Book Review – Extreme Ownership

Extreme Ownership – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

This blog, my first in a while, is very exciting. It is exciting because… I did not write it. My son Austin summarized this last year as he was preparing for various positions of leadership in his ROTC unit.

I wanted to add it to my blog because I’ve found that “Ownership” seems to be the first topic in almost all of my coaching conversations. And, Jocko does a great job of bringing this point home.

Ultimately, we own our destiny. And, when we “feel” that is not true, it is up to us to make it so. That is what this book is about. In Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective Leaders, this plays into Habit 1 – Be Proactive. Covey incites Victor Frankl’s idea that choice exists between stimulus and response. And when we own (my word) our response we step beyond being dependent. He also utilizes the idea that “being proactive” is a step away from dependence and toward independence. Finally, Covey reminds us that we should focus on what we can influence versus those things we can’t control.

Anyway, on to Austin’s summary:

Extreme Ownership – summary by Austin Powell

Quote: “These Leaders cast no blame. They made no excuses. Instead of complaining about challenges or setbacks, they developed solutions and solved problems. They leveraged assets, relationships, and resources to get the job done. Their egos took a back seat to the mission and their troops. These leaders truly led.”

“With Extreme Ownership, junior leaders take charge of their smaller teams and their piece of the mission. Efficiency and effectiveness increased exponentially and a high-performance, winning team was the result.”

“There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.”

“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. The leader drives performance-or doesn’t. And this applies not just to the most senior leader of an overall team, but to the junior leaders of teams within the team.”

“It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate.”

The Dichotomy of Leadership

A good leader must be…

  • Confident but not cocky;
  • Courageous but not foolhardy;
  • Competitive but a gracious loser;
  • Attentive to details but not obsessed by them;
  • Strong but have endurance;
  • A leader and follower;
  • Humble not passive;
  • Aggressive not overbearing;
  • Quiet not silent;
  • Calm but not robotic, logical but not devoid of emotions;
  • Close with the troops but not so close that one becomes more important than another or more important than the good of the team; not so close that they forget who is in charge;
  • Able to execute Extreme Ownership, while exercising Decentralized Command.

“A good leader has nothing to prove, but everything to prove.”

Leaders must…

Be Humble.

“Implementing Extreme Ownership requires checking your ego and operating with a high degree of humility.”

“But, if you put your own ego in check, meaning you take the blame, it will allow others to actually see the problem without his vision clouded by ego.”

Explain the why.

“When they understood why, they would commit to the mission, persevere through the inevitable challenges in store, and accomplish the task set before us.”

Explain the mission.

“Leaders must identify clear directives for the team.”

“The mission must be carefully refined and simplified so that it is explicitly clear and specifically focused to achieve the greater strategic vision for which that mission is a part. The mission must explain the overall purpose and desired result or ‘end state’, of the operation.”

Not blame the subordinates, but blame themselves.

“When subordinates aren’t doing what they should, leaders that exercise Extreme Ownership cannot blame the subordinates. They must first look in the mirror at themselves.

“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.”

“My subordinate leaders made bad calls; I must not have explained the overall intent well enough.”

Set and enforce standards.

“…if substandard performance is accepted and no one is held accountable-if there are no consequences-that poor performance becomes the new standard. Therefore, leaders must enforce standards.”

Never be satisfied.

“They must always strive to improve, and they must build that mind-set into the team. They must face the facts through a realistic, brutally honest assessment of themselves and their team’s performance.”

Believe winning is always possible.

“If I didn’t believe in it, there was no way I could possibly convince the SEALs in my task unit to believe in it.”

“In order to convince and inspire others to follow and accomplish a mission, a leader must be a true believer in the mission.

Have confidence.

“When a leader’s confidence breaks, those who are supposed to follow him or her see this and begin to question their own belief in the mission.”

Think of the bigger picture.

“Every leader must be able to detach from the immediate tactical mission and understand how it fits into strategic goals.”

“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.”

“Teams must be careful to avoid target fixation on a single issue.”

Decentralized Command structure allowed me, as the commander, to maintain focus on the bigger picture: coordinate friendly assets and monitor enemy activity. Were I to get embroiled in the details of a tactical problem, there would be no one else to fill my role and manage the strategic mission.”

Have cross-sectional teamwork.

“I had become so immersed in the details, decision points, and immediate challenges of my own team that I had forgotten about the other team, what they could do for us and how we might help them.”

“Each member of the team is critical to success.”

“…Engage with them,”  directed Jocko. “Build a personal relationship with them. Explain to them what you need from them and why, and ask them what you can do to help them get you what you need…”

Be simple, clear, and concise.

“Just as he had been taught: simple, clear, concise information-exactly what was needed.”

“Simplifying as much as possible is crucial to success. When plans and orders are too complicated, people may not understand them.”

“You must brief to ensure the lowest common denominator on the team understands.”

Be calm.

“But a leader must remain calm and make the best decisions possible… Relax, look around, make a call.”

Plan, Plan, Plan.

“Through careful contingency planning, a leader can anticipate likely challenges that could arise during execution and map out an effective response to those challenges before they happen.”

Empower subordinates.

“I had to empower them to lead.”

“Pushing the decision making down to the subordinate, frontline leaders within the task unit, was critical to our success.”

“I trusted them to lead. My ego took no offense to my subordinate leaders on the frontlines calling the shots. In fact, I was proud to follow their lead and support them.”

“Situations will sometimes require that the boss walk away from a problem and let junior leaders solve it, even if the boss knows he might solve it more efficiently.”

Be Fluid.

“Contrary to common misconception, leaders are not stuck in any particular position. Leaders must be free to move to where they are most needed, which changes throughout the course of an operation.”

Be Decisive amid uncertainty

“Leaders cannot be paralyzed by fear. That results in inaction. It is critical for leaders to act decisively amid uncertainty.”

“Leaders must be prepared to make an educated guess based on previous experience, knowledge of how the enemy operates, likely outcomes, and whatever intelligence is available in the immediate moment.”

Junior Leaders must…

Ask Questions.

“Junior leaders must ask questions and also provide feedback up the chain so that senior leaders can fully understand the ramifications of how strategic plans affect execution of the ground.”

“The leader must explain not just what to do, but why. It is the responsibility of the subordinate leader to reach out and ask if they do not understand.

“If you don’t understand or believe in the decisions coming down from your leadership, it is up to you to ask questions until you understand how and why those decisions are being made.”

Be Courageous.

“People talk about leadership requiring courage. This is exactly one of those situations. It takes courage to go to the CEO’s officer, knock on her door, and explain that you don’t understand the strategy behind her decisions.”

Take ownership.

“My platoon commanders didn’t just tell me what the situation was, but what they were going to do to fix it. That sort of Extreme Ownership and leadership from my subordinate leaders not only allowed them to lead confidently, but also allowed me to focus on the bigger picture…”

Have Confidence.

“To be effectively empowered to make decisions, it is imperative that frontline leaders execute with confidence.”

Communicate.

“To ensure this is the case, senior leaders must constantly communicate and push information-what we call in the military ‘situational awareness’-to their subordinate leaders. Likewise, junior leaders must push situational awareness up the chain to their senior leaders to keep them informed, particularly of crucial information that affects strategic decision making.”

“We need to push situational awareness up the chain… If they have questions, it is our fault for not properly communicating the information they need. We have to lead them.”

“Leadership doesn’t just flow down the chain of command, but up as well… We have to own everything in our world. That’s what Extreme Ownership is all about.”

Support your boss.

“While pushing to make your superior understand what you need, you must also realize that your boss must allocate limited assets and make decisions with the bigger picture in mind… Have the humility to understand and accept this.”

“One of the most important jobs of any leader is to support your own boss.”

“A public display of discontent or disagreement with the chain of command undermines the authority of leaders at all levels.”

“…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.”

Teams…

“Teams must be broken down into manageable elements of four to five operators, with a clearly designed leader. Those leaders must understand the overall mission, and the ultimate goal of that mission-the Commander’s Intent. Junior leaders must be empowered to make decisions on key tasks necessary to accomplish that mission in the most effective and efficient manner possible.”

Planning Briefs:

Commander’s Intent.

“While a simple statement, the Commander’s Intent is actually the most important part of the brief.”

Delegate.

“Leaders must delegate the planning process down the chain as much as possible to key subordinate leaders.”

Think strategic.

“While the senior leader supervises the entire planning process by team members, he or she must be careful not to get bogged down in the details.”

Encourage open discussion.

“The planning process and briefing must be a forum that encourages discussion, questions, and clarification from even the most junior personnel.”

Ask questions.

“Thus, leaders must ask questions of their troops, encourage interaction, and ensure their teams understand the plan.”

Do the team and the supporting elements understand it?”

Focus on the risks that can be controlled.

Seek feedback afterwards.

“What went right? What went wrong?”

“Such self-examination allows SEAL units to reevaluate, enhance, and refine what worked and what didn’t so they can constantly improve. It is critical for the success of any team in any business to do the same and implement those changes into their future plans so that they don’t repeat the same mistakes.”

Standardize the process.

Create a Routine Strategic Overview to realign commander’s intent with current progress. (Could be utilized as a detachment?)

Create a Mission Statement and a Commander’s Intent

How to act in a stressful situation:

“Relax. Look around. Make a call.”

Prioritize.

Execute.

“I had to remain calm, step back from my immediate emotional reaction, and determine the greatest priority for the team.”

Prioritize and Execute Leadership Steps:

  • 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 and from the team where possible.
  • Direct the execution of that solution, focusing all efforts and resources toward this priority task.
  • Move onto the next highest priority problem. Repeat.
  • When priorities shift within the team, pass situational awareness both up and down 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.

Leader’s Checklist for Planning (pg 208):

  • Analyze the mission.
  • Identify personnel, assets, resources, and time available.
  • Decentralize the planning process.
  • Determine a specific course of action.
  • Empower key leaders to develop the plan for the selected course of action.
  • Plan for likely contingencies through each phase of the operation.
  • Mitigate risks that can be controlled as much as possible.
  • Delegate portions of the plan and brief to key junior leaders.
  • Continually check and question the plan against emerging information to ensure it still fits the situation.
  • Brief the plan to all participants and supporting assets.
  • Conduct post-operational debrief after execution.

Lead Up and Down the Chain of Command:

  • Take responsibility for leading everyone in your world, subordinates and superiors alike.
  • If someone isn’t doing what you want or need them to do, look in the mirror first and determine what you can do better to enable this,
  • Don’t ask your leader what you should do, tell them what you are going to do.

Love to get a comment, create leadership collaboration