Highlights & Notes |Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink & Leif Babin

Learn leadership lessons from a Navy SEAL platoon leader. One of the most straightforward and best leadership books I’ve ever read. From being humble to controlling sub-par performance, a leader must be everything for his team. This book includes real world examples from the battlefield and from businesses. If you want to be a top-level leader, learn from the best.

For leaders, the humility to admit and own mistakes and develop a plan to overcome them is essential to success. The best leaders are not driven by ego or personal agendas. They are simply focused on the mission and how best to accomplish it.

Leaders must own everything in their 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.

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 under performer. But if the under performer 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 under performers 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.

“That might be one of the issues: in your mind you are doing everything right. So when things go wrong, instead of looking at yourself, you blame others. But no one is infallible. With Extreme Ownership, you must remove individual ego and personal agenda. It’s all about the mission. How can you best get your team to most effectively execute the plan in order to accomplish the mission?” I continued. “That is the question you have to ask yourself. That is what Extreme Ownership is all about.”

They see Extreme Ownership in their leaders, and, as a result,they emulate Extreme Ownership throughout the chain of command down to the most junior personnel. As a group they try to figure out how to fix their problems-instead of trying to figure out who or what to blame.

One of the most fundamental and important truths at the heart of Extreme Ownership: there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.

How is it possible that switching a single individual-only the leader-had completely turned around the performance of an entire group? 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.

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. Leaders must push the standards in a way that encourages and enables the team to utilize Extreme Ownership.

“That leader didn’t seem to think it was possible for them to perform any better, and he certainly didn’t think they could win. This negative attitude infected his entire boat crew. As is common in teams that are struggling, the original leader of Boat Crew Six almost certainly justified his team’s poor performance with any number of excuses. In his mind, the other boat crews were outperforming his own only because those leaders had been lucky enough to be assigned better crews. His attitude reflected victimization: life dealt him and his boat crew members a disadvantage, which justified poor performance. As a result, his attitude prevented his team from looking inwardly at themselves and where they could improve. Finally, the leader and each member of Boat Crew Six focused not on the mission but on themselves, their own exhaustion, misery, and individual pain and suffering. Though the instructors demanded that they do better, Boat Crew Six had become comfortable with substandard performance. Working under poor leadership and an unending cycle of blame, the team constantly failed. No one took ownership, assumed responsibility, or adopted a winning attitude.”

Things are going to slip through the cracks from time to time. It happens. I made all kinds of mistakes when I led SEALs. 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.”

If you don’t ask questions so you can understand and believe in the mission, you are failing as a leader and you are failing your team. So, if you ever get a task or guidance or a mission that you don’t believe in, don’t just sit back and accept it. Ask questions until you understand why so you can believe in what you are doing and you can pass that information down the chain to your team with confidence, so they can get out and execute the mission. That is leadership.”

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.

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.

On the battlefield, countless problems compound in a snowball effect, every challenge is complex in its own right, each demanding attention. But a leader must remain calm and make the best decisions possible. 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.

No one senior leader can be expected to manage dozens of individuals, much less hundreds. Teams must be broken down into manageable elements of four to five operators, with a clearly designated leader.

“With clear guidance and established boundaries for decision making that your subordinate leaders understand, they can then act independently toward your unified goal.” Trust is not blindly given. It must be built over time. Situations will sometimes require that the boss walk away from a problem and let junior leaders solve it, even if the boss knows he might solve it more efficiently. It is more important that the junior leaders are allowed to make decisions-and backed up even if they don’t make them correctly.

“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,” I explained, “That complete faith in what others will do, how they will react, and what decisions they will make is the key ingredient in the success of Decentralized Command. And this is integral to the success of any high-performance winning team.” “Understood,” the president replied. “I will make it happen.”

We had addressed and mitigated every risk that we could through planning. But every risk could not be controlled.

Leaders must identify clear directives for the team. Once they themselves understand the mission, they can impart this knowledge to their key leaders and frontline troops tasked with executing the mission. A broad and ambiguous mission results in lack of focus, ineffective execution, and mission creep.

Team participation-even from the most junior personnel-is critical in developing bold, innovative solutions to problem sets. Giving the frontline troops ownership of even a small piece of the plan gives them buy-in, helps them understand the reasons behind the plan, and better enables them to believe in the mission, which translates to far more effective implementation and execution on the ground.

While the senior leader supervises the entire planning process by team members, he or she must be careful not to get bogged down in the details. By maintaining a perspective above the microterrain of the plan, the senior leader can better ensure compliance with strategic objectives. Doing so enables senior leaders to “stand back and be the tactical genius”-to identify weaknesses or holes in the plan that those immersed in the details might have missed. This enables leaders to fill in those gaps before execution.

John Paul Jones, said: “Those who will not risk cannot win.”

A leader’s checklist for planning should include the following: • Analyze the mission. -Understand higher headquarters’ mission, Commander’s Intent, and endstate (the goal). -Identify and state your own Commander’s Intent and endstate for the specific mission. • Identify personnel, assets, resources, and time available. • Decentralize the planning process. -Empower key leaders within the team to analyze possible courses of action. • Determine a specific course of action. -Lean toward selecting the simplest course of action. -Focus efforts on the best course of action. • Empower key leaders to develop the plan for the selected course of action. • Plan for likely contingencies through each phase of the operation. • Mitigate risks that can be controlled as much as possible. • Delegate portions of the plan and brief to key junior leaders. -Stand back and be the tactical genius. • Continually check and question the plan against emerging information to ensure it still fits the situation. • Brief the plan to all participants and supporting assets. -Emphasize Commander’s Intent. -Ask questions and engage in discussion and interaction with the team to ensure they understand. • Conduct post-operational debrief after execution. -Analyze lessons learned and implement them in future planning.

You need to brief so that the most junior man can fully understand the operation-the lowest common denominator. That’s what a brief is.

“The most important part of the brief,” said Jocko, “is to explain your Commander’s Intent.” When everyone participating in an operation knows and understands the purpose and end state of the mission, they can theoretically act without further guidance.

“As a leader, if you are down in the weeds planning the details with your guys,” said Jocko, “you will have the same perspective as them, which adds little value. But if you let them plan the details, it allows them to own their piece of the plan. And it allows you to stand back and see everything with a different perspective, which adds tremendous value. You can then see the plan from a greater distance, a higher altitude, and you will see more. As a result, you will catch mistakes and discover aspects of the plan that need to be tightened up, which enables you to look like a tactical genius, just because you have a broader view.”

We owned our planning process. After each combat operation, we pulled our platoon together and talked through the details in a post-operational debrief. In a concise and to-the-point format, we analyzed what had worked and what hadn’t, how we might refine our standard operating procedures, and how we could do it better. As a result, we constantly learned and grew more effective.

This is not intuitive and never as obvious to the rank-and-file employees as leaders might assume. Leaders must routinely communicate with their team members to help them understand their role in the overall mission.

“Leadership doesn’t just flow down the chain of command, but up as well,” he said. “We have to own everything in our world. That’s what Extreme Ownership is all about.”

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.

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.

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.

Leaders in any chain of command will not always agree. 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.

Take responsibility for leading everyone in your world, subordinates and superiors alike.

“But we had two choices,” I said. “Throw our hands up in frustration and do nothing, or figure out how to most effectively operate within the constraints required of us. We chose the latter.”

If you have questions about why a specific plan or required paperwork is coming down the pipe, don’t just throw up your hands in frustration.

“If you think they don’t fully understand the challenges you are facing here, invite your senior executives out to the field to see your team in action,” I said.

Jocko had always encouraged us to be aggressive in decision-making. But part of being decisive was knowing and understanding that some decisions, while immediately impactful, can be quickly reversed or altered; other decisions, like shooting another human being, cannot be undone.

Regardless, leaders cannot be paralyzed by fear. That results in inaction. It is critical for leaders to act decisively amid uncertainty; to make the best decisions they can based on only the immediate information available.

That way, there is no excuse for not getting out of bed, especially with all that rests on that decisive moment. 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.

Nothing is easy. 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.

But there was, and is, a dichotomy in the strict discipline we followed. Instead of making us more rigid and unable to improvise, this discipline actually made us more flexible, more adaptable, and more efficient. It allowed us to be creative. When we wanted to change plans midstream on an operation, we didn’t have to recreate an entire plan. We had the freedom to work within the framework of our disciplined procedures. All we had to do was link them together and explain whatever small portion of the plan had changed.

While increased discipline most often results in more freedom, there are some teams that become so restricted by imposed discipline that they inhibit their leaders’ and teams’ ability to make decisions and think freely. If frontline leaders and troops executing the mission lack the ability to adapt, this becomes detrimental to the team’s performance. So the balance between discipline and freedom must be found and carefully maintained.

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.

The Dichotomy of Leadership A good 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 follower; • humble not passive; • aggressive not overbearing; • quiet not silent; • calm but not robotic, logical but not devoid of emotions; • close with the troops but not so close that one becomes more important than another or more important than the good of the team; not so close that they forget who is in charge. • able to execute Extreme Ownership, while exercising Decentralized Command. A good leader has nothing to prove, but everything to prove.

Others who were blessed with all the natural talent in the world will fail as leaders if they are not humble enough to own their mistakes, admit that they don’t have it all figured out, seek guidance, learn, and continuously grow.

Some of the boldest, most successful plans in history have not come from the senior ranks but from frontline leaders. Senior leaders simply had the courage to accept and run with them.

The goal of all leaders should be to work themselves out of a job.

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Originally published at motivationalmondays.com.