Book Lessons

Book Review : Lessons from Extreme Ownership

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Extreme Ownership is a best selling (AMZN — 4.80 GR — 4.28)leadership book written by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. It details the mindset and leadership principles that enable the US Navy SEALs to accomplish the most difficult combat missions, and demonstrates how to apply these principles to any team or organization or business, in any leadership environment.

What is Extreme Ownership ?

The core lesson is that all great leaders exhibit “Extreme Ownership”. This means they take absolute ownership of everything. Not just the things for which they were directly responsible, but for everything that impacted their mission or project. They don’t blame anybody. They don’t make excuses. Instead of complaining, they found their own solutions to solve problems. They used whatever resources and relationships they had to get the job done. Their own egos and ambitions took a backseat to the mission and the their troops.

This is a very difficult thing to do. Especially, when things go wrong. It takes great courage and humility for a leader to take total responsibility for failure.

The next obvious question — What makes these leaders exhibit such an extreme leadership style without worrying about the ramifications ?

The answer is the operating system of the SEALs based on their leadership principles. This system and the leadership style are interdependent. The system works because of the leadership style . In turn, the system puts the leaders in a position to succeed (as long as they are truly displaying extreme ownership)

So how does this leadership style help in creating the system ?

The leader sets the tone by making an example. This allows them to expect the same behaviour from the junior leaders in the team. This permeates down to all levels and creates the culture for the whole team. Everyone takes charge of their piece of the mission. No one is looking to blame anyone. Everyone will do whatever it takes. A high performing, winning team is born. These winning teams which display Extreme Ownership from top to bottom help in making the system.

The Key Leadership Lessons

The Commander’s Intent

This is the single most important lesson. This has been covered in numerous books (including Chip and Dan Heath’s best selling book Made to Stick). This defines the WHAT and the WHY of the mission. Not the HOW. By giving clarity on the WHAT (the goal of the mission), the Commander’s Intent allows the mission leaders to make a plan based on their teams strengths and the realities on the ground. More importantly, it decentralizes command and allows team to improvise. This is super crucial in dynamic combat situations.

A decentralized system empowers . Transparency about the WHY allows for goal alignment and complete belief in the mission. People at every level understand “why” they are doing the mission and believe in it. The system allows everyone to question their bosses about the WHY, if they lack clarity.

Clarity and belief in the mission and its goals also helps in better alignment and teamwork between teams and departments. Everyone pulls in the same direction. As they say in the SEALs — “The enemy is outside and not inside”

The Commander’s Intent is central to the system and the leadership principles . Learning to frame it right and communicate it correctly should be the no one priority for leaders.

Everyone Leads Up & Down

Communicating the Commander’s Intent downwards and troops seeking clarity on the WHY is just one part of this larger principle. People are encouraged to display leadership and accordingly communicate upwards and downwards.

Sometimes the combat teams have to make decisions based on the situation. Thanks to this principle, they do so with complete confidence that their bosses will fully back them.

Proactive upward communication also allows the leadership to have better information of the mission’s evolving status. Having this crucial information allows the leadership to quickly modify the goals if need be. The SEALs win because everyone leads up and down all the time.

This reminded me of the way Zara operates — trends are quickly spotted and communicated instantly to their central teams. This dynamic information then feeds their famous supply chain to deliver products as per latest trends in their stores before the other retailers can realize what’s going on.

Simple and Effective Communication

We already covered parts of this. The SEALs’ communication is always supposed to be simple so that everyone can understand it.

In the combat zone, the situation is constantly changing. Ground teams are making decisions and reacting to the situation. Information is being relayed upwards and leadership is modifying the plan accordingly. Any gaps in communication can be fatal and lives can be lost. Therefore, fast and effective communication of plans and change in priorities to everyone is crucial

Planning and Debriefing

Planning is a crucial part of every mission. All leaders have a detailed checklist. It includes things like contingency plans, resource requirements, training needs and understanding and management of risk. The SEALs are known to take risks but in reality they calculate risk very carefully and try ti reduce it. A good plan is supposed to maximise success and mitigate as much risk as possible.

The awesome part is the post operation debrief. Happens without fail with complete honesty and transparency. Mistakes are acknowledged and accepted. There is no ego and no denial. This ensures that issues get fixed. This improves future planning and execution.

Training for Decentralized Decision Making

Decentralization is a must. The Commander's Intent lays the groundwork. But for effective decentralization, the SEALs also need to make good decisions in the heat of battle. These decisions need to be objective without letting emotions get in the way. This is where the system again comes into play in the form of a training program.

This training teaches decision making in complex pressure situations. They do so in simulated environments. Train and train till it becomes second nature. This is a crucial piece. Without this capability, there is no decentralization and the no Commander's Intent and no Extreme Ownership.

All of these principles are interdependent and only work together as a whole. They are explained through real examples from combat and the business world.

This book is especially useful for leaders in organizations which have large sales or operations teams. It’s mandatory reading in many companies across the world.

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