Leadership Lessons From The Former Navy SEALs Jocko Willink & Leif Babin
I am fascinated by Navy SEALs and their stories. I admire these men for what they do and, honestly, it does not take much to admit that most of my struggles I have been through in my life so far were very (and I mean VERY) far from what these soldiers go through both in training and while in combat. I hold sincere respect for them.
From what I have learned (as a spectator), if one wants to become part of the Navy SEALs elite club, he needs to excel in basically every single area of extreme performance, as well as exhibit tireless endurance and unwavering team spirit. Why? It is simple. The ultimate goal is to eliminate the room for error as much as possible because even a tiny little misjudgment or inaccuracy during the operation can be deadly.
However, It is not solely about the excruciating physical and mental exertion, leadership plays a very important role here as well. In the end of the day, motivating and leading people in the environment as intense as the battlefield, where human lives are at stake, might very easily be the most difficult task on the planet.
This post has been inspired by the book Extreme Ownership — How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win written by the duo Jocko Willink and Leif Babin mentioned above.
Right after finishing first few chapters I knew this book would go to the “must-read” category of my personal library (yes, it was not the last time I read this book) because the principles described in the book are profoundly powerful, timeless and applicable for everyone no matter the occupation and life aspirations.
Let me share with you some excerpts from the book. These notes (quoted) will include principles that I find extremely useful and that we all can immediately put in practice to become better leaders.
However, I still highly recommend you to buy and read this book (or audiobook narrated by the authors themselves!) simply because the following notes cannot capture all the details needed for the complete understanding. Moreover, it is packed with numerous examples of how these principles are applied across battlefields and business world.
There Is No One Else To Blame
The leader must own everything in his or her world. The leader is truly and ultimately responsible for everything. The leader must acknowledge mistakes and admit failures, take ownership of them, and develop a plan to win.
The leader, however, does not take credit for his or her team’s successes but bestows that honor upon his subordinate leaders and team members.
Mentorship & Performance
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. 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.
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.
In order to convince and inspire others to follow and accomplish a mission, a leader must be a true believer in the mission. Leaders must always operate with the understanding that they are part of something greater than themselves and their own personal interests. The leader must explain not just what to do, but why. 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.
Ego drives the most successful people in life — in the SEAL Teams, in the military, in the business world. They want to win, to be the best. That is good. But when ego clouds our judgment 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.
Teamwork & Communication
It’s about the mission and how best to accomplish it. All teams have to work together and support one another (not to compete against each other). If the overall team fails, everyone fails, even if a specific member or an element within the team did their job successfully.
Simplifying as much as possible is crucial to success. 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.
Prioritize & Execute
(“Relax, look around, make a call.”)
When overwhelmed, fall back upon this principle: prioritize and execute. A particularly effective means to help prioritize and execute under pressure is to stay at least a step or two ahead of real-time problems. It is crucial, particularly for leaders at the top of the organization, to “pull themselves off the firing line,” step back, and maintain the strategic picture.
Team of Teams*
Human beings are generally not capable of managing more than six to ten people, particularly when things go sideways and inevitable contingencies arise. 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.
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.
Planning & Risk Mitigation
Whether on the battlefield or in the business world, leaders must be comfortable accepting some level of risk.
Planning means never taking anything for granted, preparing for likely contingencies, and maximizing the chance of mission success while minimizing the risk to the troops executing the operation.
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 frontline troops tasked with executing the mission. The mission must explain the overall purpose and desired result, or “end state,” of the operation.
Leader has 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.
Debriefing & Chain of Command
No matter how exhausted from an operation or how busy planning for the next mission, time has to be made for a debrief because lives and future mission success depend on it.
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.
Leadership doesn’t just flow down the chain of command, but up as well. 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 as well as caution and respect.
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.
In chaotic, dynamic, and rapidly changing environments, leaders at all levels must be empowered to make decisions.
Discipline Equals Freedom
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.
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.
There are no bad teams, only bad leaders
Leaders should never be satisfied. They must always strive to improve, and they must build that mind-set into the team.
Both good and bad leadership — are contagious.
- Must lead but also be ready to follow.
- Is not intimidated when others step up and take charge.
- Must be aggressive but not overbearing.
- Must be calm but not robotic; logical but not devoid of emotions.
- Must be confident but never cocky.
- Must be brave but not foolhardy.
- Must have a competitive spirit but also be gracious losers.
- Must be attentive to details but not obsessed by them.
- Must be strong but likewise have endurance, not only physically but mentally.
- Must be humble but not passive; quiet but not silent.
- Must be close with subordinates 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.
- Has nothing to prove but everything to prove. Since the team understands that the leader is de facto in charge, in that respect, a leader has nothing to prove. But in another respect, a leader has everything to prove: every member of the team must develop the trust and confidence that their leader will exercise good judgment, remain calm, and make the right decisions when it matters most.
- Must exercise extreme ownership; simultaneously, that leader must employ decentralized command by giving control to subordinate leaders.
How to get the most out of this book
Learn more about Navy SEALs. Before I grabbed the book I did a little research about their training; I read and listened to some of their stories and watched some documentaries and movies. Later, when reading the book, I was eager to absorb every single piece of information. It might not be necessary but the following tips could help you to enjoy this book even more.
- Listen to the podcast where Tim Ferriss interviews Jocko Willink, one of the authors of the book. (I definitely recommend this podcast especially if you are going through difficult times. It is intense and extremely inspirational!)
- Watch some videos about BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training such as this one on YouTube.com.
- If you like documentary movies, Navy SEALs Untold Stories is worth watching.
- The movie Lone Survivor (based on a true story) is one of those movies you should watch as well.
Full credit goes to the authors of the book Extreme Ownership — How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. Thank you for the great work and inspiration!
I hope this article will serve you well.