Extreme Ownership Book Summary

This is a book summary of Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. It is a high level run through and I recommend reading the book at least twice in its entirety. These are some of the notes I took as I read it to help guide as a reference. Each bullet below is a chapter and principle of leadership in the book.

  • Extreme ownership – the leader is ultimately responsible for everything that happens under his command. Jocko tells a story about how they had a blue on blue where they had friendly fire. A lot of individuals made mistakes, but it was ultimately his fault: he could have planned the operation better, could have made sure everyone knew where they needed to be, made sure communication with the Iraqj forces were clearer on where they would be..etc. ultimately it all came back to him.
    • What this means for business – own up to your mistakes as a leader and you will will be more respected for it. A lot of people can make excuses for themselves on why something isn’t happening. If you fail or your team fails: own it. That is what it means to be an owner and that is what it means to be the leader.
  • There are no bad teams, just bad leaders – Good leaders get the most out of their teams they find and utilize peoples’ strengths. Bad leaders think their teams are bad and they are just stuck with a bad team. Bad leaders don’t get their teams working together and think all of their decisions were the right ones. They don’t admit when it’s their fault. “If you were making the right decisions it wouldn’t have failed”.
  • Believe – ‘Even my initial reaction was “ Hell no”. It just wasn’t worth the risk. Why would we go into combat without every possible advantage, much less a self-inflicted distinct disadvantage? I didn’t believe the this mission made sense. I didn’t believe it was smarts. I didn’t believe it would be successful. To imagine a firefight alongside Iraqi soldiers with such inferior training and questionable loyalty seemed outrageous, perhaps suicidal. But as my task unit Bruiser’s commander, I knew my actions  and mind-set carried great weight among my troops. These were my orders, and for me to lead, I had to believe. So I kept my doubts to myself and asked the simple question “why?”’ – He goes on to explain how he gained his believe by understanding why the generals were asking him to do this. The long term goal of the operation was to have the Iraqi forces capable of sustaining themselves into the future, and due to the current demands, “on the job” training was the only way to accomplish this.
  • Check Your Ego – You need to be able to check your ego at the door. There is no room for ego in a battle, and it translates to business as well. Don’t be concerned about being outperformed in a task, as long as that performance makes your team better and closer to achieving its mission. This comes back to ‘Extreme Ownership’ in that you need to check your ego and understand the motivation behind peoples’ actions and how you as a leader failed to explain some important bigger picture strategy items of the project. If there is a good reason they should be doing something, you need to make it clear to your subordinates of the ‘why’ it is important: standard operating procedures, etc.
  • Cover and Move – The principle of ‘cover & move’ is a simple one. It really boils down to teamwork and making sure you are utilizing your resources to their potential. The example in the book was that they were set up as a sniper team deep in the enemy territory and they knew after the mission was over that they would go back to their command outpost before nightfall (outside of the standard) because they knew the enemy would carry out an attack on their position if they stayed put. Both sniper teams went back, but the one further into enemy territory took on fire as they returned. They utilized ‘cover & move’ to work as a team and everyone made it back safely. When they got back they were chewed out by the commander because they didn’t utilize the other SEAL sniper team for cover. They were so focused on their small unit that they didn’t pull the resources from the larger team. The business example was about an organization complaining about a related party supplier that they were forced to use for their product launch. The partner-supplier was causing delays and delays meant money. This should be a competitive advantage, but they were not utilizing the partner to its full extent. They ended up working closer with he partner and understanding what drove their timeline to optimize the value stream and start getting things done on time. As someone in manufacturing I can personally relate to this business example. The more you can work together with your suppliers and customers to help them understand the cost and timeline drivers, the better your teamwork will be which drives better communication, understanding, and trust.
  • Simple – Everyone has heard the acronym KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid. This is the KISS chapter of the book. Do not over-complicate things. As a leader it is your responsibility that your initiatives are clear. Any complexity will be compounded when things go wrong. The example int he book was related to how the bonus structure worked at a company for manual labor. They had a convoluted system that took multiple variables and mashed them together to have an engineer’s wet dream of efficiency metrics. It was complex and the employees didn’t follow how it worked so the drivers they were being measured in weren’t clear to them. They ended up changing it to be a throughput and quality metric that drove bonuses that was much simpler.
  • Prioritize & Execute – The principle here is to define what is the highest priority, don’t get overwhelmed, and execute that top priority. It is easy to try to do too many different things at once which typically results in nothing getting accomplished. A leader needs to be able to step back and look at the problem strategically:
    • What is the highest priority problem?
    • Lay out a simple clear priority effort to your team
    • Develop and determine the solution using input from the team when possible
    • Direct all resources to that high priority problem
    • Move to the next highest priority
    • Always be ready to react if the priorities shift
      • Don’t let your focus on one priority cause ’target fixation’ be able to view the problems you are facing and reprioritize as they develop.
  • Decentralized Command – Human beings are not able to effectively manage more than 6-10 people. Teams must be broken out into smaller groups with clear leaders. Those tactical level leaders need to understand not just what to do, but why they are doing it. There needs to be alignment between the high level leadership all the way down the chain of command working towards the same goals. When things start to break down, leaders that try to do too much themselves can degrade into chaos. Use decentralized command to lead up and down the chain of command without micromanaging the teams.
  • Plan – The planning process is so critical to any operation it is almost a cliche in the business world. That doesn’t make it any less important though. This chapter focuses in on the most important part of the planning process and communication: Commander’s intent. The plan needs to be simple enough so the entire team can understand and own their roles. The commander’s intent it the most important part of the brief. It sets the definition of success and should guide each decision on the ground. It is also important for leaders to delegate the planning process down the chain of command. The leader should be able to keep a high level perspective and oversight of the mission without getting caught in the details. If you can maintain a higher level perspective it allows you to see the big picture and focus on the strategic aspects while seeing any gaps in the plan that need to be fixed and are more difficult to see at the detail level. They detail out the planning process on page 207:
    • Analyze the mission (define commander’s intent)
    • Identify assets and resources you have available
    • Decentralize the planning process
    • Empower key leaders to develop the plan for selected course of action
    • Plan for likely contingencies at each phase of the operation
    • manage risks that can be controlled
    • Delegate portions of the plan and brief to key junior leaders
    • stand back and be the tactical genius
    • Continually check and question plan against new information
    • Brief the plan to all participants
      • Emphasize commander’s intent
      • ask questions & engage w/ the team
    • Conduct post-operational debrief
      • Analyze lessons learned and implement in future planning
  • Decisiveness amid uncertainty – The key here is that you will never have complete information and a strong leader needs to make a call. The “wait & see” approach that a lot of people want to default to usually ends up showing a lot of weakness and puts you on your heels. You want to be the one that drives the issues. The business example was that there were two engineers that refused to work together and were undermining each other and overall creating a toxic environment. The choice was to see which one quit, or to let one go. The alternative options that wasn’t considered was to let both of them go and give a promotion to high performers. This is the most aggressive approach but it shows a lot of strength and decisiveness while showing that you will not accept that behavior no matter who you are.
  • Discipline Equals Freedom – The book talks about how creating disciplines in your areas of responsibility creates a pathway to freedom. It is a bit counterintuitive and will likely lead to resistance, but the at its core there is a principle. Order, standards, control and regimen may sound like the opposites of freedom, but it leads to freedom. In the book he Jocko discusses how they changed their evidence collection process from a haphazard ransacking to a strict procedure that has very specific jobs that are optimized for efficiency. I personally have two experiences that can relate to how enforcing strict standards can create a ripple effect of greater freedom. The first is in the standardization of our month end closing process in the finance team at my work. Month end used to be crazy: long hours, huge variations at the end of the month, and a ton of stress and inefficiency. We went through the long process of creating standard operating procedures for all month end processes and centralizing some processes to increase efficiency. These standards took our month end process from 2-3 long days to being able to close within a 24 hour period and being able to easily close more than one division. The other example I have is an article that circulates at my work every so often. It is basically about how standardization increases Innovation. It sounds counterintuitive, but there is a point to it. Increased standardization doesn’t just lead to higher quality and scalability within an organization. It frees up a ton of creative potential since people aren’t trying to figure out the best way to do something: there is already a standard. It only works when utilizing the other principles of Extreme Ownership because you need to allow the people on the front line getting feedback to those standards and making sure we are always improving. The chapter goes on to discuss the ideal leader in the Dichotomy of Leadership:
    • A 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 a follower
      • humble not passive
      • aggressive not overbearing
      • quiet not silent
      • calm but not robotic
      • close with the troops, but not so close than one becomes more important than another or more important than the good of the team
      • able to execute Extreme Ownership while exercising Decentralized Command
This was probably the best, most complete book on leadership I have read. I think the principles found in this book can be applied to any leadership position in any organization. The book was compelling and had great examples that reinforced the principles. This is just a brief overview of what I found to be the most  useful information, but you will only get the most of it if you read it and apply it yourself.

RG

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