Extreme Ownership

By: Jocko Willink Leif Babin



“So, there I was.…”

According to the authors of Extreme Ownership, every story told by a Navy SEAL starts off with, "...So there I was, pinned down by heavy fire, with only two rounds left in my rifle." You know this story. It's the type that probably would have turned out differently if you or I were the protagonist.

And here I am...trying to boil down some of the best leadership advice I’ve read in a long time and turn it into something you can read over your morning coffee, which by comparison isn't too shabby and just about as difficult as things can get over here. 

Differences aside, authors Jocko Willink and Leif Babin write, “The only meaningful measure of a leader is whether the team succeeds or fails.” So despite what you do, get ready to take a good hard look at yourself as a leader, and prepare to start thinking differently about how you control your destiny.

Principle #1: Extreme Ownership

This section of the book starts off with a story about a mission that almost blows up in their face - literally. Due to miscommunication between the Navy SEALs unit and a Marines unit there was what they refer to as a “blue-on-blue."

What this means is that the Marines and Navy SEALs had mistakenly been firing on each other. One Navy SEAL took some shrapnel in the face, but miraculously nobody had been seriously injured or killed.

Situations like this aren’t taken lightly, and Willink thought that his career as a team leader could be coming to an abrupt end as a result. His boss and an investigating officer came in from another camp to dig in and find out what had happened.

Many things had gone wrong. It would have been easy to point fingers at the people who had made mistakes that day, and to try and escape the heat, but that's not what Willink did. He stood up in front of the group, including his commanding officer, and said this:

“There is only one person to blame for this: Me. I am the commander. I am responsible for the entire operation…And I will tell you this right now: I will make sure that nothing like this ever happens to us again.”

No matter what situation you find yourself in, you alone are responsible for the success or failure of your team. Period. If you do fail, you must accept full responsibility and then develop a plan to win.

As a leader, you not only take ownership of your role, you are responsible for anything that impacts your mission - including your people. If a person under your command is not performing up to par, you must train and mentor them. If they continue to underperform, then you must be loyal to the mission above all else and find somebody who can get the job done.

Principle #2: There are no bad teams, only bad leaders

If you’ve ever watched a video of Navy SEALs going through Hell Week (if you haven’t, hop over to Youtube and search for “Navy SEALs Hell Week”), you may have seen them inside black inflatable rafts paddling through the ocean.

Each class of SEAL recruits are split into teams that compete with one another over the course of the week. Each team is given a leader, who is in charge of getting the best out of his men in gruelling circumstances.

One year, Babin recounts, one of the teams was winning each race (Boat II) and another team was consistently coming in last (Boat VI). So one of the instructors decided to run a little leadership experiment. The leaders of the two teams would switch boats to see if the lacklustre performance of Boat VI could be explained by a lack of leadership.

The leader of Boat VI was understandably excited, because he felt he had been dealt a hand of lousy recruits and simply couldn’t win with such a weak team. The leader of Boat II wasn’t happy, but quietly went to work figuring out how to get them to perform at a higher level than they were used to.

Right on cue, Boat VI was spurred on by their new leader and started to win every race, with Boat II having to settle battling for second place.

This highlights one of the most important leadership principles you will ever learn: Leadership is the greatest factor in any team’s performance.

Principle #3: You have to believe if you want to win

The SEAL team the authors fought with were called 'Task Unit Bruiser,' which was the same unit that Chris Kyle - author of American Sniper - belonged to. They had a fearsome reputation as being the most lethal fighting unit in the Iraq War, and possibly ever.

So when they were told that in order to run any mission they had to bring along Iraqi soldiers with them, they weren’t too happy. As Willink describes it, heading out into Ramadi (where they were fighting) was dangerous enough.

Imagine one day having another Navy SEAL literally watch your back as you complete your mission, to having somebody you don’t know with inferior training and questionable loyalty take their place.

Willink knew that if he didn’t understand and believe in the mission, his team wouldn’t toe the line either. And that might cost them their lives.

As it turns out, the reason higher ups had mandated Iraqi forces join the fight with the SEALs was because if the Iraqis didn’t get “on-the-job” training, they might not ever be able to complete the securing of Iraq. And, without that, they might never go home.

So, once Willink understood and bought into the “why” behind the mission, he was able to communicate the message with clarity and with confidence to his team. Once they understood why they were being asked to take on more risk and danger during their missions, they were able to move on and get to work.

The same goes for you in your role. If there is anything that your are working on that you don’t completely believe in, you need to get that resolved...and quickly.

As the authors note:

In order to convince and inspire others to follow and accomplish a mission, a leader must be a true believer in the mission.

Principle #4: Check your ego

Because of the need to sometimes blend in with the local population in the Middle East, Navy SEALs are known for growing beards and generally not keeping up a “disciplined appearance.” Unfortunately, they are also sometimes known for being quite arrogant.

The authors share the story of one Navy SEAL unit being shipped in to work out of a base that was owned and operated by the Army.

They rolled into town wearing baseball caps, cutoff shirts and huge egos. This didn’t mix well with the extremely disciplined routine the Army soldiers were required to follow. The colonel in charge of the base mandated this discipline because they were in the most dangerous part of Iraq, and any slip up in protocol, no matter how small, could cost them their lives.

Not only were these SEALs condescending to the Army soldiers, they weren’t interested in learning what the Army had learned running missions in Ramadi. Ultimately, the SEAL group was asked to leave the base even though they were very capable and could have greatly helped their cause.

While belief in yourself and your team is crucial, having an oversized ego will only get in your way. It can cloud your judgment and prevent you from taking on constructive criticism.

As the authors point out, the most difficult ego to deal with is usually your own.

Principle #5: Cover and Move

In the business world, when you hear the word “Teamwork” you might automatically picture some cheesy motivational poster with a group of people all rowing in the same direction. It’s very easy to dismiss the idea of teamwork as a bunch of you-know-what.

But, in combat, you literally rely on the other people you work with to keep you alive.

For example, when SEALs find themselves taking enemy fire and need to get from one place to another, they operate a tactic called “Cover and Move,” which basically means teamwork. One section of the team lays down fire on the enemy while another section moves forward and takes some ground. Then the reverse happens so the team who was laying down the fire can get caught up.

As a leader, it is your responsibility to ensure when your team encounters trouble, that their first instinct is to work together to find a way out rather than pointing fingers.

How can you tell if your teams are working together closely or if they are just giving it lip-service? Pay attention to the off-hand comments that they make. If your sales team calls your production team the “order prevention department,” for instance, that might be your cue to dig a little deeper to get things back on track. 

Principle #6: Keep things simple

If you are going to accomplish your mission, your people need to understand the plan. Even more important, when things go wrong, your team needs to understand how to fix it. This is almost impossible if your team doesn’t understand the mission or the strategy you are using to accomplish it.

Keeping things as simple as possible is the only way your team is going to be able to understand and execute. Why? Because your plan is almost always more complicated than you think it is. And no matter how well your plan is prepared, things almost always go wrong and decisions need to be made on the fly. If your team doesn’t understand the plan, it can  crumble under it’s own weight at the first sign of trouble.

A great example of how this can happen in the business world is the commission structure you create for your sales people. If your team doesn’t completely understand how the work they do impacts their bonus level, you may never get the sales results you want for your business and they may never get their bonuses.

How do you know if your plan is to complicated? Let's put it this way...If your sales people pull out a calculator on every deal to understand what they are going to get paid on a deal, it’s too complicated.

Keep it simple.

Principle #7: Leaders need to prioritise and execute

When you find yourself in a situation where you are taking fire from all sides and everything seems to be falling apart around you, what do you do?

Relax. Look around. Make a call.

No matter what is going on around you, your job as a leader is to keep moving forward by making the best possible decision - whatever the circumstances.

The authors give us a step-by-step plan for getting things done when chaos erupts:

  1. Decide what the highest priority problem is. You can only solve one thing at a time, so start with the most important.
  2. In clear and simple terms, tell your team what you’ll be focussing on.
  3. Create a solution to the problem, seeking input both up and down the chain.
  4. Direct the execution of that solution, making sure all of your team’s efforts are focussed there until the plan is executed.

Rinse, wash, repeat.

Principle #8: Decentralised Command

In order for your team to execute your plan, teams must be broken down into small and manageable sizes, making sure to decentralise command so that front-line employees are empowered to make decisions.

As human beings, we are not equipped to manage more than 10 people at any one time, especially when problems come up and decisions need to be made quickly.

There are a few things that need to be in place in order for this to work...

First, senior leaders must communicate constantly and consistently with their front-line to ensure they have the right information to make the right decisions. Your team must be crystal clear about the mission and strategy at all times.

Second, the front-line team must believe that senior leaders will have their back if they make decisions that are consistent with the mission and the strategy, even when they go wrong. It only takes one situation where a front-line employee doesn’t feel supported to grind decision making to a halt.

Lastly, like we’ve discussed before, the mission and the strategy must be simple so that you avoid the game of “broken telephone," which could easily occur with complex instructions.

Conclusion: The best leaders practice 'Extreme Ownership'

Leadership always comes back to the first principle - you need to practice Extreme Ownership in light of whatever happens under your watch. There are many things you need to get right in order to be a great leader, but it all begins and ends with accepting 100 percent of the responsibility for the results that you and your team produce.

Are you ready to practice Extreme Ownership in your business and life?