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Book:  Extreme Ownership

Author:  Jocko Willink & Leif Babin

Purchase:  Print | eBook | Audiobook

Citation: Willink, J. & Babin, L. (2017). Extreme ownership : how U.S. Navy SEALs lead and win. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Three Big Takeaways:
  1. While the senior leader supervises the entire planning process of team members, he or she must be careful not to get bogged down in the details. By maintaining a perspective above the microterrain of the plan, the senior leader can better ensure compliance with strategic objectives. Doing so enables senior leaders to stand back and be the tactical genius – to assess weaknesses or holes in the plan that those immersed in the details might have missed. This enables leaders to fill in those gaps before execution. (pg. 205)

  2. There is an answer to the age-old question of whether leaders are born or made. Obviously, some are born with natural leadership qualities. Others may not possess these qualities innately. But with the willingness to learn, with the humble attitude that seeks valid constructive criticism in order to improve, with discipline practice and training, even those with less natural ability can develop into highly effective leaders. Others who were blessed with all the natural talent in the world will fail as leaders if they are not humble enough to own their mistakes, admit that they don't have it all figured out, seek guidance, learn, and continuously grow. (pg. 285)

  3. Leadership decisions are inherently challenging and take practice. Not every decision will be a good one: all leaders make mistakes. For any leader, handling those mistakes with humility is the key. Subordinate or direct reports don't expect their boss to be perfect. When the boss makes a mistake but then owns up to that mistake, it doesn't decrease respect. Instead, it increases respect for that leader, proving he or she possesses the humility to admit and own mistakes and, most important, to learn from them. (pg. 287)


Other Key Ideas:

When subordinates aren't doing what they should, leaders who 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. But if the underperformer continually fails to meet standards, then a leader who exercises extreme ownership must be loyal to the team and the mission above any individual. If underperformers cannot improve, the leader must make the tough call to terminate them and higher others who can get the job done. It is all on the leader. (pg. 30)

As a leader, it takes strength to let go. It requires trust up and down the chain of command: trust that subordinates will do the right thing; trust that superiors will support subordinates if they are acting in accordance with the mission statement and commander's intent. Trust is not blindly given. It must build over time. 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. It is more important that the junior leaders are allowed to make decisions - and backed up even if they don't make them correctly. (pg. 190)

Leaders must delegate the planning process down the chain as much as possible to subordinate leaders. Team participation - even from the most junior personnel - is critical in developing bold, innovative solutions to problem sets. Giving the frontline troops ownership of even a small piece of the plan gives them buy-in, helps them understand the reasons behind the plan, and better enables them to believe in the mission, which translates to far more effective implementation and execution on the ground. (pg. 204)

Once the detailed plan has been developed, it must then be briefed to the entire team and all participants. Leaders must carefully prioritize the information to be presented in as simple, clear, and concise a format as possible so that participants do not experience information overload. The planning process and briefing must be a forum that encourages discussion, questions, and clarification from even the most junior person. If frontline troops are unclear about the plan and yet are too intimidated to ask questions, the team's ability to effectively execute the plan radically decreases. Thus, leaders must ask questions of their troops, encourage interaction, and ensure their teams understand the plan. (pg. 206)

As a leader, if you are down in the weeds planning the details with your guys you will have the same perspective as them. But if you let them plan the details, it allows them to own their piece of the plan. And it allows you to stand back and see everything with a different perspective, which adds tremendous value. You can then see the plan from a greater distance, a higher altitude, and you will see more. As a result, you will catch mistakes and discover aspects of the plan that need to be tightened up just because you have a broader view. (pg. 214)

It is critical that each team member have an understanding of the others’ roles. Senior leaders must explain to their junior leaders and troops executing the mission how their role contributes to the big picture of success. This is not intuitive and never as obvious to the rank-and-file employees as leaders might assume. Leaders must routinely communicate with their team members to help them understand. Frontline leaders and troops can then connect the dots between what they do everyday and how that impacts the company's strategic goals. That is leading down the chain of command. It requires regularly stepping out of the office and personally engaging and face-to-face conversations with direct reports. (pg. 229) 

If your boss isn't making a decision in a timely manner or providing necessary support for you and your team, don't blame the boss. First, blame yourself. Examine what you can do to better convey the critical information for decisions to be made and support allocated. Leading up the chain of command requires tactical engagement with the immediate boss to obtain the decisions and support necessary to enable your team to accomplish its mission. To do this, a leader must push situational awareness up the chain of command. Leading up the chain takes much more savvy and skill than leading down the chain. Leading up, the leader cannot fall back on his or her positional authority. Instead, the subordinate leader must use influence, experience, knowledge, communication, and maintain the highest professionalism. (pg. 237)

No matter how big or bureaucratic your company seems, it pales in comparison to the gargantuan US military bureaucracy. And, imagine how much more emotional and frustrating it is when military lives are on the line every day. But they have two choices, throw their hands up in frustration, or figure out how to most effectively operate within the constraints required of them. Military leaders chose the latter. (pg. 240)

A leader must lead but also be ready to follow. Sometimes another member of the team might be in a better position to develop a plan, make a decision, or lead through a specific situation. Perhaps the junior person has greater experience in a particular area. Perhaps he or she simply thought of a better way to accomplish the mission. Good leaders must welcome this, putting aside ego and personal agendas to ensure that the team has the greatest chance of accomplishing its strategic goals. A true leader is not intimidated when others step up and take charge. Leaders that lack confidence in themselves fear being outshined by someone else. (pg. 274)

The goal of all leaders should be to work themselves out of a job. This means leaders must be heavily engaged in training and mentoring their junior leaders to prepare them to step up and assume greater responsibilities. When mentored and coached properly, the junior leader can eventually replace the senior leader, allowing the senior leader to move on to the next level of leadership. (pg. 286)

Much of what has been covered in this book has been covered in the past. We do not consider ourselves to be creators of a new paradigm of leadership principles. Much of what we learned or relearned has existed for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years. But, although these principles are often simple to understand in theory, it can be difficult to apply them in life. Leadership is simple, but not easy. (pg. 286)

No book can tell a leader exactly how to lead in every situation. But this book provides a frame of reference to use for guidance when faced with tough leadership dilemmas. While the specifics of any particular situation may vary and the characters slightly differ, the principles remain the same and can be applied, either directly or indirectly, to overcome any leadership challenge that might arise. (pg. 287)

It's perfectly normal to be new to a leadership position and not know everything. You don't have to know every single thing about a particular job you're going into. What you need to do is go in and ask good questions. Listen to people. People will actually respect that you are asking good questions and that you want to learn. Now, this is not an excuse to not know anything at all. Because if you're in a new leadership position, you should be studying, reading, and learning about your new role so you have some general understanding of it. There is a knowledge base that you should acquire very quickly when you take on a new leadership position. So put the work in to learn, and then apply common-sense. (pg. 295)

How do you lead more senior people? It's the same answer every time. Be humble. Listen to them. Be on time. Work hard. Treat people with respect. Weigh decisions carefully. Talk to people and then make a good decision. Empower your folks to lead. Don't micromanage them, but give them clear guidance about what the expectations are. (pg. 295)

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