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Published February 23, 2020 Updated September 4, 2021
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Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

At the end of last year, my mom handed me this book, Extreme Ownership, to read. Not being a fan of warfare, I was skeptical of how the advice of Navy SEALs might apply to my life as a software engineer. To my surprise, I got a lot out of the book in terms of what it means to be a leader and how to inspire leadership in others. I’m still not a fan of combat, nor do I understand the joy taken from combat that this book sometimes contains, but I enjoyed the discipline with which SEALs practice their craft. If you spend any time on this site, you’ll see us often discussing lazy practices that have become engrained in the software engineering industry. I’m not talking about smart lazy — where you work smarter rather than harder — but practices that actually encourage shoddy code and neglect. Reading this book boosted my spirits, reminding me that there are people who care about discipline and quality, and gave me more of ideological foundation from which to change myself and others around me. Extreme Ownership speaks directly to Mission of this site.

Each chapter is comprised of three sections:

  • Real-life experiences and anecdotes from the lives of Navy Seals.

  • Principles learned from the above experience.

  • Examples of how such Navy Seal wisdom can be applied to business.

The following is a capture of notes and thoughts on a chapter-by-chapter basis. Please note: I’m not encouraging bypassing a complete read of the book. These notes are instead a distillation of ideas I found important to share and talk about. The supplemental real-life and business stories shared in the book that support these ideas are still worth reading yourself in order to build your own conclusions.

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.

Winning teams and organizations, the book argues, are primarily headed by leaders who practice Extreme Ownership, meaning they:

  • Take complete responsibility for defining and explaining the strategic mission.

  • Develop tactics and best practices to support the team and mission.

  • Acquire any additional training and/or resources to augment the team as necessary.

  • Get people to listen, plan, execute, and support the mission.

  • Avoid blaming others, the situation, and anything else that might distract from directing the fault back to the leader.

When dealing with insubordination and/or underperformers on the team, it’s the sole responsibility of the leader to correct behavior as soon as possible. Correcting errant and/or bad behavior starts with a performance improvement plan that documents the steps for improvement. Briefly this means:

  • Recording the date/time of the bad behavior along with any supporting documentation, screenshots, etc.

  • Explaining the steps necessary for improvement.

  • Defining a time when the above steps should be met.

  • Scheduling checkups and documenting all improvements or lack of progress.

  • After three attempts of not seeing improvements, the leader must make the difficult call of letting the person go. This should always be handled with grace, care, and without malice.

  • A leader must not falter or delay as the heath of the team and health of the company are at risk -- Any toxicity, once detected, must be dealt with quickly.

Total responsibility for failure is a difficult thing to accept, and taking ownership when things go wrong requires extraordinary humility and courage. But doing just that is an absolute necessity to learning, growing as a leader, and improving a team’s performance.

Even though it can sting to throw yourself under the bus, don’t forget that your transparency and honesty communicates to the rest of the team that it’s OK to fail as long as you learn from mistakes.

Extreme Ownership requires leaders to look at an organization’s problems through the objective lens of reality, without emotional attachments to agendas or plans. It 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 [their] 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. With Extreme Ownership, junior leaders take charge of their smaller teams and their piece of the mission. Efficiency and effectiveness increase exponentially and a high-performance, winning team is the result.

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. Therefor, 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.

It’s much easier to let things slide but is a slippery slope. Be diligent and don’t let laziness be the slow corruption that kills the frog in the pot.

Once a culture of Extreme Ownership is built into the team at every level, the entire team performs well, and performance continues to improve, even when a strong leader is temporarily removed from the team. Life can those any number of circumstances in the way of any business or team, and every team must have junior leaders ready to step up and temporarily take on the roles and responsibilities of their immediate bosses to carry on the team’s mission and get the job done if and when the need arises.

Something I take seriously is being able to work myself out of a job. Nothing says a job well done than knowing you left the team better off than before you joined the team.

Leaders should never be satisfied. They must always strive to improve, and they must build that mind-set into the team. They must face the 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, like the SEAL Teams, 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 Extreme Ownership and enables leaders to build high-performance teams that dominate on any battlefield, literal or figurative.

This is the essence and eternal quest for perfection in a nutsell. Perfection is mortally impossible to attain but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stop trying.

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.

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.

This can be challenging, though, when those above you don’t believe or can’t even communicate the mission. This is usually a warning sign of waning stability in the company, though, and time for you to move on. Otherwise, understanding the goals is extremely important to impart onto others.

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 down to the tactical-level operators on the ground.

Good communication (written and oral) is rare in the software engineering industry and can’t be emphasized enough how important it is to constantly practice and grow this skill.

In many cases, the leader must align [their] thoughts and vision to that of the mission. Once a leader believes in the mission, that belief shines through to those below and above the chain of command.

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.

The spotlight is always on, so must you be too.

Every leader must be able to detach from the immediate tactical mission and understand how it fits into the strategic goals. When leaders receive an order that they themselves question and do not understand, they must ask the question: why?

If you don’t understand or believe in the decisions coming down from your leadership, it is up to you to ask questions until you understand how and why those decisions are being made. Not knowing the why prohibits you from believing in the mission. When you are in a leadership position, that is a recipe for failure, and it is unacceptable. As a leader, you must believe.

Leadership requires courage by being able to ask questions that might feel stupid in pursuit of understanding the why. You must understand, believe, and be able to explain that to others. Don’t ever shy away from understanding everything even if it might temporarly paint you in a bad light.

Check the Ego

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

Implementing Extreme Ownership requires checking your ego and operating with a high degree of humility. 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.

Reinforces what was captured in the Extreme Ownership chapter.

It’s natural for anyone in a leadership position to blame subordinate leaders and direct reports when something goes wrong. Our egos don’t like to take blame. But it’s on us as leaders to see where we failed to communicate effectively and help our troops clearly understand what their roles and responsibilities are and how their actions impact the bigger strategic picture.

When people starting pointing the finger at others, take note as this is a warning sign that there are cracks in character and even team culture.

Cover and Move

Also known as teamwork.

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.

I see this more often than I’d like to admit. You can tear down these walls by working hard to disseminate this knowledge via documentation, pairing with others, sharing via brown bag lunches, etc. The payoff is worth the effort in empowering others to move swiftly and with improved knowledge.

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.

Simple

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 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 ensure the lowest common denominator on the team understands.

It is critical, as well, that the operating relationship facilitate the ability of the frontline 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.

Simple is not lazy. Simple is crafting the complex into something that is easy to understand and execute. This applies to communication and code as well.

Prioritize and Execute

To prioritize and execute, a leader must do the following:

  • 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.

In addition to the above, it’s worth mentioning Getting Things Done by David Allen and the corresponding OmniFocus software which supports these principals.

Decentralized Command

The proper understanding and utilization of Decentralized Command takes time and effort to perfect. For any leader, placing full faith and trust in junior leaders with less experience and allowing them to manage their teams is a difficult thing to embrace. It requires tremendous trust and confidence in those frontline leaders, who must very clearly understand the strategic mission and ensure that their immediate tactical decisions ultimately contribute to accomplishing the overarching goals. Frontline leaders must also have trust and confidence in their senior leaders to know that they are empowered to make decisions and that their senior leaders will back them up.

It is one of the most complex strategies to pull off correctly.

As a leader, it takes strength to let go. It takes faith and trust in subordinate, frontline leaders and their abilities. Most of all, it requires trust up and down the chain of command: trust that subordinates will do the right thing; trust that superiors will support subordinates if they are acting in accordance with the mission statement and Commander’s Intent.

Open conversations build trust. Overcoming stress and challenging environments builds trust. Working through emergencies and seeing how people react builds trust.

Trust is vital for a high functioning team but takes time to build and maintain as it can dissipate faster than the time it took to acquire it.

Plan

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 missing. 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.

In software engineering, the kickoff/planning phase is just as vital as actual implementation work (maybe more so).

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.

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. Often business teams claim there isn’t time for such analysis. But one must make time.

Retrospectives and one-on-ones are very powerful. It’s not enough to have them but also constantly be folding the action items from these discussions back into the habits and team culture.

Leading Up and Down the Chain of Command

Even when a leader thinks [their] troops understand the bigger picture, they very often have difficulty connecting the dots between the tactical mission they are immersed in with the greater overarching goal.

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.

Put another way, this is a toxicity warning sign. Be quick to address it.

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.

Not doing this breeds disconnent. Even if you fought valiantly for the opposing argument and are outvoted, you have to own the new directive.

The major factors to be aware of when leading up and down the chain of command are these:

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

  • If someone isn’t doing what you want or need them to do, look in the mirror first and determine what you can do to better enable this.

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

Hanlon’s Razor - Remember this cuts both ways via those above and below you. Don’t blame leaders or your subordinates. Instead, consider holding up a mirror and reflecting you own actions and transgressions — What is it that you can change about yourself and not the people above or below you?

Communication and education is key. With those above you, it’ll take tact and finesse to educate without coming off as insubordinate. With those below you, it’s about connecting the dots with the goals to the tasks they are responsible for.

Decisiveness and Uncertainty

In order to succeed, leaders must be comfortable under pressure, and act on logic, not emotion.

Again, avoid emotion and emphasize analytical thinking.

As a leader, you’ll often not have all of the information necessary to make a decision. The best course of action is to act on what you do have, along with past knowledge/experience, and adjust accordingly as new information surfaces. Being indecisive could cost the team more in the long run rather than immediately resolving the problem.

The Dichotomy of Leadership

Discipline equals freedom.

So true and what it means to be an alchemist and part of this collective.

A true leader is not intimidated when others step up and take charge.

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 a 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.