Extreme Ownership

Recently, I read the book Extreme Ownership written by Jacko Willink and Leif Babin.   I have read hundreds books on business and leadership and I would put this one in the top 10.  While some of the lessons in this book are not completely new, the emotion of the stories shared makes the authors' 12 principles come alive.   After reading this book I felt I needed to conduct a careful assessment of my leadership style to evaluate whether I was committed to extreme ownership.    I am not convinced that I have always owned everything in my world, specifically their principle of leading up the chain of command. 

The book outlines lessons the authors learned as U.S. Navy Seals before, during, and after the Iraq war.   Since leaving the military, Jacko and Leif founded a consulting company named Echelon and have helped business leaders apply leadership principles in the corporate world.   Each chapter outlines one principle and is illustrated by two stories; a first story based on their time as Navy Seals, and a second story from their business consulting practice.    

In the book, Jack and Leif say, "The only meaningful measure of a leader is whether the team succeeds or fails."  They also say "military personnel must believe in the plan they are being asked to execute and must believe in the leader they are asked to follow.   This is because they are putting their lives at risk."   While corporate teams don't put their lives at risk, a belief in their mission and leader is key to a team's success.   Below are the 12 leadership principles from Extreme Ownership.

 The leader must own everything in his or her world

 In this chapter, Jacko had to take ownership for a mission that ended in blue on blue (friendly fire).   While many people on his team and supporting team had made mistakes, Jacko learned that as the leader he ultimately has responsibility for the success or failure of his team.   In the corporate world, as in the battlefield, taking extreme ownership eliminates excuses and paves the way for success.


There are no bad teams only bad leaders 

This principle was illustrated when the leader of the best performing team and the leader of the worst performing team were switched during BUD/S (Navy Seal) training.   The high performing leader focused on the big picture while he focused his team on getting to the next milestone.   The book says, "it is not what you preach, it is what you tolerate."


Believe (the leader has to help the team believe in the mission) 

The U.S. Military was required to fight alongside Iraqi forces.   The Iraqi forces were untrained and some had even turned on the U.S. military.   Jacko had to help his team understand that working with the Iraqi soldiers would be needed to train the Iraqis to take over the security of their own country.   I have learned that as a leader I need to either be a true believer in the mission or leave the organization.


Check the ego

Cover and move (teamwork)

Simplify (when things go wrong, and they usually do, complexity adds to confusion)

Prioritize and Execute (relax, look around, make a call)

  1. Evaluate the highest priority problem.

  2. Lay out in simple, clear, and concise terms the highest priority effort for your team.

  3. Develop and determine a solution, seek input from the team and key leaders where possible.

  4. Direct the execution of the solution, focusing all efforts on the priority task.

  5. Move to the next priority item. Repeat.

  6. When priorities change, pass situational awareness both up and down the chain.

  7. Don't let the focus on one priority cause target fixation. Maintain the ability to see other problems developing and rapidly shift as needed.

 Decentralized command

 Since leaders cannot lead more than 6-8 people and leaders can't make all decisions, the team must understand commander's intent.  The team members must understand both what to do and why they are doing it.   The team should be able to tell their leaders what they plan to do rather than ask what to do.   The team needs trust and good communication skills in order to push situational awareness up and down the chain of command.  Lower level leaders need to know that senior leaders will back them up as long as their decisions were made in an effort to achieve the strategic objective.


Plan (how to develop and execute great plans)

  1. Explain the purpose or end state of the mission

  2. Explore different courses of action

  3. Delegate the planning process down the chain (stand back and observe)

  4. Brief the team on the plan

  5. Identify and mitigate risks

  6. Check the plan against emerging information

  7. Conduct a post-operational debrief


Lead up and down the chain of command 

Extreme ownership means taking ownership of what your superiors need to support you and making sure your team understands the decisions and intent of your superiors.


Decisiveness amid uncertainty

Discipline equals freedom 

The authors provide 12 dichotomies of leadership.   The book says 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 and not passive

  • Aggressive and 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 the other or than the good of the team, not so close that they forget who is in charge

  • Able to execute extreme ownership when exercising decentralized command

If you read this book I am highly confident you will be impacted as I have been.   The book helped me to better understand my leadership successes and failures and has inspired me to push myself get to the next level.   If you our your team has been guilty of making excuses this book will reduce your focus on your excuses and help you focus on what you can control.   Have you read Extreme Ownership?   If so, drop me a note about what you have learned and what you do differently as a result.