- Book: “Extreme Ownership” by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
- Pages: 322
- For: Business managers, leaders, people interested in military tactics and improving their leadership skills
- Lesson: The leadership lessons from life-and-death combat can be applied to the business world to make your team and company successful
Since the creation of mankind, there have been wars and warriors. Those warriors risk their lives for their country by putting themselves in combat zones in hopes of defeating the enemy. They often find themselves in life-or-death situations and must make decisions under pressure, under fire, and undermanned.
In these types of extreme high-risk situations, leadership and execution are crucial to achieving success. And the same strategies that are successful in battle can often be translated to business. Two thousand years ago, the war strategist Sun Tzu wrote “The Art of War” which became widely read by both military generals and business leaders.
The same can be said about the book “Extreme Ownership” by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. These two U.S. Navy Seals officers led the most highly decorated special operation unit of the Iraq war. They now run a leadership consulting firm that teaches people how to apply powerful leadership principles from the battlefield to business and life.
The title of the book, “Extreme Ownership,” refers to one of the most important things that the authors learned from their 33 years of combined military experience.
They found that the key trait that made great leaders was taking extreme ownership of their job. That meant being responsible for everything related to their mission. These leaders didn’t cast blame or make excuses if something went wrong, they owned it all. This is the mindset leaders must have to lead their team and achieve success.
Every chapter in the book follows the formula of starting with a military story, then talking about the principle learned and ending with how the lesson can be applied to the business world.
Here are three important lessons from the book:
The chapter begins with Jocko learning that his team, which was filled with Navy SEALs, had to fight alongside Iraqi Army soldiers. This may not seem like an issue, but remember, Navy SEALs are like a professional sports team. They are a tight-knit group of soldiers with hundreds of hours of training, in peak physical condition, and had access to some of the best and most technologically advanced equipment in the world.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi soldiers were mostly uneducated, untrained, undernourished and unmotivated. Most of the soldiers had joined just for a paycheck and more often than not, when there was a real firefight, they ran away from the fight. To make it even worse, some Iraqi soldiers were still loyal to Saddam and, at times, attacked U.S. soldiers.
Now, Jocko's commanding officer was saying that to go on missions, the SEALs had to work with the Iraqi soldiers. Jocko wondered why his boss made such a bad decision. After taking a step back and questioning his leaders, he began to see the logic behind the decision. In order for Iraq to become a stabilized country, they needed to have well-trained soldiers that could handle problems on their own. If they didn’t learn, once the U.S. soldiers left the country, the terrorist groups would retake the entire area.
When Jock first told his troops about the new rule, the team was furious. But, after explaining the reason behind it, they too realized the logic of the decision and agreed it had to be done, even if it was risky and unpleasant.
To be a great leader, one must truly believe in the mission. If a leader doesn’t understand a decision made by senior command, they must ask why and learn the reason behind the decision. Once the leader understands why, he can then communicate the mission with confidence to those below them.
- Business Application
A company recently implemented a new compensation structure for their sales force but it created stress and fragmentation among employees because none of them understood why it was changed.
The employees complained to Jocko and said that they believed the new structure would drive a large part of their salesforce away. Jocko asked the group why leadership changed the compensation structure, but no one could answer the question. Jocko then asked if they thought the CEO was unreasonable or inexperienced. The group said “no” and added that the CEO is smart and that they feel stupid questioning the CEO.
As it turned out, none of the employees understood the reason behind the CEO’s decision and all of them were too scared to ask why. Meanwhile, the CEO with all her years of business experience, thought it was easy to understand why the changes were necessary. The next day, the CEO held a meeting that went over the new plan and answered all the questions that the employees had.
Leadership falls on not just the CEO but also the employees. If they don’t understand the mission, they must ask questions to understand the reason behind it. Once the why is understood, then the information can be passed down the chain with confidence so that everyone understands what needs to be done.
“Prioritize and Execute”
Leif Babin and his SEAL team were in enemy territory on a wide-open rooftop with no cover. Earlier in the day, they had been engaged in a firefight and were firing from inside a small building. When they tried to exit, they saw a possible IED (improvised explosive device) near the building entrance. They placed their own explosive nearby to destroy it. It was set on a timer and the clock was ticking. Now they had to find another way out of the building and get away from the blast radius. They decided to head to the roof, but while on the roof, one of the SEALs walked over a plastic tarp that covered a hole and fell twenty feet to the ground.
Now they were exposed out in the open, with an IED set to explode, and a SEAL separated from the team and in need of medical support. In this high risk and unforgiving environment, every second counted.
Babin thought back to his training and remembered that when there are multiple challenges, the most important thing to do is to remain calm, take a step back and determine the greatest priority for the team.
In this situation, it meant setting up security because if they didn’t protect themselves, they wouldn’t be able to help the wounded SEAL. Next, he had to find a way to get everyone off the rooftop. They found a locked stairwell and broke it open. After making their way down to the wounded SEAL, they took a headcount to make sure they had everyone and moved to safety. As they made it to the safe zone, the explosive went off and destroyed the IED so that no soldiers would be killed.
Whether on the battlefield or the business world, when there are countless problems and challenges, it is important to relax, look around, and make a decision.
- Business Application
As a consultant to a pharmaceutical company, Jocko spoke with the CEO and went over the list of new initiatives the CEO planned to implement to help the company improve its performance.
Here are the things the CEO wanted to accomplish:
- Launch several new products, each with its own marketing plan
- Create new distribution centers in a dozen new markets in the next two years
- Enter the laboratory-equipment market
- Start a new training program
- Rebuild the company website
- Restructure the sales force
With some much to do, it can become confusing to know which task is the most important. Jocko asked the CEO which initiative had the highest priority and if the CEO believed his team knew which task was of highest priority.
The CEO admitted that they probably didn’t know and that if they did focus mainly on just the highest priority, it would make a huge difference to the company. Jocko recommended that the CEO focus on one task and once completed, move onto the next highest priority.
“Decisiveness and Uncertainty”
While on a rooftop with Chris Kyle (the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History and author of American Sniper), Chris told Leif that he saw a guy with a scoped weapon in a building. The man stepped behind the window and then disappeared behind a curtain.
Not too far away, there was a group of U.S. soldiers on the ground. Chris wanted to protect his fellow soldiers and take out the sniper, but he couldn’t positively identify the man and wasn’t sure if it was an enemy or a friendly. Chris asked Leif what he should do.
If they waited too long, they worried that the man might shoot one of the U.S. soldiers. But if they took the shot and it turned out to be a friendly soldier, it would be just as bad.
Leif radioed the other platoon and asked if he had placed any soldiers inside the building. The company commander replied “no” and said to take the shot.
The man behind the curtain came out again but neither Chris nor Leif were certain it was an enemy. However, Leif couldn’t just wait there and risk the possibility of the man shooting other soldiers.
Instead, he radioed the commander and asked him to send troops to check out the building.
The soldiers went in to clear the building and came rushing out. It turned out that the man in the window was, in fact, a U.S. soldier. The building number had been miscommunicated. In Ramadi, there were no address numbers nor street signs and the buildings were constantly changing due to destruction from bombs and bullets. All of these factors made it difficult to properly communicate building locations. An event that happened often in this chaotic environment.
Even in times of uncertainty, leaders cannot be paralyzed by fear. This results in inaction. Leaders must make the best decisions they can based on the information that they have. Leaders must also be ready to adjust those decisions as the situation evolves and new information is discovered.
- Business Application
While advising a software company, Jocko met with the CEO. The CEO had two senior engineers that were constantly butting heads and insisted that the other person be fired or they would quit.
The CEO wasn’t sure what to do because she didn’t want to lose either one but knew that both employees were creating a harmful environment for the company's employees. The CEO tried to take the engineers to dinner to discuss the situation and solve the issue, but nothing worked.
The CEO was unsure of what to do and instead chose to do nothing. Jocko informed her that a CEO must be decisive and willing to make choices or she will be seen as a weak leader by her peers.
Jocko also told the CEO that these two employees had bad attitudes and are probably spreading negativity among other employees. This was not the role model behavior that a leader should have. Even if only one employee was fired, it was highly possible that the one that stayed would cause problems with the next senior engineer.
With all this information, the CEO decided to take action. She spoke with the lead developer and asked for two candidates that were ready and eager to step up. The CEO discovered two workers that had critical knowledge of the projects and were excited and happy to work together. She then contacted HR and told them to terminate the two badly behaved senior engineers. Now, the company was back on track and it was game on.
Implement these principles in your job and personal life to become a better leader and achieve greater success. Get some y'all. Out!
Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this article, consider reading the book. I highly recommend it, click here to get it!