Summary of ‘Extreme Ownership’ by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

Extreme Ownership Key Message – On any team, in any organization, all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader. Extreme Ownership means that as a leader you take 100% ownership for every aspect of your’s teams performance.

Why Leadership matters

To drive people to accomplish something truly complex or difficult or dangerous—you can’t make people do those things. You have to lead them. 

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.

Leading people is the most challenging and, therefore, the most gratifying undertaking of all human endeavors.

When someone is not leading you, then you lead them. You pick up the slack for their weakness. But when you step up to lead, you want to make sure you aren’t stepping up and not stepping on your leader.Take responsibility for leading everyone in your world, subordinates and superiors alike. 

Don’t ask your leader what you should do, tell them what you are going to do.

Leadership and Underperformance

If an individual on the team is not performing at the level required for the team to succeed, the leader must train and mentor that underperformer. But if the underperformer continually fails to meet standards, then a leader who exercises Extreme Ownership must be loyal to the team and the mission above any individual. If there are no consequences—that poor performance becomes the new standard. Therefore, leaders must enforce standards; when it comes to standards, as a leader, it’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate.

Qualities in a leader

Decisiveness under Uncertainty: Be aggressive in decision-making. In combat as in life, the outcome is never certain & the picture never clear; there are no guarantees of success. But in order to succeed, leaders must be comfortable making decisions under pressure, and act on logic, not emotion. This is a critical component to victory/success.

There is no 100 percent right solution. The picture is never complete. Leaders must be comfortable with this and be able to make decisions promptly, then be ready to adjust those decisions quickly based on evolving situations and new information. Waiting for the 100 percent right and certain solution leads to delay, indecision, and an inability to execute. So, business leaders must be comfortable in the chaos and act decisively amid such uncertainty. As a leader, you want to be seen—you need to be seen—as decisive, and willing to make tough choices based on incomplete information at hand.

Believe in the mission: In order to convince and inspire others to follow and accomplish a mission, a leader must be a true believer in the mission. Once a leader believes in the mission, that belief shines through to those below and above in the chain of command. 

If you don’t understand or believe in the decisions coming down from your leadership, it is up to you to ask questions from senior management 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. It takes courage to go to the CEO’s office, knock on her door, and explain that you don’t understand the strategy behind her decisions but as a leader that is what you need to do.

Every leader must be able to detach from the immediate tactical mission and understand how it fits into strategic goals. It is critical that those senior leaders impart a general understanding of that strategic knowledge—the why—to their troops. The leader must explain not just what to do, but why and this can only come when leaders believe in the mission.

Check the Ego: The best leaders check their egos, accept blame (extreme ownership), seek constructive criticism for improvement.

Extreme Ownership requires checking your ego and operating with a high degree of humility. Admitting mistakes, taking ownership, and developing a plan to overcome challenges are integral to any successful team. Be confident, but not cocky.

This means that if you are in charge and others below you did not follow the procedure that you outlined to them then you take ownership that it was your fault i.e. maybe your communication was not good enough. Start the conversation like this: ‘Our team made a mistake and it’s my fault. It’s my fault because I obviously wasn’t as clear as I should have been in explaining why we have these procedures in place.

Be Disciplined: The best leaders are invariably the most disciplined. The temptation to take the easy road is always there. It is as easy as staying in bed in the morning and sleeping. The more discipline you have to work out, train your body physically and become stronger, the lighter your gear feels and the easier you can move around in it. Discipline actually made us more flexible, more adaptable, and more efficient. Discipline and freedom are opposing forces that must be balanced.

Other Qualities

  • Leaders should never be satisfied. They must always strive to improve, and they must build that mind-set into the team.
  • Be honest but don’t be a jerk. You don’t say, “That was a horrible job. You let me down.” The first thing you do is you take ownership and say, “I obviously didn’t give you good-enough guidance.”
  • Respect People. You respect people regardless of what rank you are, regardless of whether you’re making a ton more money than someone else. It doesn’t matter. You treat everybody with respect. You have got to listen to people, because listening to people helps you connect with them.
  • Build Relationships: You build relationships by respecting people; by being humble; by listening. By telling them the truth. By having integrity and telling people the truth.
  • Ask for help: What you need to do is go in and ask good questions. Listen to people. Go and say, “I’ve never done this procedure before,”. It’s actually a sign of insecurity if you can’t ask when you need help with something. What you’re scared of is your team knowing and finding out that you don’t know everything and what you need to get comfortable with is that feeling is okay.
  • Show Emotion: A leader must be calm but not robotic. It is normal—and necessary—to show emotion. Leaders who lose their temper lose respect. But, at the same time, to never show any sense of anger, sadness, or frustration would make that leader appear void of any emotion at all—a robot.

Teamwork – how to operate

Cover and Move : All elements within the greater team are crucial and must work together to accomplish the mission, mutually supporting one another for that singular purpose. 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.

Keep it simple: Simplifying as much as possible is crucial to success. When plans and orders are too complicated, people may not understand them. And when things go wrong, and they inevitably do go wrong, complexity compounds

If your team doesn’t get it, you have not kept things simple and you have failed. You must brief to ensure the lowest common denominator on the team understands.

When something goes wrong—and it eventually does—complex plans add to confusion, which can compound into disaster. Almost no project/mission ever goes according to plan. 

Prioritize and Execute: Marine Seal combat leaders utilize Prioritize and Execute. They verbalize this principle with this direction: “Relax, look around, make a call.”

Even the most competent of leaders can be overwhelmed if they try to tackle multiple problems or a number of tasks simultaneously. Prioritize your problems and take care of them one at a time, the highest priority first. Don’t try to do everything at once or you won’t be successful.

At the same time, teams must be careful to avoid target fixation on a single issue. They cannot fail to recognize when the highest priority task shifts to something else. Leaders must determine the highest priority task and execute. When overwhelmed, fall back upon this principle: Prioritize and Execute.

It becomes easy to get lost in the details, to become sidetracked or lose focus on the bigger effort. It is crucial, particularly for leaders at the top of the organization, to “pull themselves off the firing line,” step back, and maintain the strategic picture.

To implement Prioritize and Execute in any business, team, or organization, a leader must;

  • Evaluate the highest priority problem
  • Lay out in simple, clear, and concise terms the highest priority effort for your team. 
  • Develop and determine a solution, seek input from key leaders above and from the team where possible. 
  • Direct the execution of that solution, focusing all efforts and resources toward this priority task. 
  • Move on to the next highest priority problem. Repeat. 
  • When priorities shift within the team, pass situational awareness both up 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.

Delegate: Develop Decentralized Command: A good leader does not get bogged down in the minutia of a tactical problem at the expense of strategic success. To take charge of minute details just to demonstrate and reinforce to the team a leader’s authority is the mark of poor, inexperienced leadership lacking in confidence

Pushing the decision making down to the subordinate, frontline leaders within the task unit was critical to our success. It allows you as the leader to maintain focus on the bigger picture. Leaders need to establish boundaries for decision making sure that the subordinate leaders understand such that they can then act independently toward your unified goal. Leaders must also ensure that the immediate tactical decisions ultimately contribute to accomplishing the overarching goals. Every tactical-level team leader must understand not just what to do but why they are doing it.

For any leader, placing full faith and trust in junior leaders with less experience and allowing them to manage their teams is a difficult thing to embrace. It requires tremendous trust and confidence in those frontline leaders. 

No person has the cognitive capacity, the physical presence, or the knowledge of everything happening across a complex battlefield or business operation to effectively lead and so delegation is key.

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?” Similarly the subordinate leaders in your team should not ask, “What do I do?” Instead, they must be empowered to state: “This is what I am going to do.”  Junior leaders must be empowered to make decisions on key tasks necessary to accomplish that mission in the most effective and efficient manner possible. They must have implicit trust that their senior leaders will back their decisions. Without this trust, junior leaders cannot confidently execute.

Human beings are generally not capable of managing more than six to ten people; one senior leader cannot be expected to manage dozens of individuals, much less hundreds. Teams must be broken down into manageable elements of four to five operators, with a clearly designated leader.

A true leader is not intimidated when others step up and take charge. Leaders that lack confidence in themselves fear being outshined by someone else. A leader must be confident enough to follow someone else when the situation calls for it even if that is junior leader.

Leaders who exhibit Extreme Ownership will empower key leaders within their teams to figure out a way to win. Goal of all leaders should be to work themselves out of a job. So,leaders must be heavily engaged in training and mentoring their junior leaders to prepare them to step up and assume greater responsibilities.

Sometimes, micromanagement is an absolute necessity. But it should never be a steady state—it should never become the norm. Start with micromanagement and morph into Decentralized Command.

Plan Obsessively: Never taking anything for granted, prepare for likely contingencies, maximize the chance of project success while minimizing the risk that actually can be controlled.

What’s the mission? Planning begins with mission objective and analysis. Leaders must identify clear directives for the team. Mission must explain the overall purpose and desired result, or “end state,” of the operation. Leaders must carefully prioritize the information to be presented in as simple, clear, and concise a format as possible so that participants do not experience information overload.

Leaders must delegate the planning process down the chain as much as possible to key subordinate leaders. Be careful not to get bogged down in the details. By maintaining a perspective above the micro-terrain of the plan, “stand back and be the strategy genius”.

Communicating Up and Down: It is paramount that senior leaders explain to their junior leaders executing the project/mission how their role contributes to big picture success. This enables the team to understand why they are doing, what they are doing, which facilitates Decentralized Command. Senior leaders must constantly communicate and push information from junior leaders about (what is called in the military) “situational awareness” upwards.

Leading up the chain of command requires tactful engagement with the immediate boss; to obtain the decisions and support necessary to enable your team to accomplish its mission and ultimately win. Leaders must push situational awareness up the chain of command.

One of the most important jobs of any leader is to support your own boss—your immediate leadership. Once the debate on a particular course of action is over and the boss has made a decision—even if that decision is one you argued against—you must execute the plan as if it were your own.

This in short is a summary of Extreme Ownership; an undeniably valuable book containing leadership lessons harnessed from the battlegrounds by the Navy SEAL authors which can be applied seamlessly to the business world and in fact to any leadership situation.

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