Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win
Author: Jocko Willink, Leif Babin
Last Read: September 2016
Quick Summary: This book is absolutely packed with actionable advice for leading teams and improving yourself. While the book does include war stories to illustrate the authors' points, the principles are timeless and worth reading even for those who aren't interested in military subject matters.
The core of the book: take ownership of yourself and the success of your team. Detach, kill your ego, and don't blame others for failure. Instead, look at how you can improve the situation, communicate better, and clearly prioritize goals so your team members up and down the chain of command fully understand the situation.
This book made me take a hard look at myself and identified ways that I need to improve, especially in communicating up the chain to make sure my leaders understand the situation on the ground. I will be revisiting this book again and again.
Extreme Ownership. Leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame.
Who are we to write such a book? It may seem that anyone who believes they can write a book on leadership must think themselves the epitome of what every leader should aspire to be. But we are far from perfect. We continue to learn and grow as leaders every day, just as any leaders who are truly honest with themselves must. We were simply fortunate enough to experience an array of leadership challenges that taught us valuable lessons. This book is our best effort to pass those lessons on, not from a pedestal or a position of superiority, but from a humble place, where the scars of our failings still show. --loc 73
We learned that leadership requires belief in the mission and unyielding perseverance to achieve victory, particularly when doubters question whether victory is even possible. --loc 81
“Relax. Look around. Make a call.” --loc 164
Cover and Move, Simple, Prioritize and Execute, and Decentralized Command. --loc 166
The only meaningful measure for a leader is whether the team succeeds or fails. For all the definitions, descriptions, and characterizations of leaders, there are only two that matter: effective and ineffective. Effective leaders lead successful teams that accomplish their mission and win. Ineffective leaders do not. --loc 213
The best leaders are not driven by ego or personal agendas. They are simply focused on the mission and how best to accomplish it. --loc 220
The greatest of these was the recognition that leadership is the most important factor on the battlefield, the single greatest reason behind the success of any team. --loc 256
We encourage leaders to do the things they know they probably should be doing but aren’t. By not doing those things, they are failing as leaders and failing their teams. --loc 288
Extreme Ownership. Leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame. --loc 298
These weaker commanders would get a solid explanation about the burden of command and the deep meaning of responsibility: the leader is truly and ultimately responsible for everything. --loc 496
On any team, in any organization, all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader. 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. --loc 499
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. The leader bears full responsibility for explaining the strategic mission, developing the tactics, and securing the training and resources to enable the team to properly and successfully execute. --loc 505
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. --loc 508
Total responsibility for failure is a difficult thing to accept, and taking ownership when things go wrong requires extraordinary humility and courage. But doing just that is an absolute necessity to learning, growing as a leader, and improving a team’s performance. --loc 513
“So, you’re here to help me, right?” the VP inquired. Knowing that, due to ego, some people bristle at the idea of criticism and coaching no matter how constructive, I chose to take a more indirect approach. “Maybe not so much here to help you, but here to help the situation,” --loc 533
When a bad SEAL leader walked into a debrief and blamed everyone else, that attitude was picked up by subordinates and team members, who then followed suit. They all blamed everyone else, and inevitably the team was ineffective and unable to properly execute a plan. --loc 610
The answer: 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. --loc 758
When leaders who epitomize Extreme Ownership drive their teams to achieve a higher standard of performance, they must recognize that when it comes to standards, as a leader, it’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate. --loc 833
Leaders should never be satisfied. They must always strive to improve, and they must build that mind-set into the team. --loc 847
If I expressed doubts or openly questioned the wisdom of this plan in front of the troops, their derision toward the mission would increase exponentially. They would never believe in it. As a result, they would never commit to it, and it would fail. But once I understood and believed, I then passed that understanding and belief on, clearly and succinctly, to my troops so that they believed in it themselves. When they understood why, they would commit to the mission, persevere through the inevitable challenges in store, and accomplish the task set before us. --loc 1096
In order to convince and inspire others to follow and accomplish a mission, a leader must be a true believer in the mission. Even when others doubt and question the amount of risk, asking, “Is it worth it?” the leader must believe in the greater cause. If a leader does not believe, he or she will not take the risks required to overcome the inevitable challenges necessary to win. --loc 1127
Leaders must always operate with the understanding that they are part of something greater than themselves and their own personal interests. --loc 1131
Every leader must be able to detach from the immediate tactical mission and understand how it fits into strategic goals. --loc 1138
When leaders receive an order that they themselves question and do not understand, they must ask the question: why? Why are we being asked to do this? Those leaders must take a step back, deconstruct the situation, analyze the strategic picture, and then come to a conclusion. If they cannot determine a satisfactory answer themselves, they must ask questions up the chain of command until they understand why. --loc 1138
In business just as in the military, no senior executive team would knowingly choose a course of action or issue an order that would purposely result in failure. But a subordinate may not understand a certain strategy and thus not believe in it. 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 on the ground. --loc 1147
A common misperception among military leaders or corporate senior executives, this was an example of a boss who didn’t fully comprehend the weight of her position. In her mind, she was fairly laid back, open to questions, comments, and suggestions from people. She talked about maintaining an “open-door policy.” But in the minds of her sales managers, she was still The Boss: experienced, smart, and most important, powerful. That position demanded a high level of reverence—so high, in fact, that for an employee to question her ideas seemed disrespectful. None of them were comfortable questioning her, even though none of the midlevel managers actually worried about losing their jobs because they asked a question. But they were certainly worried about looking bad in front of The Boss. --loc 1193
Often, my subordinate leadership would pick up the slack for me. And they wouldn’t hold it against me, nor did I think they were infringing on my ‘leadership turf.’ On the contrary, I would thank them for covering for me. Leadership isn’t one person leading a team. It is a group of leaders working together, up and down the chain of command, to lead. If you are on your own, I don’t care how good you are, you won’t be able to handle it.” --loc 1253
Ego clouds and disrupts everything: the planning process, the ability to take good advice, and the ability to accept constructive criticism. It can even stifle someone’s sense of self-preservation. Often, the most difficult ego to deal with is your own. --loc 1453
“If you approached it as he did something wrong, and he needs to fix something, and he is at fault, it becomes a clash of egos and you two will be at odds. That’s human nature. But, if you put your own ego in check, meaning you take the blame, that will allow him to actually see the problem without his vision clouded by ego. Then you both can make sure that your team’s standard operating procedures—when to communicate, what is and isn’t within his decision-making authority—are clearly understood. --loc 1520
We utilized the principle of Cover and Move on every operation: all teams working together in support of one another. --loc 1716
“The enemy is out there,” I said, pointing out the window to the world beyond. “The enemy is all the other competing companies in your industry that are vying for your customers. The enemy is not in here, inside the walls of this corporation. The departments within and the subsidiary companies that all fall under the same leadership structure—you are all on the same team. You have to overcome the ‘us versus them’ mentality and work together, mutually supporting one another. --loc 1761
Simplifying as much as possible is crucial to success. When plans and orders are too complicated, people may not understand them. And when things go wrong, and they inevitably do go wrong, complexity compounds issues that can spiral out of control into total disaster. Plans and orders must be communicated in a manner that is simple, clear, and concise. Everyone that is part of the mission must know and understand his or her role in the mission and what to do in the event of likely contingencies. As a leader, it doesn’t matter how well you feel you have presented the information or communicated an order, plan, tactic, or strategy. If your team doesn’t get it, you have not kept things simple and you have failed. You must brief to ensure the lowest common denominator on the team understands. --loc 1951
the enemy gets a vote.--loc 2033
“The enemy gets a vote?” the plant manager repeated, questioning what that meant. “Yes. Regardless of how you think an operation is going to unfold,” I answered, “the enemy gets their say as well—and they are going to do something to disrupt it. When something goes wrong—and it eventually does—complex plans add to confusion, which can compound into disaster. Almost no mission ever goes according to plan. There are simply too many variables to deal with. This is where simplicity is key. If the plan is simple enough, everyone understands it, which means each person can rapidly adjust and modify what he or she is doing. If the plan is too complex, the team can’t make rapid adjustments to it, because there is no baseline understanding of it.” --loc 2034
Prioritize and Execute. Even the greatest of battlefield leaders could not handle an array of challenges simultaneously without being overwhelmed. That risked failing at them all. I had to remain calm, step back from my immediate emotional reaction, and determine the greatest priority for the team. Then, rapidly direct the team to attack that priority. Once the wheels were in motion and the full resources of the team were engaged in that highest priority effort, I could then determine the next priority, focus the team’s effort there, and then move on to the next priority. I could not allow myself to be overwhelmed. I had to relax, look around, and make a call. --loc 2197
Even the most competent of leaders can be overwhelmed if they try to tackle multiple problems or a number of tasks simultaneously. The team will likely fail at each of those tasks. Instead, leaders must determine the highest priority task and execute. When overwhelmed, fall back upon this principle: Prioritize and Execute. --loc 2240
Just as in combat, priorities can rapidly shift and change. When this happens, communication of that shift to the rest of the team, both up and down the chain of command, is critical. Teams must be careful to avoid target fixation on a single issue. They cannot fail to recognize when the highest priority task shifts to something else. The team must maintain the ability to quickly reprioritize efforts and rapidly adapt to a constantly changing battlefield. --loc 2258
To implement Prioritize and Execute in any business, team, or organization, 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. Maintain the ability to see other problems developing and rapidly shift as needed. --loc 2261
Human beings are generally not capable of managing more than six to ten people, particularly when things go sideways and inevitable contingencies arise. No one senior leader can be expected to manage dozens of individuals, much less hundreds. --loc 2529
Decentralized Command does not mean junior leaders or team members operate on their own program; that results in chaos. Instead, junior leaders must fully understand what is within their decision-making authority—the “left and right limits” of their responsibility. Additionally, they must communicate with senior leaders to recommend decisions outside their authority and pass critical information up the chain so the senior leadership can make informed strategic decisions. --loc 2536
Junior leaders must be proactive rather than reactive. --loc 2540
Tactical leaders must be confident that they clearly understand the strategic mission and Commander’s Intent. They must have implicit trust that their senior leaders will back their decisions. Without this trust, junior leaders cannot confidently execute, which means they cannot exercise effective Decentralized Command. 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. --loc 2542
Contrary to a 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. Understanding proper positioning as a leader is a key component of effective Decentralized Command, not just on the battlefield. --loc 2564
“Junior leaders must know that the boss will back them up even if they make a decision that may not result in the best outcome, as long as the decision was made in an effort to achieve the strategic objective” --loc 2645
The mission must explain the overall purpose and desired result, or “end state,” of the operation. The frontline troops tasked with executing the mission must understand the deeper purpose behind the mission. --loc 2784
Leaders must delegate the planning process down the chain as much as possible to key subordinate leaders. Team leaders within the greater team and frontline, tactical-level leaders must have ownership of their tasks within the overall plan and mission. Team participation—even from the most junior personnel—is critical in developing bold, innovative solutions to problem sets. --loc 2791
The test for a successful brief is simple: Do the team and the supporting elements understand it? --loc 2807
The plan must mitigate identified risks where possible. SEALs are known for taking significant risk, but in reality SEALs calculate risk very carefully. A good plan must enable the highest chance of mission success while mitigating as much risk as possible. --loc 2808
The best teams employ constant analysis of their tactics and measure their effectiveness so that they can adapt their methods and implement lessons learned for future missions. Often business teams claim there isn’t time for such analysis. But one must make time. --loc 2815
A post-operational debrief examines all phases of an operation from planning through execution, in a concise format. It addresses the following for the combat mission just completed: What went right? What went wrong? How can we adapt our tactics to make us even more effective and increase our advantage over the enemy? --loc 2818
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. --loc 3226
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. --loc 3230
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. You and your team may not represent the priority effort at that particular time. Or perhaps the senior leadership has chosen a different direction. Have the humility to understand and accept this. --loc 3233
A public display of discontent or disagreement with the chain of command undermines the authority of leaders at all levels. This is catastrophic to the performance of any organization. --loc 3237
But at the end of the day, once the debate on a particular course of action is over and 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. --loc 3240
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. --loc 3244
They just don’t get what we are dealing with, and their questions and second-guessing prevents me and my team from getting the job done.” The infamous they. --loc 3251
Intelligence gathering and research are important, but they must be employed with realistic expectations and must not impede swift decision making that is often the difference between victory and defeat. Waiting for the 100 percent right and certain solution leads to delay, indecision, and an inability to execute. 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. --loc 3452
In the SEAL Teams, we taught our leaders to act decisively amid chaos. Jocko had taught me that, as a leader, my default setting should be aggressive—proactive rather than reactive. This was critical to the success of any team. Instead of letting the situation dictate our decisions, we must dictate the situation. But for many leaders, this mind-set was not intuitive. Many operated with a “wait and see” approach. But experience had taught me that the picture could never be complete. There was always some element of risk. There was no 100-percent right solution. --loc 3506
The moment the alarm goes off is the first test; it sets the tone for the rest of the day. The test is not a complex one: when the alarm goes off, do you get up out of bed, or do you lie there in comfort and fall back to sleep? If you have the discipline to get out of bed, you win—you pass the test. If you are mentally weak for that moment and you let that weakness keep you in bed, you fail. Though it seems small, that weakness translates to more significant decisions. But if you exercise discipline, that too translates to more substantial elements of your life. --loc 3648
The temptation to take the easy road is always there. It is as easy as staying in bed in the morning and sleeping in. But discipline is paramount to ultimate success and victory for any leader and any team. --loc 3668
Although discipline demands control and asceticism, it actually results in freedom. When you have the discipline to get up early, you are rewarded with more free time. When you have the discipline to keep your helmet and body armor on in the field, you become accustomed to it and can move freely in it. The more discipline you have to work out, train your body physically and become stronger, the lighter your gear feels and the easier you can move around in it. --loc 3669
A leader must be calm but not robotic. It is normal—and necessary—to show emotion. The team must understand that their leader cares about them and their well-being. But, a leader must control his or her emotions. If not, how can they expect to control anything else? Leaders who lose their temper also lose respect. But, at the same time, to never show any sense of anger, sadness, or frustration would make that leader appear void of any emotion at all—a robot. People do not follow robots. --loc 3714
a leader must be confident but never cocky. Confidence is contagious, a great attribute for a leader and a team. But when it goes too far, overconfidence causes complacency and arrogance, which ultimately set the team up for failure. --loc 3716
A leader must be brave but not foolhardy. He or she must be willing to accept risk and act courageously, but must never be reckless. It is a leader’s job to always mitigate as much as possible those risks that can be controlled to accomplish the mission without sacrificing the team or excessively expending critical resources. --loc 3718
Leaders must have a competitive spirit but also be gracious losers. They must drive competition and push themselves and their teams to perform at the highest level. But they must never put their own drive for personal success ahead of overall mission success for the greater team. Leaders must act with professionalism and recognize others for their contributions. --loc 3720
A leader must be attentive to details but not obsessed by them. A good leader does not get bogged down in the minutia of a tactical problem at the expense of strategic success. He or she must monitor and check the team’s progress in the most critical tasks. But that leader cannot get sucked into the details and lose track of the bigger picture. --loc 3723
A leader must be strong but likewise have endurance, not only physically but mentally. He or she must maintain the ability to perform at the highest level and sustain that level for the long term. Leaders must recognize limitations and know to pace themselves and their teams so that they can maintain a solid performance indefinitely. --loc 3725
Leaders must be humble but not passive; quiet but not silent. They must possess humility and the ability to control their ego and listen to others. They must admit mistakes and failures, take ownership of them, and figure out a way to prevent them from happening again. But a leader must be able to speak up when it matters. They must be able to stand up for the team and respectfully push back against a decision, order, or direction that could negatively impact overall mission success. --loc 3728
A leader must be close with subordinates but not too close. The best leaders understand the motivations of their team members and know their people—their lives and their families. But a leader must never grow so close to subordinates that one member of the team becomes more important than another, or more important than the mission itself. Leaders must never get so close that the team forgets who is in charge. --loc 3731
A good leader does not gloat or revel in his or her position. To take charge of minute details just to demonstrate and reinforce to the team a leader’s authority is the mark of poor, inexperienced leadership lacking in confidence. --loc 3737
Generally, when a leader struggles, the root cause behind the problem is that the leader has leaned too far in one direction and steered off course. Awareness of the dichotomies in leadership allows this discovery, and thereby enables the correction. --loc 3743