Extreme Ownership

Extreme Ownership Book Cover Extreme Ownership
Jocko Willink, Leif Babin,
Biography & Autobiography
November 21, 2017

Solid, quick read. Solid leadership framework. This is a good foundational approach. Take a topic, practice it, learn. Rinse. Repeat.

Laws of Combat that Jocko had taught us:
Cover and Move,
Prioritize and Execute, and
Decentralized Command.

The Laws of Combat were the key to not just surviving

But without a team—a group of individuals working to accomplish a mission—there can be no leadership. The only meaningful measure for a leader is whether the team succeeds or fails.

Effective leaders lead successful teams that accomplish their mission and win. Ineffective leaders do not.

The best leaders are not driven by ego or personal agendas. They are simply focused on the mission and how best to accomplish it.

By leadership, we do not mean just the senior commanders at the top, but the crucial leaders at every level of the team—the senior enlisted leaders, the fire team leaders in charge of four people, the squad leaders in charge of eight, and the junior petty officers that stepped up, took charge, and led.

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.

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.

“You can’t make people listen to you. You can’t make them execute. That might be a temporary solution for a simple task. But to implement real change, to drive people to accomplish something truly complex or difficult or dangerous—you can’t make people do those things. You have to lead them.”

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

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 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.

Leaders should never be satisfied. They must always strive to improve, and they must build that mind-set into the team.

“There are only two types of leaders: effective and ineffective. Effective leaders that lead successful, high-performance teams exhibit Extreme Ownership. Anything else is simply ineffective. Anything else is bad leadership.”

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.

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.

Discipline created vigilance and operational readiness, which translated to high performance and success on the battlefield.

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 when ego clouds our judgment and prevents us from seeing the world as it is, then ego becomes destructive.

Cover and Move: it is the most fundamental tactic, perhaps the only tactic. Put simply, Cover and Move means 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, the results can be catastrophic to the overall team’s performance.

Combat, like anything in life, has inherent layers of complexities. 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.

Amid the noise, mayhem, and uncertainty of the outcome, we had practiced the ability to remain calm, step back from the situation mentally, assess the scenario, decide what had to be done, and make a call. We had learned to Prioritize and Execute. This process was not intuitive to most people but could be learned, built upon, and greatly enhanced through many iterations of training.

SEAL combat leaders utilize Prioritize and Execute. We verbalize this principle with this direction: “Relax, look around, make a call.”

Through careful contingency planning, a leader can anticipate likely challenges that could arise during execution and map out an effective response to those challenges before they happen. That leader and his or her team are far more likely to win. Staying ahead of the curve prevents a leader from being overwhelmed when pressure is applied and enables greater decisiveness.

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.

Prioritize your problems and take care of them one at a time, the highest priority first. Don’t try to do everything at once or you won’t be successful.”

Pushing the decision making down to the subordinate, frontline leaders within the task unit was critical to our success. This Decentralized Command structure allowed me, as the commander, to maintain focus on the bigger picture: coordinate friendly assets and monitor enemy activity. Were I to get embroiled in the details of a tactical problem, there would be no one else to fill my role and manage the strategic mission.

So, we divided into small teams of four to six SEALs, a manageable size for a leader to control. Each platoon commander didn’t worry about controlling all sixteen SEAL operators assigned, only three: his squad leaders and his platoon chief. Each platoon chief and leading petty officer only had to control their fire team leaders, who each controlled four SEAL shooters. And I only had to control two people—my two platoon commanders.

My job was to provide command and control to coordinate between my SEAL sniper overwatch teams from Charlie and Delta Platoons and the U.S. Army and Marine Corps units.

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.

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.

Tactical leaders must be confident that they clearly understand the strategic mission and Commander’s Intent.

“The SEAL Teams and the U.S. military, much like militaries throughout history, are based around building blocks of four-to-six-man teams with a leader. We call them ‘fire teams.’ That is the ideal number for a leader to lead. Beyond that, any leader can lose control as soon as even minimal pressure is applied to the team when inevitable challenges arise.”

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 for which that mission is a part.

The mission must explain the overall purpose and desired result, or “end state,” of the operation.

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 on the ground.

Different courses of action must be explored on how best to accomplish the mission—with the manpower, resources, and supporting assets available. Once a course of action is determined, further planning requires detailed information gathering in order to facilitate the development of a thorough plan. It is critical to utilize all assets and lean on the expertise of those in the best position to provide the most accurate and up-to-date information.

Once the detailed plan has been developed, it must then be briefed to the entire team and all participants and supporting elements.

Leaders must carefully prioritize the information to be presented in as simple, clear, and concise a format as possible so that participants do not experience information overload. The planning process and briefing must be a forum that encourages discussion, questions, and clarification from even the most junior personnel.

They will understand contingencies—likely challenges that might arise and how to respond. The test for a successful brief is simple: Do the team and the supporting elements understand it?

The plan must mitigate identified risks where possible.

A good plan must enable the highest chance of mission success while mitigating as much risk as possible. There are some risks that simply cannot be mitigated, and leaders must instead focus on those risks that actually can be controlled. Detailed contingency plans help manage risk because everyone involved in the direct execution (or in support) of the operation understands what to do when obstacles arise or things go wrong.

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.

The best SEAL units, after each combat operation, conduct what we called a “post-operational debrief.”

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? Such self-examination allows SEAL units to reevaluate, enhance, and refine what worked and what didn’t so that they can constantly improve.

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.

“The true test for a good brief,” Jocko continued, “is not whether the senior officers are impressed. It’s whether or not the troops that are going to execute the operation actually understand it. Everything else is bullshit.

“We are here. We are on the ground. We need to push situational awareness up the chain,” Jocko said. “If they have questions, it is our fault for not properly communicating the information they need. We have to lead them.”

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.

The more disciplined standard operating procedures (SOPs) a team employs, the more freedom they have to practice Decentralized Command (chapter 8) and thus they can execute faster, sharper, and more efficiently. Just as an individual excels when he or she exercises self-discipline, a unit that has tighter and more-disciplined procedures and processes will excel and win.

We standardized the way we loaded vehicles. We standardized the way we mustered in a building on a target. We standardized the way we “broke out” (or exited) from buildings. We standardized the way we got head counts to ensure we had all of our troops. We even standardized our radio voice procedures so that the most important information could be communicated quickly and clearly to the whole troop without confusion. There was a disciplined methodology to just about everything we did.

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. When we wanted to mix and match fire teams, squads, and even platoons, we could do so with ease since each element operated with the same fundamental procedures. Last, and perhaps most important, when things went wrong and the fog of war set in, we fell back on our disciplined procedures to carry us through the toughest challenges on the battlefield.

In that, lies the dichotomy: discipline—strict order, regimen, and control—might appear to be the opposite of total freedom—the power to act, speak, or think without any restrictions. But, in fact, discipline is the pathway to freedom.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A good leader has nothing to prove, but everything to prove.