Extreme Ownership: How “Navy Seals Rule and Win”

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Authors: Jocko Willink, Leif Babin

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win Jocko Willink, Leif Babin 2015

Extreme Ownership
Extreme Ownership

What do SEALs have to do with leadership? (Extreme Ownership)

Authors: Joko Willink, Leif Babin 

Extreme Ownership: Joko Willink and Leif Babin are military men. They served in the elite parts of the US Army – in the special forces of the Navy. We often see “seals” in the movies, but not everyone knows that these units are really the best in the American army. They undergo incredibly complex training, the purpose of which is to bring the moral and physical stress of the candidates to the limit, to force them to push the boundaries of what they considered possible. Of the hundred candidates, only twenty are trained to the end and receive the title of special forces soldier.

In hot spots like Iraq, special forces serve side by side with soldiers from other parts of the army, but it is the special forces who are always at the forefront of any most dangerous attack, carry out the most difficult missions, always remaining at the epicenter of hostilities. Considering what high expectations are placed on the special forces and what danger awaits them every second, these fighters, like no one else, understand the meaning of the words “discipline”, “duty”, and “team”.

Joko Willink served as a Special Forces Battle Group Captain in Iraq and Leif Babin was one of his officers and was under his direct command. After returning from Iraq, they decided to use the experience gained during the service. The two military men now train in the US and other countries, attend TED conferences, and develop customized leadership programs for corporate clients.

Over time, the experience of coaching helped Joko and Leif write a book that was clear and concise in a military way. You don’t wish anyone to learn leadership from the school that the SEALs went through, but it’s priceless to take advantage of this experience. 

internal fight

Principle 1. The leader always bears full responsibility for everything that happens in his team. 

Once in battle, a detachment of special forces led by Joko was supposed to join the shelling of a building that had already begun, in which, according to intelligence, there were terrorists. But during the battle it turned out that there were other American soldiers in the building. At that time, one of the allied Iraqi soldiers had already been killed, and one American was wounded. 

Extreme Ownership

Such episodes in the army are always carefully analyzed so that tragic mistakes are not repeated. During a briefing on this analysis, Joko asked his subordinates: who is to blame for the fact that the soldiers began shelling the building without making sure who was inside? Many of his subordinates were ready to take the blame: one said that he should have consulted the map better, another that he should have contacted his comrades on the radio and clarified which building they were in before starting the shelling. Joko listened to everyone, and then said that in fact, all the blame lies entirely with him as a senior in rank. 

Extreme Ownership

A bad market, the intrigues of competitors, and the mistakes of subordinates cannot be excused. The first can be taken into account when planning, the second can be foreseen, and the third can be prevented, and only one person is responsible for all this – the leader. No leader will be truly successful until they understand and accept this basic truth. Accordingly, if there are weak links in the team, the task of reaching them to the general level also lies with the leader. 

Principle 2. There are no bad teams, there are bad leaders. 

During the training of future special forces soldiers on a field mission, they are divided into teams and forced to overcome incredibly difficult obstacle courses. Part of the test takes place on the water, so each team must carry an army boat in which all the fighters are placed. At such a training, where Joko was invited as an observer, he noticed that one team in all tests is the strongest, while the other almost always finishes last. At the same time, a strong team acted harmoniously and amicably, while disagreements reigned in a weak one, the leader was dissatisfied with his comrades, and they blamed him for failures. 

Extreme Ownership

The coaches have almost made the decision that the weak team in its entirety will be recognized as the loser and none of its members will become a special forces fighter. But Joko advised the coaches not to rush. On his recommendation, the leaders of the two teams were reversed: the leader of the lagging team was now the leader of the one that always went ahead, and vice versa. To the surprise of the coaches, the situation began to change almost immediately. The lagging team, inspired by the new leader, began to show all the best results. The point was that its new leader did not consider the team to be lagging behind. He set a new standard for people and began to demand better results from them, not settling for less. At the same time, the leading team, despite the change in leadership, continued to produce good results, as they got used to it. So the team that was always ahead

Extreme Ownership

The leader’s job is to set the standards that will enable the team to succeed. If a leader is willing to tolerate average or poor task performance, the team will not strive for the best. If he begins to demand only high standards of task performance and does not compromise, then the culture of such high standards will be instilled in the team and will not disappear even with a change of leader or in the event of his temporary absence.

Principle 3. To lead successfully, a leader must believe in what he is doing. 

The longer Joko and his unit were in Iraq, the more often the military command demanded that the Iraqi military be involved in combat operations. At first, these requirements could be circumvented, citing the danger or complexity of the mission, but then the command simply stopped giving the green light to the operation if Joko did not indicate how many Iraqi contingents would participate in it. 

Extreme Ownership

Iraqi soldiers, poorly trained, poorly equipped and undisciplined, of course, could not compare with the special forces soldiers. Their participation in operations complicated the matter. The special forces had to monitor their safety, cover and help them, which put the SEALs at even greater risk. Joko did not understand the meaning of the instructions from the command and even believed that the authorities, located far from the theater of operations, were making absurd demands. His irritation was transferred to the fighters of his unit, they began to express dissatisfaction more and more openly. This made Joko think. After some thought, he realized that the command was unlikely to issue stupid orders designed to expose American soldiers to undue risk. So there must be a reason. And soon he understood her. 

Extreme Ownership

As long as Iraqi soldiers remain inexperienced, unable to defend themselves and civilians, American soldiers will have to help them. The presence of American troops in Iraq will be prolonged, American lives will always be in danger. Therefore, the military command has set itself a strategic goal: by involving Iraqi soldiers in American-led military operations, to teach and train them, in order to eventually be able to withdraw American troops from Iraq and leave the Iraqis themselves to maintain order in their country. Having understood these motives, Joko conveyed them to all his subordinates, was able to stop their dissatisfaction and make them willingly cooperate with the Iraqis.

Extreme Ownership

The uncertainty of the leader and his doubts about the usefulness and expediency of the mission are transferred to subordinates. If the leader does not understand the order of the higher authorities and thus cannot give sufficient explanations to his subordinates, his goal is to figure it out. If he does not succeed on his own, you must seek clarification from the leadership. One should not be afraid to ask and demand explanations from the management: if the leader himself does not believe in the task assigned to him, he will not be able to explain it to his subordinates and achieve its successful completion.

Principle 4. Ego destroys everything around. The hardest thing to deal with is your own ego. 

SEALs occupy a privileged position in the US military, have access to the most advanced technology, they are entrusted with secret missions. They are more free in their choice of clothing and can wear their hair longer than the rest of the military. Therefore, soldiers from other units are not always willing to interact with the special forces, considering them arrogant and arrogant. Knowing this, Joko was especially careful when his unit lived in the same camp and constantly interacted with the soldiers of the parachute regiment. Thanks to conscious effort and the culture of respect for brothers-in-arms that Joko instilled in his soldiers, camaraderie developed between the military, more than once helping them out in battle. 

Extreme Ownership

But soon another special forces unit arrived at the camp. These fighters behaved in a completely different way – arrogant and destructive. They did not communicate their plans, claiming they were on secret missions, and made no effort to establish contact with other military personnel. It was obvious that they were only interested in their own military glory, and not in the common cause. As a result, the colonel of the parachute troops was forced to ask this special forces unit to leave the camp. 

Extreme Ownership

A real leader must be confident in himself, his competence, and his ability to lead, but this confidence should not develop into arrogance. The only way to avoid this is to constantly set new goals for yourself, not allow yourself to be satisfied with the result, and demand more from yourself. A good leader always notes the merits of subordinates but does not forget that their mistakes and shortcomings are his responsibility. Humility and extreme responsibility are the best ways to fight the ego.

Teamwork

Principle 5. The task of the leader is to get the team working. But he also shouldn’t lose perspective.

The detachment of Leif Babin was surrounded in one of the buildings of Ramadi. Other detachments were far away and could not help, and communication with the command was interrupted. Leif could only contact one detachment, which was in relative proximity. Standard protocol in such a situation was to wait for darkness in the shelter, and then try to break out of the encirclement and return to the camp. But Leif understood: the longer the detachment was surrounded, the more time the enemy had to take a comfortable position, reconnoiter the territory and pull even more forces to the building. The American soldiers could only wait. The situation became more dangerous with every minute. But breaking through the environment alone, without communication and support, was risky. In the end, Leif had to choose the least bad option. His fighters prepared for a breakthrough. The enemy obviously did not expect this, and,

Extreme Ownership

At the camp, instead of being praised for his bravery, Leif was reproached by his superior, Joko. Leif put his squad at more risk than he could. Instead of coordinating with the other squad and asking for their support, Leif acted alone. After analyzing the situation, Leif agreed with Joko. He was focused on determining the course of action for his squad, and did not even consider that there were other options outside of his building and his field of vision.

Extreme Ownership

The leader must understand that his unit does not perform a special task, but acts for the benefit of the entire company. Therefore, no matter how well one department works, if the company does not achieve success, this is a general failure, including a successful department. The leader must take care to establish not only internal but also external relations, to effectively interact with other departments or companies. You also need to be ready not only to accept help but also to provide it.

Principle 6. Complex, ambitious and intricate plans hinder success. Plans should be simple

Having freed part of the war-torn Ramadi from terrorists, American troops built a camp and began to guard the liberated territory. The strategy of the Americans was to, having gained a foothold in the liberated part, gradually continue to recapture the city, street by street. For reconnaissance of the territory outside the camp, patrols were organized from the fighters of the regular army units, who were accompanied by snipers and fur seals. 

Extreme Ownership

One such patrol was to be led by a young officer who had recently arrived in Iraq. Before leaving the camp, he showed Joko a map of the area that the patrol was supposed to pass through. It occupied several kilometers and partially went beyond the borders of the sector controlled by the camp. The officer intended to contact other parts of the army responsible for neighboring areas of the city, he planned to involve helicopters and heavy equipment. 

Extreme Ownership

Joko barely convinced the officer to simplify the plan and limit the area to a few hundred meters around the camp, abandon helicopters and not go beyond the boundaries of the sector. He was sure that the patrol would be attacked, because the terrorists, losing territory, continued to fight fiercely. Joko was right. 12 minutes after leaving the camp, the patrol came under fire, two soldiers were wounded, and a tank had to be sent to evacuate them. If they had gone further from the camp, help might not have had time to reach them.

Extreme Ownership

If the plan is simple, it is understandable to every performer and will be executed faster and better than a plan with many unknowns. The task of the leader in planning is to make sure that each member of the team understands his task, as well as the common goal.

Principle 7. A leader must be able to prioritize tasks

The detachment of Leif Babin was in an ambush – the only way out of the building was under fire. Then Leif decided to break through the wall, which adjoined the roof of a neighboring house. On the roof you had to reach the end of the street and go down. Armored vehicles were already called there for evacuation. Leaving the building, the Americans decided to mine it. 

Extreme Ownership

The operation has begun. First they broke through the wall. The soldiers, one at a time, began to jump through the opening to the roof, while the sappers mined the building. However, it turned out that the roof boards were rotten, the roof collapsed under the first soldier, and he fell. Leif had to solve several critical tasks at once. 

Extreme Ownership

The first is to get all your people out of the building. The second is to understand how seriously the soldier who fell down was injured, and how to save him. The third was to secure the rest of the soldiers on the roof: they could become a target for terrorists at any moment. And the fourth – do not forget that the countdown has already started in the mined building. 

Extreme Ownership

Leif was helped by months of training and the principle that Joko never tired of instilling in his subordinates: highlight the main thing and do it, then move on to the next one. Leif realized that now the main thing is to ensure the safety of people on the roof. He ordered to organize cover with the help of snipers. Then Leif found out that the soldier who had fallen down fell on his satchel and was not hurt. Together they managed to lift him up. Next, Leif made sure that all the fighters left the mined building. After that, everyone moved forward, testing the roof for strength, descended safely and were at a safe distance just at the moment when the explosion thundered.

Extreme Ownership

Each team faces many tasks at any given time, it is impossible to perform them all at the same time. The leader must prioritize and require his team to complete one task before moving on to the next. The task of the leader is to set priorities correctly and change their order when necessary.

Principle 8. A person can effectively manage no more than 6-8 people. When leading a large team, it is very important for a leader to distribute leadership down the chain.

Leif’s detachment was to take up position in one of the buildings in Ramadi and fire from there. But when the fighters made their way into the building, it turned out that the view from it was much worse than it looked on the map. Therefore, Leif made the decision to move to another building and informed Joko about it. Joko trusted his men and didn’t feel the need to check their every move. He took Leif’s information to heart and continued to oversee the progress of the operation. At this time, a message was received from another military unit: they noticed snipers on a roof near Leif. The commander of the operation was going to give the green light to shelling the building. But Joko had doubts. He knew that his people were nearby. He also knew that it was very difficult to navigate in a bombed-out city: there were no street signs and other landmarks, and it was easy to confuse houses. Joko insisted on checking, and it turned out that the Americans almost fired at the very building in which Leif and his detachment were located. It was possible to prevent a fatal mistake, because Joko watched the progress of the entire operation and was not focused only on leading his people. 

Extreme Ownership

A person who is able to make decisions himself, without consulting each time with a higher manager, should be responsible for each unit. Lower-level leaders should have the competence and authority not to ask management what to do, but only to inform them of their decisions. A leader who does not spend time micromanaging and not double-checking the decisions of each subordinate can focus on strategic tasks, coordination, and planning of global processes. Therefore, the task of the leader is to educate and grow such junior leaders whom he can trust.

Consolidate success

Principle 9: Careful planning is essential at the strategic and tactical level

Joko’s unit was tasked with rescuing a hostage. The operation was carefully planned. The SEALs studied the building and terrain plans, prepared a withdrawal plan, discussed cover from other units, provided for all possible contingencies, and received approval from higher authorities. They were about to leave the camp when they received new information: according to updated intelligence, camouflaged heavy guns were hidden in the courtyard of the house. After receiving this information, Joko did not change the plan. The operation was started on time and completed successfully. The attack of the American troops was swift and unexpected, the enemy did not have time to resist. Subsequently, it turned out that the information about the hidden guns was not confirmed.After becoming a teacher, Joko suggested that future SEALs consider this situation and asked what they would do. Most were in favor of changing the plan of the operation or canceling it – in their opinion, the risk was too great. Then Joko suggested that they think about how to change the plan to take into account new information about hidden weapons. After a little thought, all the students replied that the plan was based on the surprise factor and there was nothing to change in it.

Extreme Ownership

What does successful planning consist of: 

  • Task analysis. The leader must understand what exactly his unit has to accomplish, what is the criterion for success, and how the task fits into the overall strategy.
  • Resource analysis. You need to find out what personnel should be involved in the task, how many people will be needed, and what other resources need to be found.
  • Delegation. The leader himself must outline the stages of the task, and then transfer the planning of these stages to other managers and performers down the chain.
  • Determining the course of action. It is necessary to listen to the plans of all subordinates, adjust if necessary and coordinate their implementation. Preference should be given to the simplest and most obvious procedure.
  • Risk accounting. Analyze the plan in terms of possible risks. Determine ways to reduce them.
  • Briefing. Hold a general meeting with all participants. Answer all questions, and ask questions to the participants to make sure they understand the general goal and the specific tasks that each of them faces.
  • Debriefing. After completing the actions envisaged by the plan, it is imperative to take stock and draw conclusions for the future.

It is important that the planning process becomes routine, that all team members get used to it and always follow it, then it will bring real value to the cause.

Principle 10: Leadership is a two-way process

Returning to America after completing his mission in Iraq, Leif faced what he least expected: criticism. Many of the military, who did not leave the country, the media, the higher authorities believed that many mistakes were made and the mission was not so successful. Leif was outraged by this criticism, but did not know how to respond to it. He came to Joko for an answer. Joko showed him a map of the territories in Iraq occupied by terrorists before and after the arrival of Joko’s unit. Doubts disappeared: the difference was obvious. Leif was amazed that he hadn’t seen this before. He realized what the mistake was: Leif followed orders, often without thinking about their strategic significance. Joko was also surprised: what seemed obvious to him was incomprehensible to Leif, his direct subordinate, who had gone through the entire mission side by side with him.

Extreme Ownership

The leader must direct his subordinates, set tasks for them, and explain the meaning of their implementation. However, the leader, who has more information than his subordinates, does not always understand the degree of their awareness and involvement. Therefore, subordinates, in turn, must guide their leader: ask him questions, and ask for clarification of the strategic meaning of the tasks, if he is not clear to them. The leader must build relationships in the team so that this dialogue is constant and does not cause inconvenience to either side.

Principle 11. A leader should seek to obtain as much information as possible before making decisions.

The sniper informed Leif that he saw a man with a sniper weapon in the window of a nearby building. If this is an enemy, then the threat is serious. The senior officer, having received this information, demanded to immediately remove the enemy shooter. But the American sniper hesitated. It was difficult to navigate in the city engulfed in battles; it is possible that the building was occupied by American soldiers. Despite the officer’s insistence, the sniper decided not to shoot, and Leif supported his subordinate. As a result of the check, it turned out that the sniper could really shoot his own – the silhouette he saw in the window turned out to be an American military man. The sniper, despite the pressure, decided not to take action until he received more accurate information.

It is important to understand that neither in war nor in business is there almost never 100% awareness. Therefore, the leader must be decisive and take justified risks when information is not available.

Principle 12. In business, it would never occur to anyone to demand military discipline from people.

When the American military operation in Iraq had just begun, many processes and procedures were not established. For example, there were no specialists who would collect evidence at the place where the criminals were captured. This was done by regular soldiers. That is, after carrying out an operation to capture terrorists in some building, the soldiers, as best they could, turned the building upside down to find traces of explosives and other evidence. However, it soon became clear that this was not the way to go. The courts began to impose stricter requirements for evidence, moreover, with such a rough method, part of the evidence was lost – sometimes after the operation, it was impossible to establish where they were found. 

Joko tasked one of his officers with developing a more efficient method. He spent a lot of time and effort, but in the end, he coped with the task. He suggested collecting evidence in special bags, pointing to room numbers on them. After a search of each room, a cross had to be put on the door. The officer also came up with packages that could be hung around the necks of suspects if the evidence was found in the same room with them. All members of the Joko units, after a series of training sessions, learned to search buildings, and find and document all the evidence in an average of ten minutes.

In a similar way, Joko taught his soldiers to perform other actions. The soldiers brought to automatism all typical operations: from collecting a backpack to counting the soldiers to determine if everything was in place. Such discipline did not turn people into robots, on the contrary: it gave them the opportunity to devote attention and time to more important things, such as monitoring the actions of the enemy.

A leader must understand that a certain degree of discipline is essential in any team that wants to succeed. If you spend a minimum of time on routine, repetitive actions, you can focus on strategy and achieving new goals. The task of the manager is to identify the routine and develop effective mechanisms for performing such tasks (or assign it to competent employees) and steadily ensure that these mechanisms work.

10 qualities of a good leader

Joko and Leif have passed one of the most difficult tests that a person gets: the test of war. They spent half a year in Iraq, at the epicenter of fierce fighting, they saw death, and they survived the death of their comrades. All the theses they put forward are supported by their harsh and dangerous experience. And their main conclusion regarding leadership can be formulated as follows: a leader is a person who must constantly seek a balance between contradictory and sometimes opposite things, without going to extremes and staying one step ahead of others. 

The leader must:

  • be self-confident, but not arrogant and not arrogant;
  • act decisively, but not recklessly;
  • strive to win, but be able to lose;
  • be attentive to details, but do not allow yourself to sink into them and lose perspective;
  • have the power and authority to lead, but be willing to subordinate your ego to the needs of the task and the team;
  • be modest, not stick out your own achievements, but be able to defend the interests of the team and not let the successes of the team sink into obscurity;
  • strictly demand discipline, but do not strangle subordinates with authoritarianism;
  • be able to improve relations in the team, but avoid familiarity and keep a distance with subordinates so that his personal sympathies and preferences do not affect the work;
  • act in the interests of the team, but be able to determine when one of its members becomes an obstacle to achieving a common goal, and resolutely refuse such people;
  • take extreme responsibility for everything that happens in his team, but not be afraid to delegate tasks.
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