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

Of all the book reviews I have written, this has definitely been the most difficult. The reason is that Extreme Ownership discusses the leadership qualities necessary for war.

For many centuries business practices have taken their inspiration from the principles of strategy and tactics used by military forces. In the 1960s, the U.S Army War College introduced the acronym V.U.C.A. to describe the more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous multilateral world which resulted from the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s it began to enter into business parlance, and in the last few years it has become mainstream.

While there is a trend towards self-organising teams in business, this does not negate the need for leadership, and in Extreme Ownership we do find a model which treads the fine path between the freedom to work autonomously and the setting of clear boundaries and the discipline needed to achieve clearly articulated missions.

If we wish to discuss planning, strategy, tactics, leadership, agility, creativity and teamwork, a look at how these issues are dealt with in a military context is inevitable. So what this book review looks at is the value of the way which we can learn from extreme military situations and how we can apply this learning to other environments, including business, social and personal contexts.

To introduce this review therefore, I wanted to start with the opening reflections from Jocko Willink’s TEDx presentation at the University of Nevada.

Credit: TEDx University of Nevada

Jocko Willink is a decorated retired Navy SEAL officer who spent 20 years in the U.S. Navy SEAL Teams, rising through the ranks to become a SEAL officer. As commander of SEAL Team Three’s Task Unit Bruiser during the battle of Ramadi, he orchestrated SEAL operations that helped the “Ready First” Brigade of the US Army’s First Armoured Division bring stability to the violent, war-torn city.

Task Unit Bruiser became the most highly decorated Special Operations Unit of the Iraq War. Willink returned from Iraq to serve as Officer-in-Charge of training for all West Coast SEAL Teams. There, he spearheaded the development of leadership training and personally instructed and mentored the next generation of SEAL leaders who have continued to perform with great success on the battlefield.

He starts his TEDx talk as follows:

War is a nightmare.

War is awful.

It is indifferent, devastating and evil.

War is hell.

But war is also an incredible teacher. A brutal teacher. And it teaches you lessons that you will not forget.

In war you are forced to see humanity at its absolute worst and you are also blessed to see humanity in its most glorious moments.

War teaches you about sorrow, and loss, and pain.

And it teaches you about the preciousness and fragility of human life.

And in that fragility, war teaches you about death.

But war also teaches you about brotherhood, and honour, and humility and leadership. And unfortunately war teaches you the most when things go wrong.

This final thought, that war teaches you the most when things go wrong is one of the most moving and impacting lessons of Extreme Ownership and one that I shall explore more shortly.

The book is co-written with Leif Babin who is also a decorated former Navy SEAL officer, who served thirteen years in the Navy, including nine as a Navy SEAL. As a SEAL platoon commander in SEAL Team Three’s Task Unit Bruiser, he planned and led major combat operations in the Battle of Ramadi along side Willink.

Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

Having retired from the U.S. Navy, Willink and Babin set up Echelon Front, a leadership consulting firm which teaches others to build and lead their own high-performance, winning teams. Extreme Ownership distils the mindset and principles which allowed the SEAL units to accomplish heroic missions in some of the most extreme and dangerous battle-field conditions, and shows how these can be applied in any leadership environment.

In this review not only will I be focusing on the business applications, I will also be looking at the sustainability and NGO-sectors, and developing the thesis that despite the context of war and killing, that in fact this book is still of huge value.

In the afterword, Willink and Babin state explicitly that they “do not consider themselves to be creators of a new leadership paradigm” and that much of what they learned has already existed for hundreds of years. What makes their book compelling is that while the principles they describe are simple to understand in theory, they can be difficult to apply in real life. As they say, “Leadership is simple, but not easy”.

Extreme Ownership takes you in the heart of some of the worst battles fought in the Iraq war, including the Battle of Ramadi. It is not an attempt to retell the stories from this era in a historical manner, and the authors are keen to emphasise how they can not retell the stories of so many U.S. service men and women and their “courage, dedication, professionalism, selflessness and sacrifice”.

Likewise it is important to point out that the book was reviewed in accordance with the U.S. Department of Defense requirements. Anyone looking for any meaningful critique of the leadership and decision-making skills (or otherwise) of the U.S. political “elite” will not find any, it is not that kind of book. Babin does though write about his “fury” when returning from service and hearing media pundits simply mentioning the causality figures as just numbers, saying that “The true sacrifices endured by the troops who fought this war were far beyond anything that most Americans could comprehend”.

Indeed, the U.S. SEAL teams actually received criticism from U.S. politicians and the most senior military brass, who “didn’t have a clue”. The operations were of course lethal, but as Leif wrote, “more of Ramadi’s civilian populace could live in a little less fear. No longer could the enemy ruthlessly torture, rape and murder innocent civilians”.

The book does not start with a look at the victories achieved, it begins with a look at one of the worst mistakes a soldier can make – blue-on-blue – that of accidentally killing your own team or troops on your own side. This happened on Willink’s command, with Iraq troops killed and one of his own team seriously injured. Extreme Ownership is a book which is utterly open and explicit about the errors made. Throughout their careers both authors made serious mistakes, and as they say, they have to live with these mistakes to this very day. But the mistakes made them who they are as men and as leaders.

It was just minutes before having to face a full debriefing on the litany of errors and mistakes made by his troops that Willink realised there was only one person he could possible blame when explaining the disaster to the military chiefs – himself:

“It was a heavy burden to bear. But it was absolutely true. I was the leader. I was in charge and I was responsible. Thus, I had to take ownership of everything that went wrong. Despite the tremendous blow to my reputation and to my ego, it was the right thing to do – the only thing to do.”

As the authors summarise, “Every leader and every team at some point or time will fail and must confront this failure”. Having the humility to admit and own mistakes and develop a plan to overcome them is therefore essential for success, not just for the leader, nor just the team, but the whole mission. This principle of extreme ownership is defined in the book in the following manner:

  • On any team, and 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 those, and develop a plan to win.

For me personally, and I know many others too, the phrase ‘extreme ownership’ contains within it a huge potency. It is empowering and summons up from within an added willpower and desire to achieve a mission or goal which at first sight may seem beyond reach.

It is extremely empowering when things are going wrong. Instead of seeking first to blame others, and resolve yourself of any culpability, you first take ownership of the situation. A leader first has to be able to lead his or her self.

Simon Robinson

As Willink and Leif write, extreme ownership is “the number-one characteristic of any high-performance winning team, in any military unit, organization, sports team or business team in any industry”. I could not agree more, and for this reason Maria and I have now started to introduce the principle into our business presentations and consultancy work here in Brazil. We now live in a VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, and without clear guiding leadership principles, any business or organisation is destined to never achieve their mission or vision.

The book is structured around one principle per chapter, there being twelve principles in total:

Part I: Winning the War Within
1. Extreme Ownership
2. No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders
3. Believe
4. Check the Ego

Part II: Laws of Combat

5. Cover and Move
6. Simple
7. Prioritise and Execute
8. Decentralised Command

Part III: Sustaining Victory

9. Plan
10. Leading Up and Down the Chain of Command
11. Decisiveness Amid Uncertainty
12. Discipline Equals freedom

Each chapter therefore is focused on a different leadership principle, and is structured into three parts. The first part identifies the leadership principle as it relates to combat missions, and this first section therefore provides first-person accounts from either Willink or Babin of their experience in Iraq. The second section clearly states the principle and breaks the principle down so that it can be fully understood. The third section them provides a case study based on a real example which shows how the principle can be applied in a business context.

The sixth principle is ‘Simple’ and this relates to the need for plans and orders to be communicated in terms which are as simple, clear and concise as possible. The book fully follows its own advice, and it is both a compelling read while at the same time never losing sight of the overall mission which is to describe and explain the leadership principles in as clear a manner as possible. The writing is focused, tight, and does exactly what it says on the tin.

The horrors of war and the human mistakes made are all laid our bare and are in no way glossed over, the exact opposite in fact. You really start to appreciate the leadership skills in action, for example in the sniper’s attempts to determine if a shadowy figure is an enemy, or in fact a U.S. soldier, in run-down buildings on streets with no names filled with rubble which absolutely must be correctly identified, all while under the pressure of the demands from other units to shoot immediately.

In the space of this review it is not possible to examine and explore each principle individually, but I would like to talk through some of the key points which really resonate with my own experiences, and those of both myself and Maria as we have been building our business consultancy. As Willink and Babin repeatedly point out, “Extreme Ownership is a difficult and humbling concept for any leader to accept. But it is an essential mindset to building a high-performance, winning team”. The reason that this is not an easily-achieved mindset is that leaders “must face the facts through a realistic, brutally honest assessment of themselves and their team’s performance”.

One of the opposite traits to extreme ownership is ‘the tortured genius’ – a concept I love. The concept does not relate to artists or musicians. A ‘tortured genius’ in the context of ownership is a person who “accepts zero responsibility for mistakes, makes excuses, and blames everyone else for their failings (and those of their team). In their mind, the world just can’t see or appreciate the genius in what they are doing”.

If there is a tortured genius in a business organisation, the results can be massively expensive, as leaders fail to truly understand the reasons for poor performance or a demotivated and stress-out team. Likewise, “a leader must be a true believer in the mission”. When egos start to control the mission, any number of factors can come into play, resulting in failure.

Credit: Business Insider

Throughout the entire book the authors repeatedly make the point that combat has no place for ego. Extreme ownership fully embraces humility, and shows how a lack of humility “prevents us from seeing the world as it really is”. I therefore really liked the way Willink and Babin break down the principle of Check Your Ego and show how as U.S. Navy SEALs they always strove to be “confident, but not cocky”. This is a critical distinction, which led to me reflecting on the difference between being elite, and elitism.

Elitism can seriously adversely affect the productivity and performance of a huge number of businesses, whose leadership teams do not have the psychological make-up necessary to interact with people from every single part of  society. Elitism is expressed through the desire to separate yourself from others, be it through having an executive life that no other employees can use, or through luxury brands which are unobtainable to the majority of the population and which therefore act as an instant badge of superiority and separation.

There is no room for elitism in the U.S. SEALs, the most elite team of soldiers who have passed through the toughest and most brutal training procedures. There is no room for nepotism, because anything other than the maximum and most-focused performance under the most extremely punishing and dangerous conditions will result in injury, quite possibly death, and an almost guaranteed failure of the mission.

It was really interesting to read of the respect that the U.S SEALS have for the many other conventional teams of soldiers and marines, people who had not had the advanced training nor access to the most advanced weaponry and defence systems:

When the 1st Armored Division’s Ready First Brigade Combat Team arrived to replace 2-28 a month into our deployment, again we developed a deep respect and admiration for these brothers-in-arms and were proud to serve alongside them. Every one of the conventional units we worked with had seen extensive combat; all had lost troops, and suffered many more wounded. These soldiers and marines were the real deal. They epitomised the term “warrior”.

I was really interested to read that in fact U.S. SEALs do not often have to comply with the strict grooming and dress requirements of conventional units. Often it will make sense for soldiers to have longer hair or to not shave in order to fit in with a different culture. However, in this instance, in order to develop as much respect and courtesy between the units, the U.S. SEALs fully complied with all procedures, closely cropping their hair, and using the same combat clothes. This is the opposite of elitism, the distancing of oneself from another class:

“With this attitude of humility and mutual respect, we forged strong relationships with the Army and Marine battalions and companies that owned the battlespace in and around Ramadi”.

This elitism also expresses itself in those business cultures which place the most emphasis on the superiority of the most senior executives. Command-and-Control necessitates decentralisation, but as Willink notes, “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”.

In a complex battlefield, no person has the “cognitive capacity, the physical presence or the knowledge of everything” to be able to effectively lead. But there are many organisations who still operate in this controlling manner. As Willink tells, he had no problem in checking his ego, and in fact he was proud to follow the lead of those below him in his team, provide key support.

The values of the extreme ownership mindset are therefore far removed from elitism, and are founded on respect, trust and brotherhood. Babin tells the story of Mike Monsoor for example, a Task Unit Bruiser SEAL in Delta Platoon, who dived on top of a hand grenade which had been tossed into their position, thus shielding his team-mates around him from the bulk of the blast.

These values which lie at the heart of the success of the U.S. SEALs are at times lacking in many business contexts, including people in the sustainability sector and those who profess to be practicing advanced forms of management such as ‘teal’, co-creation and conscious leadership.

While dropping the ego is an essential quality for a leader practicing extreme ownership, Willink and Babin especially point out that being humble does not mean the same thing as being passive:

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 their mistakes and failures, take ownership of them, and figure out a way of them 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.

I always look for leadership inspiration in any place I can find it. Maria and I have written a Harvard Business Review article about BrewDog for example, the highly irreverent Scottish brewery which espouses the punk ethos (see for example my book review Business for Punks: Break All the Rules the BrewDog Way).

Photo: Simon Robinson

James Watt, one of the co-founders of BrewDog is someone who I do feel practices extreme ownership. BrewDog are famous for their publicity stunts, but sometimes these have backfired, resulting in negative publicity for the company, for example taking part in the BBC show You’re the Boss which turned out to portray Watt in an extremely negative light. Watt recognised this mistake, and despite the decision to take part being made by a number of BrewDog members, he took full responsibility, taking all measures possible to counteract the criticisms.

Extreme Ownership is an extremely engaging book with powerful lessons, not just relating to leadership but relating to personal mastery as well. The authors for example regularly share success stories on social media from readers attempting personal goals such as weight loss or other psychologically demanding projects.

Not only are Maria and I already discussing the principles with business leaders, it is also one of the key texts for the Executive Book Club which we recently announced as part of our new partnership with Aquarela Content Bureau. In this way we will be exploring the book in-depth with some of the most senior business leaders in Brazil, looking at what they mean in this country and culture, and how they can start to be implemented for maximum effectiveness.

The book also offers a wealth of inspiration for women as much as men. While it is not blokey in style or content, many male leaders could benefit dramatically from taking extreme ownership of those workplaces which are currently highly misogynist and hostile for female employees – UBER being one high-profile example.

Life is hard and sometimes people from the least-expected quarters will attempt to shoot you down, criticise you while at the same time using your material, and steal your dreams. This is life and this is fine if you take complete ownership of the situation, and don’t play the victim. Without anger, insecurity and ego it is possible to see more in a situation, allowing you to really understand why people articulate and act in the way that they do.

If I am recommending this book it is because of the leadership qualities of Willink and Babin. They are leaders who have survived the most hostile conditions imaginable through bravery, humility, intelligence, teamwork and trust. It is truly inspirational, does not shirk from discussing difficult home truths, and for those of you who have a genuine and deep-seated desire to improve, evolve and reach your goals, missions and dreams, it is indispensable.

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