12 Principles of Leadership

Twelve key principles of leadership, taken from the book “Extreme Ownership” by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

Principle #1: Extreme Ownership

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.

When subordinates aren’t doing what they should, leaders cannot blame the subordinates. 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.

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 the leader 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.

Total responsibility for failure is a difficult thing to accept, and taking ownership when things go wrong requires extraordinary humility and courage.

Extreme ownership mandates that a leader set ego aside, accept responsibility for failures, attack weaknesses, and consistently work to build a better and more effective team. Such a leader, however, does not take credit for his or her team’s successes but bestows that honor upon his subordinate leaders and team members. When a leader sets such an example and expects this from junior leaders within the team, the mindset develops into the team’s culture at every level. Junior leaders take charge of their smaller teams and their piece of the mission. Efficiency and effectiveness increases exponentially and a high-performance, winning team is the result.

Principle #2:There are no bad teams, only bad leaders

This is a difficult and humbling concept for any leader to accept. But it is an essential mind-set for building a high performance, winning team.

When leaders drive their teams to achieve a higher standard of performance, they most recognize that when it comes to standards, as a leader, it’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate. 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 to 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.

The leader must pull the different elements within the team together to support one another, with all focused exclusively on how to best accomplish the mission. Most people want to be part of a winning team. Yet, they often don’t know how, or simply need motivation and encouragement. Teams need a forcing function to get the different members working together to accomplish the mission and that is what leadership is all about.

Leaders should never be satisfied. They must always strive to improve, and they must build that mind-set into the team. They must face facts through a realistic, brutally honest assessment of themselves and their team’s performance. Identifying weaknesses, good leaders seek to strengthen them and come up with a plan to overcome challenges. The best teams anywhere are constantly looking to improve, add capability, and push the standards higher. It starts with the individual and spreads to each of the team members until this becomes the culture, the new standard. The recognition that there are no bad teams, only bad leaders facilitates and enables leaders to build high-performance teams that dominate any battlefield, literal or figurative.

Principle #3: Believe

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. And they will not be able to convince others — especially the front-line people who must execute the mission — to do so. Leaders must always operate with the understanding that they are part of something greater than themselves and their own personal interests. They must impart this understanding to their teams. For more important than training or equipment, a resolute belief in the mission is critical for any team or organization to win and achieve big results.

In many cases, the leader must align his thoughts and vision to that of the mission. Once a leader believes in the mission, that belief shines through to those below and above in the chain of command. Actions and words reflect belief with a clear confidence and self-assuredness that is not possible when belief is in doubt.

The challenge comes when that alignment isn’t explicitly clear. When a leader’s confidence breaks, those who are supposed to follow him or her see this and begin to question their own belief in the mission.

Every leader must be able to detach from the immediate tactical mission and understand how it fits into strategic goals. When leaders receive an order that they themselves question and do not understand, they must ask the questions: 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. If front-line leaders understand why, they can move forward, fully believing in what they are doing.

It is likewise incumbent on senior leaders to take the time to explain and answer the questions of their junior leaders so that they too can understand why and believe. The front-line individuals never have as clear an understanding of the strategic picture as senior leaders might anticipate. It is critical that those senior leaders impart a general understanding of that strategic knowledge — the why — to their team.

In any organization, goals must always be in alignment. If goals aren’t aligned at some level, this issue must be addressed and rectified. 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.

The leader must explain not just what to do, but why. It is the responsibility of the subordinate leader to reach out and ask if they do not understand. Only when leaders at all levels understand and believe in the mission can they pass that understanding and belief to their teams so that they can persevere through challenges, execute and win.

Principle #4: Check the Ego

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.

Everyone has an ego. Ego drives most successful people in life. They want to win, to be the best. That is good. But when ego clouds our judgement and prevents us from seeing the world as it is, then ego becomes destructive. When personal agendas become more important than the team and the overarching mission’s success, performance suffers and failure ensues. Many of the disruptive issues that arise within any team can be attributed directly to a problem with ego.

Admitting mistakes, taking ownership, and developing a plan to overcome challenges are integral to any successful team. Ego can prevent a leader from conducting an honest, realistic assessment of his or her own performance and the performance of the team.

Principle #5: Teamwork

All elements within the greater team are crucial and must work together to accomplish the mission, mutually supporting one another for that singular purpose. Departments and groups within the team must break down silos, depend on each other and understand who depends on them. If they forsake this principle and operate independently or work against each other, results can be catastrophic to the overall team’s performance.

Within any team, there are divisions that arise. Often, when smaller teams within the team get so focused on their immediate tasks, they forget about what others are doing or how they depend on their teams. They may start to compete with one another and when there are obstacles, animosity and blame develops. This creates friction that inhibits the overall team’s performance. It falls on leaders to continually keep perspective on the strategic mission and remind the team that they are part of the greater team and the strategic mission is paramount.

Each member of the team is critical to success, though the main effort and supporting efforts must be clearly identified. If the overall team fails, everyone fails, even if a specific member or an element within the team did their job successfully. Pointing fingers and placing blame on others contributes to further dissension between teams and individuals. These individuals and teams must instead find a way to work together, communicate with each other, and mutually support one another. The focus must always be on how to best accomplish the mission.

Alternatively, when the team succeeds, everyone within and supporting that team succeeds. Every individual and every team within the larger team gets to share in the success. Accomplishing the strategic mission is the highest priority. Team members, departments, and supporting assets must always help each other, work together, and support each other to win. This principle is integral for any team to achieve victory.

Principle #6: Simple

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 matter 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 on order, plan, tactic, or strategy. If you 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.

It is critical, as well, that the operating relationship facilitate the ability of front-line troops to ask questions that clarify when they do not understand the mission or key tasks to be performed. Leaders must encourage this communication and take the time to explain so that every member of the team understands.

In the business world, and in life, there are inherent complexities. It is critical to keep plans and communication simple. Following this rule is crucial to the success of any team.

Principle #7: Prioritize and Execute

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.

Multiple problems and high-pressure, high-stakes environments occur in many facets of life and particularly in business. The success or failure of the team, the department, the company, the financial capital of investors, careers, and livelihoods are at stake. These pressures produce stress and demand decisions that often require rapid execution. Such decision making for leaders can be overwhelming.

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 re-prioritize efforts and rapidly adapt to a constantly changing landscape.

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 focus on one priority cause target fixation. Maintain the ability to see other problems developing and rapidly shift as needed.

Principle #8: Decentralized Command

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. Teams must be broken down into manageable elements of four to five operators, with a clearly designated leader. Those leaders must understand the overall mission, and the ultimate goal of that mission — the Commander’s Intent. Junior leaders must be empowered to make decisions on key tasks necessary to accomplish that mission in the most effective and efficient manner possible. Teams within teams are organized for maximum effectiveness for a particular mission, with leaders who have clearly delineated responsibilities. Every tactical level team leader must understand not just what to do but why they are doing it. If front-line leaders do not understand why, they must ask their boss to clarify the why.

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. Additionally, they must communicate with senior leaders to recommend decisions outside their authority and pass critical information up the chain so that senior leadership can make informed strategic decisions. Leaders are expected to figure out what needs to be done and do it — to tell higher authority what they plan to do, rather than ask “What do you want me to do?” junior leaders must be proactive rather than reactive.

To be effectively empowered to make decisions, it is imperative that front-line leaders execute with confidence. 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 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.

Determining how much leaders should be involved and where leaders can best position themselves to command and control the team is key. 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.

The effectiveness of decentralized command is critical to the success of any team in any industry. In chaotic, dynamic, and rapidly changing environments, leaders at all levels must be empowered to make decisions. Decentralized command is a key component to victory.

Principle #9: Plan

What’s the mission? Planning begins with mission analysis. Leaders must identify clear directives for the team. Once they themselves understand the mission, they can impart this knowledge to their key leaders and front-line troops tasked with executing the mission. A broad and ambiguous mission results in lack of focus, ineffective execution, and mission creep. To prevent this, the mission must be carefully refined and simplified so that it is explicitly clear and specifically focused to achieve the greater strategic vision.

The mission must explain the overall purpose and desired result, or “end state” of the operation. The front-line troops tasked with executing the mission must understand the deeper purpose behind the mission. While a simple statement, the Commander’s Intent is actually the most important part of the brief. When understood by everyone involved in the execution of the plan, it guides each decision and action.

Leaders must delegate the planning process down the chain as much as possible to key subordinate leaders. Team participation — even from the most junior personnel — is critical in developing bold, innovative solutions to problem sets. Giving the front-line team members 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.

Briefing

Once the detailed plan has been developed, it must then be briefed to the entire team and all participants and supporting elements. The planning process and briefing must be a forum that encourages discussion, questions, and clarifications from even the most junior personnel. If team members are unclear about the plan but are too intimidated to ask questions, the team’s ability to effectively execute the plan radically decreases. Thus, leaders must ask questions of their teams, encourage interaction, and ensure their teams understand the plan.

Post-Operation Debrief / Retrospective

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. It addresses the following: What went right? What went wrong? How can we adapt to make us even more effective?

Principle #10: Leading Down the Chain of Command

Leaders must routinely communicate with their team members to help them understand their role in the overall mission. The team members can then connect the dots between what they do every day and how that impacts the company’s strategic goals. This understanding helps the team members prioritize their efforts in a rapidly changing, dynamic environment. Leading down the chain of command requires regularly stepping out of the office and personally engaging face-to-face with direct reports and observing the front-line team in action to understand their particular challenges and read them into the Commander’s Intent.

Principle #11: Leading Up the Chain of Command

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.

One of the most important jobs of any leader is to support your own boss — your immediate leadership. In any chain of command the leadership must always present a united front to the troops. 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.

As leader, if you don’t understand why decisions are being made, requests denied, or support allocated elsewhere, you must ask those questions up the chain. Then, once understood, you can pass that understanding down to your team.

Don’t ask your leader what you should do, tell them what you are going to do.

Principle #12: Decisiveness Amid Uncertainty

There is no 100 percent right solution. The picture is never complete. Leaders must be comfortable with this and be able to make decisions promptly, then be ready to adjust those decisions quickly based on evolving situations and new information. 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 success and failure. Waiting for the 100 percent right and certain solution leads to delay, indecision, and in inability to execute. Leaders must be prepared to make an educated guess based on previous experience, knowledge, likely outcomes, and whatever intelligence is available in the immediate moment.

Outcomes are never certain; success never guaranteed. Business leaders must be comfortable in the chaos and act decisively amid such uncertainty.

Principle #13: The Dichotomy of Leadership

A leader must lead but also be ready to follow. Sometimes another member of the team — perhaps a subordinate or direct report — might be in a better position to develop a plan, make a decision, or lead through a specific situation. Perhaps the junior person has greater expertise in a particular area or more experience. Perhaps he or she simply thought of a better way to accomplish the mission. Good leaders must welcome this, putting aside ego and personal agendas to ensure that the team has the greatest chance of accomplishing its strategic goals. A true leader is not intimidated when others step up and take charge. Leaders that lack confidence in themselves fear being out-shined by someone else. If the team is successful, then recognition will come for those in charge, but a leader should not seek that recognition. A leader must be confident enough to follow someone else when the situation calls for it.

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 the leader appear void of any emotion at all — a robot. People do not follow robots.

Of course, a leader must be confident but not 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.

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.

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.

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 the leader cannot get sucked into the details and lose track of the bigger picture.

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.

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.

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.

Beyond this, there are countless other leadership dichotomies that must be carefully balanced. 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.