention, incentive, additional materials) they need to succeed. Leaders can’t throw up their hands and blame the student for not applying himself. As long as that student is part of your team, you must make them succeed. If one member of the team fails, the whole team fails.

Taking ownership also means that a teacher cannot blame external factors for causing the team to fail. You can’t control your circumstances, but you can control your response. It’s not your fault that a student is absent for days on end, but it is your responsibility to bring them up to speed when they return. If they don’t catch up, you have failed as a leader.

Making True Believers

The most crucial part of taking ownership is making absolutely sure your team (your class) understands why they are being asked to do something. You must explain every goal to them until they become true believers in the mission. The most effective teams, the teams that accomplish what they set out to do, are those that understand the importance of their mission. A team that believes will try harder and work more intelligently than a team that is simply following directions. A true believer will take ownership of the mission himself.

Of course, a leader can’t take ownership of a mission unless he also believes in the mission. This is why the best teachers are the ones who love their subject. The students pick up on that love and begin to love the subject, too. Good leadership is contagious. If you as a teacher constantly take ownership of your students and help them succeed, they will begin to take ownership of their own work and will be motivated to succeed.

The other aspect of belief is that a leader must “align his thoughts and vision to that of the mission” (77). If the leader doesn’t understand why a particular goal needs to be accomplished, he needs to ask questions until he not only understands but believes in the absolute necessity of that goal. Senior leaders must explain the mission to those below them, and junior leaders must ask questions until they understand the why and can make others believe. Willink and Babin put it this way:

If you don’t understand or believe in the decisions coming down from your leadership, it is up to you to ask questions until you understand how and why those decisions are being made. Not knowing the why prohibits you from believing in the mission. When you are in a leadership position, that is a recipe for failure, and it is unacceptable. As a leader, you must believe. (84)

Taking ownership in this situation means communicating to your superiors that they haven’t communicated to you. If you don’t understand the instructions, if you don’t truly believe in the goal to the extent that you can convince others of its importance, you can’t throw up your hands and say, “I’m sure it doesn’t matter anyway.” Take ownership. Get your leaders to clarify until you understand the instructions and believe in them. Only then can you communicate it to your team. To summarize: Ask up, explain down. Ask your superiors for clarification, then explain the mission to your team.

For example, take a school dress code. At my school, the dress code is clearly explained in the student handbook. Why don’t our students follow it? The responsibility rests on the teachers. We have not led effectively. We have not adequately communicated the why to the students. If we had, they would follow it. Most likely, the reason that we haven’t succeeded in our mission is that we don’t understand the why either. A leader who doesn’t believe cannot make others believe. It is our responsibility as teachers to take ownership of the school policy, to ask questions until we understand its importance, and to communicate it to the students. As the authors say, “One of the most important jobs of any leader is to support your own boss” (237). If you, as a teacher, complain about the rules and procedures you have been given, your students will, too. You must take the time to understand them so that you can enforce them as though they are your own. 

Clarify the Mission

The authors develop several other principles of good leadership, but the principle most closely tied to extreme ownership is clarifying the mission. There can be no leadership where there is no team, and there can be no team where there is no mission. The mission must be simple, flexible, and measurable. If it’s complicated, rigid, or vague, it can’t be communicated down the chain of command, which will prevent anyone from owning it. A leader can’t lead his team unless he is leading them somewhere.

Teachers are classroom leaders and, as such, are responsible for the success of their students. In order for teachers to thrive as classroom leaders, they must take ownership of their classrooms, which means they must ask up and explain down. They must take responsibility for understanding the mission of the school and for communicating that mission to the students. Whether the daily lesson involves analyzing a poem, diagramming a sentence, or solving a complex equation, the class can only succeed if their teacher takes ownership of his or her class and teaches the students to take ownership themselves.

Drab Utilitarianism

I’m making my way through J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism and will be posting some of my notes here. Describing the woeful tendency of liberalism to quash all higher aspirations in favor of “drab utilitarianism,” Machen gives this example:

In the state of Nebraska, for example, a law is now in force according to which no instruction in any school in the state, public or private, is to be given through the medium of a language other than English, and no language other than English is to be studied even as a language until the child has passed an examination before the county superintendent of education showing that the eighth grade has been passed. In other words, no foreign language, apparently not even Latin or Greek, is to be studied until the child is too old to learn it well. It is in this way that modern collectivism deals with a kind of study which is absolutely essential to all genuine mental advance. The minds of the people of Nebraska, and of any other states where similar laws prevail, are to be kept by the power of the state in a permanent condition of arrested development.

Machen, Christianity and Liberalism

What is curious about this example is that it is the exact opposite of what today’s liberal would advocate. Public school teachers and boards in many states are strong proponents of teaching in multiple languages, especially Spanish, and of striking down English-only laws. I can’t imagine a law being passed that would prevent a school from teaching a non-English language before eighth grade. (In fact, the law Machen refers to was revoked in 1923, the same year Christianity and Liberalism was published.)

How can it be that what Machen saw as an example of liberalism would now be seen as an example of extreme conservatism? My guess is that he would argue that A) is it still utilitarian (bi-lingual education results in higher achieving graduates, which results in higher achieving citizens, etc.) and B) that both banning and requiring multiple languages in school are examples of the state meddling in the private affairs of citizens.