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

Ended: Sept. 28, 2018

Of the many exceptional leaders we served alongside throughout our military careers, the consistent attribute that made them great was that they took absolute ownership—Extreme Ownership—not just of those things for which they were responsible, but for everything that impacted their mission. These leaders cast no blame. They made no excuses. Instead of complaining about challenges or setbacks, they developed solutions and solved problems. They leveraged assets, relationships, and resources to get the job done. Their own egos took a back seat to the mission and their troops. These leaders truly led.
When subordinates aren’t doing what they should, leaders that exercise Extreme Ownership cannot blame the subordinates. They must first look in the mirror at themselves. The leader bears full responsibility for explaining the strategic mission, developing the tactics, and securing the training and resources to enable the team to properly and successfully execute. 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.
How is it possible that switching a single individual—only the leader—had completely turned around the performance of an entire group? The answer: leadership is the single greatest factor in any team’s performance. Whether a team succeeds or fails is all up to the leader. The leader’s attitude sets the tone for the entire team. The leader drives performance—or doesn’t. And this applies not just to the most senior leader of an overall team, but to the junior leaders of teams within the team.
When leaders who epitomize Extreme Ownership drive their teams to achieve a higher standard of performance, they must recognize that 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.
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.
But what I can tell you is this: when it comes to performance standards, It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate.
Belief in the mission ties in with the fourth Law of Combat: Decentralized Command (chapter 8). The leader must explain not just what to do, but why. It is the responsibility of the subordinate leader to reach out and ask if they do not understand. Only when leaders at all levels understand and believe in the mission can they pass that understanding and belief to their teams so that they can persevere through challenges, execute and win.
A common misperception among military leaders or corporate senior executives, this was an example of a boss who didn’t fully comprehend the weight of her position. In her mind, she was fairly laid back, open to questions, comments, and suggestions from people. She talked about maintaining an “open-door policy.” But in the minds of her sales managers, she was still The Boss: experienced, smart, and most important, powerful. That position demanded a high level of reverence—so high, in fact, that for an employee to question her ideas seemed disrespectful. None of them were comfortable questioning her, even though none of the midlevel managers actually worried about losing their jobs because they asked a question. But they were certainly worried about looking bad in front of The Boss.
“As a leader, it is up to you to explain the bigger picture to him—and to all your front line leaders. That is a critical component of leadership,”
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.
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.
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.
“As a SEAL, I often saw this with junior leaders on the battlefield,” I continued. “With so much going on in the chaos and mayhem, they would try to take on too many tasks at once. It never worked. I taught them to Prioritize and Execute. 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.” I explained how a leader who tries to take on too many problems simultaneously will likely fail at them all.
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. Those leaders must understand the overall mission, and the ultimate goal of that mission—the Commander’s Intent. Junior leaders must be empowered to make decisions on key tasks necessary to accomplish that mission in the most effective and efficient manner possible. Teams within teams are organized for maximum effectiveness for a particular mission, with leaders who have clearly delineated responsibilities. Every tactical-level team leader must understand not just what to do but why they are doing it. If frontline leaders do not understand why, they must ask their boss to clarify the why. This ties in very closely with Believe (chapter 3).
Decentralized Command does not mean junior leaders or team members operate on their own program; that results in chaos. Instead, 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. SEAL leaders on the battlefield are expected to figure out what needs to be done and do it—to tell higher authority what they plan to do, rather than ask, “What do you want me to do?” Junior leaders must be proactive rather than reactive.
The effectiveness of Decentralized Command is critical to the success of any team in any industry. In chaotic, dynamic, and rapidly changing environments, leaders at all levels must be empowered to make decisions. Decentralized Command is a key component to victory.
“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 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.
While Jocko pushed us to focus on Commander’s Intent and the broader plan, he encouraged us to let the junior leaders in the platoon sort out and plan the details. “As a leader, if you are down in the weeds planning the details with your guys,” said Jocko, “you will have the same perspective as them, which adds little value. But if you let them plan the details, it allows them to own their piece of the plan. And it allows you to stand back and see everything with a different perspective, which adds tremendous value. You can then see the plan from a greater distance, a higher altitude, and you will see more. As a result, you will catch mistakes and discover aspects of the plan that need to be tightened up, which enables you to look like a tactical genius, just because you have a broader view.”
“You should develop a standard process with terminology and planning method that are interchangeable and can be utilized across all elements within your team and within the company.” “That is exactly what we need,” said the emerging markets VP. “We need to capture our standard operating procedures for planning. We need a process that is repeatable.
This epiphany had come to Jocko in examining his own frustrations up the chain. “Leadership doesn’t just flow down the chain of command, but up as well,” he said. “We have to own everything in our world. That’s what Extreme Ownership is all about.” I nodded, coming around to his logic. Jocko’s guidance had not yet steered me wrong in the year we had worked together. He had taught me to be the combat leader I needed to be. But this was a whole new attitude, a completely different mind-set from anything I had seen or been taught. Instead of blaming others, instead of complaining about the boss’s questions, I had to take ownership of the problem and lead. This included the leaders above me in our chain of command. “We need to look at ourselves and see what we can do better,” Jocko continued. “We have to write more-detailed reports that help them understand what we are doing and why we are making the decisions we are making. We have to communicate more openly in calls, and when they have questions, we need to immediately get them whatever information they need so that they understand what is happening out here.”
PRINCIPLE: LEADING UP THE CHAIN 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. Leading up the chain of command requires tactful engagement with the immediate boss (or in military terms, higher headquarters) to obtain the decisions and support necessary to enable your team to accomplish its mission and ultimately win. To do this, a leader must push situational awareness up the chain of command.
Leading up the chain takes much more savvy and skill than leading down the chain. 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.
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. • able to execute Extreme Ownership, while exercising Decentralized Command. A good leader has nothing to prove, but everything to prove.