It’s Not My Fault… Or Is It?

Have you ever messed up and made someone else the scapegoat?  How many times a day do you deal with students who blame something or someone else for their actions or failing grades? If I’m being truly honest, I would have to admit that I am completely guilty of displacing the blame, and I see far too many students that do the same.

Dealing with issues such as these on a daily basis caused me to begin looking for a resource to help me grow as a leader, provide professional learning for our staff, and to help our students learn to take responsibility for their actions. My search led me to the book Extreme Ownership.

Extreme Ownership: How U. S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win is a book written by two U. S. Navy SEAL officers, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.  The book focuses on lessons learned in battle and how these concepts apply to anyone in a leadership position. The authors share personal stories of successes and failures from their years in combat and how we can apply these lessons in our work and our day-to-day lives.  

One true story and the foundation of the book takes place when Jocko and Leif were on a major operation in Ramadi, Iraq.  The SEALs were about to storm a building that was thought to be under fire by enemy troops. At the last minute, Jocko realized something was wrong and stopped the attack. It was a “blue on blue” (friendly fire) situation.  However, it was too late. There were casualties, with an Iraqi soldier dead and several others injured, including one of Jocko’s own SEAL team members. Friendly fire is one of the worst mistakes in combat. The senior commanders were infuriated and wanted answers.  Jocko knew his reputation and career were at stake. During the investigation of the incident, several errors were uncovered by many people involved in planning and carrying out the operation. But in the end, Jocko, as the commander of the operation, took full responsibility for what happened. In doing so, he not only earned the trust of his superiors, but also set an example of Extreme Ownership for other team leaders.

Extreme ownership means we (the leaders) own everything in our world. If a member of our team (teachers, staff members, students, etc.) does not understand our instructions and/or expectations, we as leaders (principals, assistant principals, teachers, etc.) cannot blame the team member. It is our role to make sure those we are leading understand their expectations. As principal of Habersham Ninth Grade Academy (HNGA), it is my job to ensure those I am leading understand what is expected of them.  In taking extreme ownership, I am responsible for everything in our school; our achievement, safety, attendance, data, hiring, discipline, communication, etc. So, if a fight occurs in one of our bathrooms and a teacher was not at his or her duty post, rather than immediately blaming the teacher for missing their hall duty, I first must look at myself to ensure I communicated my expectations and the importance and seriousness of being at his or her designated duty.

It is so easy to blame others, make excuses, or pretend a problem doesn’t exist. Taking extreme ownership requires me to put my ego aside, take responsibility for failures, address weaknesses, and work to improve our school and each process within our school.  This concept, while new to HNGA this school year, is already transforming our school culture. Teachers are owning their instructional time, test results, classroom management, and student successes and failures.  

My assistant principal and I both read this dynamic book and then shared key concepts from the book with our school leadership team.  Then, throughout the school year, our school leadership team is leading our entire faculty through a study of the book during monthly faculty meetings. We have had several incidents this year already where a teacher was forced to own a mistake, rather than placing blame on someone else.  

One such example happened in a history class where the students were given several options to demonstrate mastery of a standard; one option was to write a poem or rap.  The poem was to be submitted to the teacher for approval before reading the poem in front of the class. A poem was written, submitted to the teacher for approval, and approved. When the poem was read to the class, the teacher was horrified that it contained a sexual reference.  The teacher’s first reaction was one we all can relate to. “How dare the student say that to my students! This boy needs to be sent to the office!” However, once the teacher’s initial shock and anger waned, the teacher realized that ultimately, the student making a sexual reference in front of the class was the teacher’s fault, since the teacher had mistakenly approved the poem to be read aloud. The teacher addressed the student and took responsibility and even called the student’s parents to admit the mistake and ensure it would not happen again.  

As great as it is to see our staff take extreme ownership, we haven’t stopped with them.  We are taking this concept to our students. Our student leadership team is reading Extreme Ownership and is participating in leading lessons for our entire student body during our Teacher as Advisor meetings.

Our Teacher as Advisor meetings focus on students taking extreme ownership for their learning, behavior, and attitude. Learning this vital concept at a young age can revolutionize their entire lives. In meeting with a student last week regarding a discipline incident, the student actually said, “I own it; I did it.” While I was disappointed in the student’s poor choice, I praised him for quickly taking responsibility for his actions. It didn’t take the discipline consequence away but hopefully reinforced this valuable concept.

The Extreme Ownership book includes other great leadership lessons that we will incorporate into our school this year.  Some of these lessons include:

  • There are No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders
  • Mission Clarity
  • Keeping Your Ego In Check
  • Cover and Move
  • Prioritize and Execute
  • Discipline Equals Freedom

Beginning the school year with professional learning on the leadership concepts from this book has transformed how I look at every task I complete. One school-wide benefit of “Extreme Ownership” is that it is generating more enthusiasm in our building. It is pushing me, our entire staff, and the student body to accept responsibility and find solutions rather than wallowing in excuses, complaints, and criticism.

If you are truly interested in growing as a school leader, start by taking “Extreme Ownership” of everything in your world. Instead of complaining and making excuses about what is going wrong, look for possible solutions and ways to solve the problem.  Then, get ready for it to positively affect your entire school culture!

This blog was written by Dr. Connie Franklin. Dr. Franklin has over 20 years in education with 15 years as a school administrator at the middle school and high school levels. Before moving into administration, Dr. Franklin taught business education and was an instructional technology specialist.

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