Summary: Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Lief Babin

PUBLISHED ON OCT 18, 2018

I borrowed Extreme Ownership as an audiobook from my library and listened through it. I was motivated by several factors to read this book:

  1. I have immense respect and admiration for the Navy Seals; in fact, for every elite outfit in the United States military.
  2. Several actions were occurring in my life where it became nice or comfortable to seek to place blame on others.
  3. I saw a TED talk by the author in which he introduced the concept of “Extreme Ownership” and I was compelled to explore it deeper.

My journey with leadership in general has always been interesting. As an Eagle Scout I’ve demonstrated leadership in the eyes of the Boy Scouts of America (now just the Scouts of America I suppose?) by leading a service project, but in retrospect a lot of the project came down to enlisting the help of my friends through quid-pro-quo (perhaps, you help me with my project and I’ll eventually help with yours) and even then I would/could have done the entire thing by myself if it didn’t require “hours” from other individuals. As a fraternity president, I definitely let my more libertarian tendencies get in the way of my Fraternity’s progress. For example, I would allow chapter meetings to be cancelled by a majority vote: as far as I was concerned, if they didn’t want to be there, who am I to force them to be?

As one who is always perturbed by his own deficiencies, I decided to see how a Navy Seal would define leadership.

What is Extreme Ownership?

As Jocko and Lief seem to have described it in this book, extreme ownership is a quality that they have determined to be incredibly important for successful leaders. The term is self-explanatory: great leaders take full (extreme) ownership for the actions of their team, especially when things go incorrectly.

Jocko and Lief use a story of an operation in Iraq they had been leading that resulted in a “blue-on-blue” action, a scenario where friendly targets were fired upon. In their case, several of these friendlies were even injured. While Jocko took the time to identify all the areas that his team had failed, when it came time to explain the situation to his superiors he ultimately took on the responsibility of the failures of the operation, detailed all the ways that things had gone wrong through his own investigation, and how he had learned from those failures and would carry those lessons moving forward.

Some of these reasons included things like “I didn’t ensure the team understood this…” or “I didn’t double-check this…”. Even if the failure does truly fall on the actions of someone not suited to the task, the authors argue it is ultimately the leader’s responsibility to ensure that the correct individuals are placed or hired.

Another important aspect that the talk about is checking your ego at the door. Ego prevents you from being humble enough to take extreme ownership of your faults and the faults of your team. Ego also leads to cockiness, which is not the same as confidence: a characteristic that they support.

What isn’t Extreme Ownership?

One concept the authors promote is this idea of there are no bad teams, only bad leaders. I think an excellent way that the authors help define extreme ownership is by demonstrating what a weak leader would do or say. These weak leaders could do or say the following:

  • Place blame on the team for the failures of their plans or operations
  • Say that the team is conspiring against them
  • “My plan was for these individuals to do X and they’re not doing it! How can my plan succeed if they don’t do X?”

One interesting idea of a bad leader they put forward is the archetype of the “Tortured Genius”; an individual who believes that they are brilliant and can do no wrong therefore any failings must be on the part of others. The authors demonstrate this concept with a CTO of a company who refused to believe that a less-than-stellar product launch could have anything to do with them, even after many other members of the executive team were able to identify and deliver areas of improvement for their departments utilizing extreme ownership.

The “Mission”

The author’s impress upon the reader this idea of the “Mission” that really resonated with me: It is important for a leader to understand the mission and to communicate it to his/her team. The leader also has to believe in the mission, no one wants to follow a leader into a mission that he/she doesn’t believe in. For Navy Seals, the “mission” can seem a little more profound because it is related to defense of American lives and interests, but the “mission” can be applied in the commercial sector as well by defining it well: “our mission is to provide the highest-quality medical instruments at a fair and affordable price to help instead of hinder the health industry.” Employees that are there to collect a paycheck will not be effective in a team, and it is important for leaders to make sure employees understand the mission and seek to live it in their work.

Simplicity

One chapter I found rather interesting is that even Navy Seals try to make operations as simple as possible, especially for new teams where war-fighters might not have as much trust or confidence. When you have complex tasks of wide breadth for everyone to do then the likelihood of making a mistake or individuals becoming frustrated becomes much higher. Start simple, and then maybe introduce complexities from there.

Other Navy Seal Ideas

In a situation where Lief was under stress and fire he detailed an interesting mantra that, I presume, must be drilled into a Seal’s heads during training: “Prioritize and Execute.”

What I took from this statement was that in a high-intensity situation you are going to go crazy trying to balance everything all at once in an effort to win it all. A “Kobayashi Maru” situation, almost. Rather, it would be best to take a breath, collect your actions to take, prioritize which actions will result in the greatest good for the parties involved, and make the call to your team. Before I even finished the reading this is a mantra that I’ve recognized and taken on as part of my life.

There are many ideas in the book that are worth exploring!

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