Extreme Ownership – Leadership Lessons
Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
Jocko Willink and Leif Babin are retired Navy Seal officers. What separates them from most leaders is that they have led people in life-and-death situations. When in battle, they have to make split second decisions and the consequences of their actions can mean the difference between a Seal making it home or being KIA. They understand that to lead, you must be clear about the objective, trust each other, and be accountable.
Part I – The war within
In order to lead and win, you must first have the right mind-set
Lesson 1 – Extreme ownership
On any team, in any organization, all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader. The leader must own everything in his or her world. There is no one else to blame. The leader must acknowledge mistakes and admit failures, take ownership of them, and develop a plan to win.
The best leaders don’t just take responsibility for their job. They take extreme ownership of everything that impacts their mission.
YOU are responsible for the successes and failures in your job and in your life. The boss, product, economy, and competitors are not to blame. When a subordinate isn’t doing what they should, you need to look at yourself first. It’s up to the leader to ensure that subordinates are properly trained, have the resources, and have a clear understanding of the mission. If the subordinate continuously fails to meet standards, then the leader must be loyal to the team and mission above the individual (fire and hire someone who can do the job). As you can see, it’s all on the leader – extreme ownership style!
Such a leader, however, does not take credit for his or her team’s successes but bestows that honor upon his subordinate leaders and team members.
Lesson 2 – There are no bad teams, only bad leaders
Leadership is the single greatest factor in any team’s performance. Whether a team succeeds or fails is all up to the leader. The leader’s attitude sets the tone for the entire team. The leader drives performance – or doesn’t.
They see Extreme Ownership in their leaders, and, as a result, they emulate Extreme Ownership throughout the chain of command down to the most junior personnel. As a group they try to figure out how to fix their problems — instead of trying to figure out who or what to blame.
When a leader takes on the attitude of blaming someone else for their shortcomings, peers and subordinates pick up the same attitude. It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate. If you accept sub-par performance and no one is held accountable, that will become the new standard. Standards (and consequences for not meeting them) must be enforced. I’m not talking about ruling with an iron fist, but leaders have to drive standards in a way that enables and encourages the team. As a leader, you must strive for improvement, give honest assessments of themselves and their teams, identify weaknesses, come up with a plan to overcome obstacles, and push the standard higher. This mindset starts with the leader and spreads to each of the team members. Eventually it becomes the new standard becomes the new culture. Lastly, don’t tolerate infighting within your team – pull the team together and focus their efforts on a single specific goal.
Lesson 3 – Believe
Actions and words reflect belief with a clear confidence and self-assuredness that is not possible when belief is in doubt.
A leader must believe in the mission – it is vital if you want to inspire others to accomplish that same mission. If you ever get a task or a mission that you don’t believe in or don’t understand, don’t just sit back and accept it. Ask questions until you understand why it’s important. At that point, you can believe in what you are doing and you can pass that information down the chain to your team with confidence. Once they believe in the mission, they can get out there, overcome the challenges, execute the mission, and win.
Lesson 4 – Check the ego
For leaders, the humility to admit and own mistakes and develop a plan to overcome them is essential to success. The best leaders are not driven by ego or personal agendas. They are simply focused on the mission and how best to accomplish it.
Ego clouds and disrupts everything: the planning process, the ability to take good advice, and the ability to accept constructive criticism.
Often the most difficult ego to deal with is your own.
How many times have you seen a boss or peer pass the buck, make excuses, blame others, and unwilling to take advice? Probably a lot. It takes a lot of courage to admit shortcomings, that your way isn’t the best way, and to take advice. Set the example and be the person who I willing to say, “I was wrong”. Personally, I admire people who take this stand instead of blaming… blaming is easy. Additionally, don’t let your personal agenda become more important than the team and mission. Lastly, be humble.
Part II: The laws of combat
Lesson 1 – Cover and move
Cover and move = teamwork. We all have to work together and support each other toward a single purpose. I’m sure you’ve witnessed someone blaming or talking shit about another section or department. That mind-set need to change. We need to work with the people in other departments instead of using them as scapegoats. You can’t operate independently or against each other.
It falls on leaders to continually keep perspective on the strategic mission and remind the team that they are part of the greater team and the strategic mission is paramount.
Lesson 2 – Simple
Almost no mission ever goes according to plan. There are simply too many variables to deal with. This is where simplicity is key. If the plan is simple enough, everyone understands it, which means each person can rapidly adjust and modify what he or she is doing. If the plan is too complex, the team can’t make rapid adjustments to it, because there is no baseline understanding of it.
If your team isn’t doing what you need them to do, look at yourself first. Did you communicate the mission, plan, objective, as clearly and simply as possible? It must be clear enough so that the lowest member in the organization understands it. Not only does this make you more flexible in reacting to change, but it also provides more job satisfaction because members will now know why they are doing what they are doing – they will understand their role in the big picture. Keep communication simple and allow for an environment that allows subordinates to ask questions that clarify duties/tasks.
Lesson 3 – Prioritize and execute
Even the most competent of leaders can be overwhelmed if they try to tackle multiple problems or a number of tasks simultaneously. The team will likely fail at each of those tasks. Instead, leaders must determine the highest priority task and execute. Prioritize and Execute.
On the battlefield, countless problems compound in a snowball effect, every challenge complex in its own right, each demanding attention. But a leader must remain calm and make the best decisions possible. To do this, SEAL combat leaders utilize Prioritize and Execute. We verbalize this principle with this direction: “Relax, look around, make a call.
As a leader, don’t get lost in the details. In order to prioritize effectively, you must focus on the strategic picture. To stay ahead of problems, have good contingency plans in place – a response plan to potential challenges that arise during execution. Make sure the team knows these plans as well (good decentralized execution practice). Lastly, be aware that priorities can change quickly. Ensure that you pass situational awareness both up and down the chain.
Don’t let the focus on one priority cause target fixation. Maintain the ability to see other problems developing and rapidly shift as needed.
Lesson 4 – Decentralized command
A leader cannot effectively manage hundreds of people (or even a few dozen). The team must be broken down into manageable groups (teams within teams) with a clear leader in each group. The junior leaders at this level must be empowered to make decisions at their level (within their decision making authority of course). There needs to be trust and confidence in both junior and senior leaders for this to work. Additionally, junior leaders need to understand the mission and why they are doing it in the first place. Communication of key decisions made by junior leaders is also important here – up, down, and sideways. Decentralized communication only works effectively if everyone is passing information up and down the chain.
Each leader was trusted to lead and guide his team in support of the overall mission. Those junior leaders learned that they were expected to make decisions. They couldn’t ask “what do I do?” Instead, they had to state: “This is what i’m going to do.” Since I made sure everyone understood the overall intent of the mission, every leader worked and led separately, but in a unified way that contributed to the overall mission, making even the most chaotic scenarios much easier to handle.
Trust is not blindly given. It must be built over time. Situations will sometimes require that the boss walk away from a problem and let junior leaders solve it, even if the boss knows he might solve it more efficiently. It is more important that the junior leaders are allowed to make decisions — and backed up even if they don’t make them correctly. Open conversations build trust. Overcoming stress and challenging environments builds trust. Working through emergencies and seeing how people react builds trust.
SEAL leaders on the battlefield are expected to figure out what needs to be done and do it – to tell higher authority what they plan to do, rather than ask, “what do you want me to do?” Junior leaders must be proactive rather than reactive.
Part III – Sustaining victory
Lesson 1 – Plan
Leaders must identify clear directives for the team… a broad and ambiguous mission results in lack of focus, ineffective execution, and mission creep.
Again, a mission must be clear and concise. The overarching mission guides every small action, so it’s important that leaders at all levels understand the mission’s purpose and desired end result. When developing a plan, lean on the subject matter experts and get input from down the chain. This not only creates innovative ideas, it also creates a sense of ownership, buy-in, and understanding of the plan for those on the front lines. Leaders must do their best not to micromanage; instead, they should focus on the big picture and look find holes/weakness in the plan.
Remember, the plan (and contingency plans) must be understood by everyone. Encourage your troops to ask for clarification if needed. After the plan has been executed, you have to analyze your tactics and measure your effectiveness so you can be better next time. Although it will be the last thing you want to do after completing a mission, you have to make time for a post-operational debrief. The debrief covers what went right and what went wrong from start to finish.
Lesson 2 – Leading up and down the chain
If your boss isn’t making a decision in a timely manner or providing necessary support for you and your team, don’t blame the boss. First, blame yourself. Examine what you can do to better convey the critical information for decision to be made and support allocated.
Are you informing your leadership on what you really need in clear and simple terms? Did you effectively communicate the impact (including second and third order effects) of the shortfall? The person with the best justification, explanation, and impact will usually get the resources. Make sure your boss knows what you need in clear and simple terms. If your requirements aren’t the priority, take it with humility. The boss has limited resources and must allocate them in order to best execute the mission. At the end of the day, it’s vital that you always support your boss’s decisions. If a decision doesn’t make sense to you, ask for clarification in a professional and respectful way… the leader likely has information you do not. Once you understand why a decision was made, pass that info down to your people.
Lesson 3 – Decisiveness amid uncertainty
In the seal teams we taught teams to act decisively, my default setting should be aggressive. Proactive rather than reactive. Instead of the situation dictating our decisions, we dictated the situation.
Be proactive and anticipate as best you can. Leaders must make the best decision they can based on the information that they have (you will never have all the information). As situations evolve and new information becomes available, be flexible enough to adjust as needed and don’t become fixated on a particular plan. Use your experience and knowledge to make the best educated guess. People respect leaders who can be decisive enough to make the tough call with limited information.
Lesson 4 – Discipline equals freedom
Discipline starts every day when the first alarm clock goes off in the morning. I say “first alarm clock” because I have three, as I was taught by one of the most feared and respected instructors in SEAL training: one electric, one battery powered, one windup. That way, there is no excuse for not getting out of bed, especially with all that rests on that decisive moment. The moment the alarm goes off is the first test; it sets the tone for the rest of the day. The test is not a complex one: when the alarm goes off, do you get up out of bed, or do you lie there in comfort and fall back to sleep? If you have the discipline to get out of bed, you win — you pass the test. If you are mentally weak for that moment and you let that weakness keep you in bed, you fail. Though it seems small, that weakness translates to more significant decisions. But if you exercise discipline, that too translates to more substantial elements of your life.
The best seals I worked with were invariably the most disciplined. They woke up early, they worked out every day, they studied, they practiced. Just as an individual excels when he or she exercises self-discipline, a unit that has tighter and more disciplined procedures and processes will excel and win.
The dichotomy of leadership – A good leader must balance many seemingly contradictory qualities:
Be confident but not cocky
Be courageous but not foolhardy
Be competitive but a gracious loser
Be attentive to details but not obsessed with them
Be strong but have endurance
Be a leader and a follower
Be humble not passive
Be aggressive but not overbearing
Be quiet not silent
Be calm but not robotic (logical but not devoid of emotions)
Be close with the troops but not so close that one becomes more important than another
Be able to execute extreme ownership while exercising decentralized command
Check out Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s website, Echelon Front – unmatched solutions in leadership, test and proven in combat.