So many business self-help books have been written over the years they could fill most community libraries. But if you are in business, it is tough to pass up anything that might make your company more successful. And so it is that I bit on “Extreme Ownership,” a book about leadership written by two former Navy SEALs, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.
The two take their wartime experiences in Iraq, and their particular brand of SEAL leadership, and translate that into lessons for leaders in the business world or any other organization. The book was a New York Times bestseller at 500,000 copies.
The premise of the book is that a good leader takes ownership of everything that happens under their watch, whether that is down the organizational food chain when underlings screw up or up the food chain when superiors make the wrong decisions (“Leading Up the Chain”).
Most of their examples are from gripping combat experiences during the 2004-07 battle for Ramadi in western Iraq. This was the center of the al-Qaeda insurgency and Ramadi was intended to be the capital of the caliphate – the would-be Islamic State of Iraq.
Early on, when U.S. forces tried to take the city, they were met with some of the toughest resistance of the war. The authors’ premise, which they later applied as SEAL training instructors and then to business leadership training courses, is that effective leaders are the most important factor in whether any team will be successful. They contend their principles can be applied to any organization (including families).
First up is the principle that when something goes wrong, the ineffective leader will seek to blame the individual responsible for the mistake. Wrong! If it happened on your watch, the authors insist you should totally own it. And then set about figuring out what happened, why it happened and making sure it doesn’t happen again.
One principle that I liked suggests how SEALs are trained to keep their cool when all hell is breaking loose around them. The idea is they are taught to remain calm, assess the situation, prioritize options and execute. Then do it again until the mission is successful.
Another precept is that you get what you demand from subordinates. And if you do not demand excellence – well, you own the subpar performance.
I don’t have space here to go into their compelling combat situation reports, and the business principles drawn from them, but I will touch on one of the book’s chapters because it seems so counterintuitive – the idea of leading up the chain of command.
In the effort to secure Ramadi, SEALs were having trouble convincing leaders at the Pentagon of the viability of the missions they were recommending. What these senior officers at the Pentagon did not have was the situational awareness that should have been pushed up the chain. That would include how closely the SEALs were able to work with and count on Army and Marine units for support and also how pleased locals were when U.S. forces managed to calm an area and provide security.
The idea is that it is incumbent on a good leader to push full situational awareness up the chain of command. The authors acknowledge this requires a more intricate, skillful and deft approach because in dealing with superiors, they can’t count the authority they have to deal with subordinates.
Going down the chain of command, they note the unhappiest and most disgruntled troops were always the ones who had the least information on how their missions fit into the overall picture.
The authors are former members of SEAL Team 3 out of Coronado. I must confess to more than casual interest in the book having had a nephew recently retire as a SEAL Team 3 officer. The nephew doesn’t talk about his experiences, but I am happy to report that after completing his MBA at UCLA while still on active duty, he retired from the military and is happily pursuing a career at a very successful investment fund.
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