Extreme Ownership is the legendary leadership book written by two former Navy SEALs, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin who started to teach businesses about leadership and strategy in their civilian life and also wrote multiple books.
First of all, what is Extreme Ownership? It is about owning your decisions and all their consequences all the time, whether your team succeeded or failed. If the team failed, it’s your fault and you should not cover yourself with bad excuses. You step up, take ownership of the outcome, analyze what mistakes led to that situation and make sure it won’t happen next time.
As a leader, you have to understand that even if a subordinate fails, it’s your fault. It’s you who haven’t prepared him for the operation/project well enough.
The book is organized into three parts.
The first part focuses on the internal processes, such as taking extreme ownwership of your decisions, or your battle against your ego, that is your enemy and you have to let it go. The authors also make the point that there is no bad team, there are only bad leaders supported by an interesting experiment from one of the SEAL training camps.
There were six teams competing against each other in extreme circumstances. There was one team far above the others and another falling always behind. They never won any round and they always quarreled.
One of the trainers decided to swap leaders between the best and the worst team. While the former best team, still performed well, close to the top, because by that time they all knew how good they were and they could stand up for themselves, the former worst team now with a new already proven leader became the best team. Just by changing the captain. Have I already heard managers saying with arms wide open, what could I have done? I don’t have to think that much.
The second part is about the “Laws of Combat”.
Just like a good presentation, a good plan, a good strategy should be simple enough to be followed. Your team must understand what they, what you want to achieve. If it’s too complex, they will be lost. Of course, oversimplification is harmful, you have to find the balance.
Even if your plan is simple, probably it will have multiple elements. In order to succeed, it’s key to prioritize them before execution. The authors based on their experience recommend focusing all energies on the first and most important priority until it’s either done or moves forward on its own when you can target the next objective.
An interesting point Jocko Willink made is that micromanagement is acceptable and has its place in certain circumstances. His opinion is that when someone is junior and not experienced enough to be completely autonomous, you should tell him what to do and be at his back all the time and navigate him. But as soon as he understood how things work, you should give him enough space to execute on his own with much less supervision. After all, you cannot control everyone and everything all the time, you need people in your team who understands what and why has to be done and are able to find the hows and execute.
The final part of the book is called “Sustaining Victory”. I would like to mention two thoughts of this last part. One is that you need decisiveness amid uncertainity meaning that 1) in critical situations you can’t just wait it out, you have to take leadership and 2) you can never be sure, you won’t have all the details, there will always be some risks, but if you want to be in control, you must take some.
And the last idea, I want to share is something that so many of us lack. Leading down, leading your team, scrum, task force, intern, whatever is important. Most books on leadership, management will emphasize this part. But there is something else that is at least as important. You have to lead up. If your management doesn’t get your ideas, doesn’t understand why and what you do, it’s your fault. You have to be clear, you have to provide enough information, you have to lead them. Willink goes as far that he says the best thing can happen to you is a weak boss because it’s a possibility to lead them. Maybe. After a certain experience.
But until then we have to learn how to lead, how to take ownership of our decisions, of our lives. Extreme Ownership.
A highly recommended read!