Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win

Author: Jocko Willink
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I like how the authors used their own experience from Navy SEAL to demonstrate some leadership principles and methods.

There are only two types of leaders: effective and ineffective. Effective leaders that lead successful, high-performance teams exhibit Extreme Ownership. Anything else is simply ineffective. Anything else is bad leadership.

Extreme ownership means accepting all the blame:

Despite all the failures of individuals, units, and leaders, and despite the myriad mistakes that had been made, there was only one person to blame for everything that had gone wrong on the operation: me. I hadn’t been with our sniper team when they engaged the Iraqi soldier. I hadn’t been controlling the rogue element of Iraqis that entered the compound. But that didn’t matter. As the SEAL task unit commander, the senior leader on the ground in charge of the mission, I was responsible for everything in Task Unit Bruiser. I had to take complete ownership of what went wrong. That is what a leader does—even if it means getting fired. If anyone was to be blamed and fired for what happened, let it be me.

… and continues:

The leader must own everything in his or her world. There is no one else to blame. The leader must acknowledge mistakes and admit failures, take ownership of them, and develop a plan to win.

It’s important to recognize it’s time to let some people go:

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 hire others who can get the job done. It is all on the leader.

Set your ego aside:

Extreme Ownership requires leaders to look at an organization’s problems through the objective lens of reality, without emotional attachments to agendas or plans. It mandates that a leader set ego aside, accept responsibility for failures, attack weaknesses, and consistently work to a build a better and more effective team.

Accept all mistakes:

The best-performing SEAL units had leaders who accepted responsibility for everything. Every mistake, every failure or shortfall—those leaders would own it. During the debrief after a training mission, those good SEAL leaders took ownership of failures, sought guidance on how to improve, and figured out a way to overcome challenges on the next iteration. The best leaders checked their egos, accepted blame, sought out constructive criticism, and took detailed notes for improvement. They exhibited Extreme Ownership, and as a result, their SEAL platoons and task units dominated.

They even organized an experiment with a few groups and swap their leaders:

Switching a single individual – only the leader – had completely turned around the performance of an entire group. 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.

Bad teams? Not really. A team can only deliver exceptional performance if a leader ensures:

  1. the team works together toward a focused goal
  2. enforces high standards of performance
  3. and everyone works together to continuously improve

The concept that there were no bad teams, only bad leaders was a difficult one to accept but nevertheless a crucial concept that leaders must fully understand and implement to enable them to most effectively lead a high-performance team.

Set high standards:

When it comes to standards, as a leader, it’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate. When setting expectations, no matter what has been said or written, 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. Consequences for failing need not be immediately severe, but leaders must ensure that tasks are repeated until the higher expected standard is achieved.

Never be satisfied:

Leaders should never be satisfied. They must always strive to improve, and they must build that mind-set into the team. The best teams anywhere, like the SEAL Teams, are constantly looking to improve, add capability, and push the standards higher.

Our egos don’t like to take blame, so check your ego:

Implementing Extreme Ownership requires checking your ego and operating with a high degree of humility. Admitting mistakes, taking ownership, and developing a plan to overcome challenges are integral to any successful team. Ego can prevent a leader from conducting an honest, realistic assessment of his or her own performance and the performance of the team.

To implement Prioritize and Execute, a leader must:

  • 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 on to 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

Decentralized Command

Teams must be broken down into manageable elements of four to five operators, with a clearly designated 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. Teams within teams are organized for maximum effectiveness for a particular mission, with leaders who have clearly delineated responsibilities. Every tactical-level team leader must understand not just what to do but why they are doing it. If frontline leaders do not understand why, they must ask their boss to clarify the why.

Leading up and down the chain of command:

As a leader, if you don’t understand why decisions are being made, requests denied, or support allocated elsewhere, you must ask those questions up the chain. Then, once understood, you can pass that understanding down to your team.

The major factors to be aware of when leading up and down the chain of command are these:

  • 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 to better enable this.
  • Don’t ask your leader what you should do, tell them what you are going to do.

Discipline leads to great performance:

Waking up early was the first example I noticed in the SEAL Teams in which discipline was really the difference between being good and being exceptional.

Discipline is paramount to ultimate success and victory for any leader and any team.