I first discovered Jocko Willink through his appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience. Although I was initially uninterested in the topic of war, the conversation on leadership resonated with me. The lessons that I learned from that podcast have since had a big influence on my life.
Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin was written to capture the lessons in leadership that they both learned as SEALs during their time in Iraq. A summary of this book is found below.
When it comes to achieving any kind of mission involving more than one person, leadership is the single most important factor for success. The following principles for achieving optimal leadership are divided into three groups: winning the war within, the laws of combat, and sustaining victory.
Winning the War Within
Leaders must own everything in their world, even if it is not in their direct control. They must accept responsibility for everything. They must admit mistakes and accept failures when they occur, without making excuses or blaming others.
No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders
It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate.
The performance of a team is the responsibility of the leader. Leaders are responsible for enforcing standards, and getting their team to work together, where everyone is utilizing their strengths to cover each other’s weaknesses. Leaders should always strive for constant improvement. Ideally, once a culture of extreme ownership has been cultivated, teams would be able to continue to improve even if the leader is removed.
A leader must truly believe in the mission that they are accomplishing and understand the bigger picture of why something is being done. This requires detaching from the immediate tactical mission, and understanding how it fits into the larger strategic picture. Goals must always be in alignment with the bigger picture. It is the leader’s responsibility to understand the “why” and convey this to their team. If the leader does not understand the “why”, then it is their responsibility to seek clarity from senior leadership.
Check the Ego
Having some ego is good, such as when it drives people to achieve. But when ego clouds our judgement, prevents us from seeing the world as it is or prevents us from honestly assessing ourselves and others, it is bad. Most problems in teams come from ego. Ego clouds and disrupts everything, from the planning process, to the ability to listen and accept constructive criticism. Often, the most difficult ego to deal with is your own. Personal agendas should never influence actions. A leader should be confident but not cocky, and humble but not complacent.
The Laws of Combat
Cover and Move
This principle highlights clear communication and teamwork. All elements in an operation must work together and mutually support each other. Any kind of silos or division should be broken down, and everyone should work together instead of competing with each other. Avoid developing any animosity or blaming each other when problems occur. Leaders must maintain perspective and remind the team why they are doing what they are doing. Main and supporting efforts should be clearly identified, and the focus should be on how best to carry out the strategic mission.
Complicated plans will result in less understanding and in issues being compounded when they occur. In order to ensure success, simplify and communicate plans as much as possible so that the lowest denominator can understand. Everyone needs to understand their part and how to react when things go wrong. Everyone, including junior members, should be encouraged to ask questions if they do not understand.
Prioritize and Execute
Relax, look around, make a call.
When issues occur, it is important to remain calm, maintain the strategic picture, avoid getting caught in the details, and prioritize, making the best decision possible as a leader. Trying to multitask will overwhelm you and cause the team to fail.
Plan for problems in advanced in order to stay ahead of real-time problems. This ensures that everyone is prepared and knows how to prioritize and execute when needed. This also frees up bandwidth, allowing for greater decisiveness. Priorities can rapidly change - avoid getting fixated on a single target and recognize when priorities change, communicating with the team as soon as possible.
Steps for prioritizing and executing:
Evaluate the highest priority problem for the team.
Develop a solution seeking diverse input.
Direct execution of the solution.
Move on to the next highest priority and repeat this process.
Leaders generally cannot manage more than 6 - 10 people at a time. Teams should ideally be broken down into 4 - 5 person units with a clear leader who understands the “why”, or the ultimate goal of the mission, also known as the Commander’s Intent. Leaders must avoid micromanaging, while at the same time avoid not being too far removed from the situation. Leaders must be free to move to where they are most needed. Determining this balance is key for a leader.
In general, everyone should be proactive and empowered to make their own decisions on key tasks to accomplish the mission - they say what they are going to do instead of asking. Crucial information - also known as situational awareness - should constantly be communicated across all levels of leadership. Everyone needs to understand the scope of their authority and communicate with senior leaders when they need to make decisions outside of their scope. Frontline leaders need to execute with confidence knowing that their leaders will support them, and that they understand the Commander’s Intent.
The planning process should be standardized so that everyone is on the same page. The mission should be refined and simplified so that everything is clear and understood. The focus should be made clear to avoid mission creep. There should be an overall purpose, a desired result, or end state.
Different courses of action should be explored on how to best accomplish the mission, and crucial information gathered from the best sources, calling on experts where needed. Plan for and mitigate risks where possible, ensuring the highest chance of success through detailed plans to manage risk. Some risk cannot be mitigated, and some level of risk must be accepted - focus on those that can be controlled.
The planning process should be delegated down the chain of command as much as possible, where team leaders have ownership of their tasks, and everyone participates in the planning process. Senior leaders supervise the planning process, but should not get caught in the details. They should maintain an overarching perspective, so that they are able to “stand back and be the tactical genius”, identifying weaknesses and gaps that others may not see.
Once a detailed plan is developed, prioritize the information and present everything in a simple, clear and concise format, so that there is no information overload and everyone understands. Discussion, questions and clarification should be encouraged. Frontline troops above all should understand the strategic mission and the Commander’s Intent. The directives need to be clear for the team, such as specific tasks and roles or how to respond to challenges and risks, and this should be briefed to all participants.
Constantly reflect on tactics and adapt. At the end of a mission, make time to reflect back on the lessons learned and how they can be implemented in the future to improve operations. Ask questions such as what went right, what went wrong, and what can be adapted to be more effective and increase advantages.
Leading Up and Down the Chain of Command
Leaders are focused on the planning and execution of tasks, projects, and operations to move the team towards a strategic goal. They have insight into the bigger picture. Junior members are focused on their specific jobs and in accomplishing their tactical mission. It is critical that each have an understanding of the other’s role, how they fit into the bigger picture, and that they communicate with each other. In general, you want to take responsibility for leading everyone, both up and down the chain of command. If things aren’t going as expected, then determine what you can do better.
Leaders must regularly communicate the “why” to their team, as this is not always immediately obvious. This is leading down the chain of command. If frontline troops are not operating as expected, then it is the responsibility of the leader to understand why and try to work with their team to get the results needed. This requires empathy and humility to understand both sides. In addition, one of the most important jobs of any leader is to support their own boss, making their job as easy as possible.
Frontline members need to convey critical information to leadership and get them to understand what is happening on the front lines, pushing situational awareness up. This is leading up the chain of command. If leadership does not provide necessary support, understand why and try to work with them to get what you need, using influence, experience, knowledge, and communication ability. Always maintain professionalism since you can not rely on authority to be heard.
Decisiveness and Uncertainty
Often, answers to problems are never immediately obvious, and there are no truly correct answers. The picture is never complete, and success is never guaranteed. It is critical for leaders to be comfortable in this chaos, to act decisively amid uncertainty or with an incomplete picture, and not be paralyzed with fear.
Intelligence gathering and research are important, but must be employed with realistic expectations and not impede swift decision making. Waiting for a complete picture will result in delay and inaction. It is important to make the best decisions possible based on the immediate information available and previous experience, and adapt based on the evolving situation and new information. Difficult decisions need to be made promptly.
Discipline Equals Freedom – The Dichotomy of Leadership
Leadership is about finding balance between opposing forces, which is often a difficult task. However, recognition and mastery of this is a powerful tool. When a leader fails, it is usually because they went too far in one direction. Some examples of such dichotomies include:
Balance between discipline and freedom.
Lead but ready to follow and not let ego get in the way.
Aggressive but not overbearing.
Calm but not robotic.
Confident but not cocky.
Brave but not reckless.
Attentive to detail but not obsessive.
Humble but not passive.
Extreme ownership but decentralized command.