Recently I have read a great book about leadership called Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. The authors are 2 decorated retired Navy SEALs (Sea, Air and Land) officers, the US Navy military elite. They led American and allied soldiers during the battle of Ramadi in Irak. They have co-founded Echelon Front where they are leadership instructors, speakers, and executive coaches.
In this book the authors want to share with us the leadership concepts they have seen work time and again, both in combat and in business.
From their point of view combat is reflective of life but amplified and intensified : the slightest mistake can have life-threatening consequences. That’s really inspiring to understand how those teams under enormous stress and stakes work as formidably efficient teams. I really think the concepts exposed in this book should be more applied in our organizations, it could avoid a lot of disappointment and waste.
The authors present us 12 principles based on their seals experiences.
Their purpose with this book is to help other leaders achieve victory. Each of those principles are introduced in a captivating and intense way :
- A description of a lived situation during their Navy Seals time (on the battlefield or during training)
- The explanation of the principle they illustrated with the situation
- An example of business application of the principle
You can really consider the book as a starting guide to a new way of leading teams.
I don’t want to spoil too much the book so I will just quickly introduce what I understood from the different principles. You will have to read the book if you want to know more.
Principle 1 : Extreme ownership
The entire 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.
When subordinates are not doing what they should, the leaders need first look in the mirror. Subordinates have not to be blamed, the leader have to check they have understood what is expected of them.
Leaders have to take the full responsibility for :
- Explaining the strategic mission
- Developing the tactics
- Explaining the strategic mission
- Securing the training and resources to enable the team to properly and successfully execute
Don’t make me wrong, it does not mean that subordinates have no responsibilities, it’s the opposite.
If they do not understand something, he or she will take responsibility and ask superiors for explanations rather than say it wasn’t properly explained from the beginning.
This principle develop the commitment to its extreme and generates dynamic. Everyone is involved and fully committed. Instead of complaining, everyone must actively look for how he or she could solve the problems.
Principle 2 : No bad teams, only bad leaders
During the BUDS (Basic Underwater Demolition Seal Training), they observed that teams systematically fail when led by an incompetent leader but were successful with a competent one.
When a team is malfunctioning, there is no point in blaming the people in it. One must always look to the leader’s abilities.
This concept is really hard to hear for a lot of people. It is based on humility and it’s something that leaders need to accept : if my team is failing, it’s because I am a bad leader.
Principle 3 : Believe
In order to convince and inspire others to follow you, you must be a true believer in the mission.
It is really difficult to ‘sell’ a plan, if you don’t believe in it. If you don’t understand the reasoning behind a strategy, go find the information so that you too can ‘believe’ and trust the decision taken by the hierarchy.
The authors explain that worst thing to say would be “it isn’t me, the order comes from above”. The funny part here is that we hear that in a lot of organization.
The leader must explain not just what to do, but why. Once again it is the responsibility of the subordinate leader to reach out and ask if they do not understand.
Principle 4 : Check the ego
Beware ego : when personal agendas become more important than the team, performance suffers and failure ensues.
The Navy SEALs need to operate with a high degree of humility. They are really confident in their skills but need to avoid complacent. They need to control their ego by never thinking they are too good to fail or that their enemies are not capable.
Principle 5 : Cover and move
‘Cover and Move’ means that before you move on the field, you always have to ensure that part of the team or another team ensures cover for the team that is moving. It is basically teamwork.
All elements within the team are crucial they must work together to accomplish the mission, they mutually supporting one another for that singular purpose.
Help each other, work together, and support each other to win.
There is no “us” vs “them” mentality, groups within the teams must break down silos and support one another to reach the purpose of the mission.
Principle 6 : Simple
Simplifying as much as possible is crucial to success. When plans and orders are too complicated, people may not understand them.
Plans must be communicated in a clear and concise way. The simpler a plan is to understand, the more we are inclined to act. At the opposite, the more it is complex and obscure, the more suspicion will take over and less one will be inclined to act.
Principle 7 : Prioritize and execute
A leader must remain calm and make the best decisions possible. To do so, SEAL leaders utilize Prioritize and Execute. It makes them remain focused, calm and be able to stop to consider the options at hand.
To implement Prioritize and Execute a leader in any field must :
- Evaluate the highest priority problem
- Lay out in simple, clear, and concise terms the highest priority effort for the 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.
Principle 8: Decentralized Command
As human beings we are not capable of managing more than six to ten people particularly when they operate in hostile territory in total secrecy and perfect autonomy. That’s why the SEALs teams are broken down into micro-teams of four to five persons with a clearly identified leader.
Decentralized command means that the mission and its limits have been clearly defined by senior officers who have an overview of the mission but the details of execution are left to the people on the field who are in contact with its reality. The men are aware of their responsibilities and have a clear idea of what is expected of them.
They are authorized and able to make their own decisions. The prerequisite to it is to have a clear chain of command otherwise you cannot have empowered leadership.
Principle 9 : Plan
“No plan resists the first contact with the enemy”. This quote makes total sense for men in the SEALs units. It is obvious that everything cannot be organised and planned in advance but the more precautions are taken to anticipate problems and mishaps the higher the chances of success.
That’s why the mission must explain the overall purpose and desired result. Different courses of action must be explored on how best to accomplish the mission.
Leaders must delegate the planning process down the chain as much as possible to key subordinate leaders.
Once again, it is leader’s responsibility to plan for a maximum numbers of scenarios and alternative plans so as to adapt to a situation that can change at any moment. Plans must be clearly explained to all members of the team and the leader must ensure that everyone understands all aspects of the various options.
Principle 10 : Leading Up and Down the Chain of Command
Leading down the chain
Leaders must routinely communicate with their team members to help them understand their role in the overall mission.
Leading up the chain
If someone does not understand why decisions are being made or why a request has been denied he or she must pluck up the courage to contact the management and ask those questions up the chain. You must always push situational awareness up the chain of command.
The idea here is not to complain but to act, to discuss with the hierarchy and to do everything to establish communication and mutual understanding.
Within this trust and transparency climate SEALs don’t ask their leader what they should do, they only tell them what they are going to do.
Principle 11 : Act Decisively
As a leader you must admit there is no 100 percent right solution. Waiting for the 100 percent right and certain solution leads to delay, indecision and inability to execute. On the battlefield it can lead people to death…
The picture is never complete, everything can not be checked or controlled. Leaders must be comfortable with this and be able to make decisions promptly, then be ready to adjust those decisions quickly based on evolving situations and new information.
They must be prepared to take a decision based on previous experience, knowledge of how the enemy operates, likely outcomes, whatever intelligence is available in the immediate moment.
Principle 12 : Discipline Equals Freedom
Here is a notion that seems counter-intuitive it is what the authors call the Dichotomy of Leadership.
Discipline and freedom are opposing forces that must be balanced. From our civilian point of view discipline makes people more rigid, and unable to improvise but in this context it makes them more flexible, more adaptable, and more efficient. It allowed them to be creative.
For example, the more a plan is studied with discipline and detail, the easier it will be to react faced with an unexpected situation. The more the rules of engagement or the instructions for a mission are known and clear, the more the men on the field will be able to make their own decisions. Discipline equals Freedom.
While increased discipline most often results in more freedom, there are some teams that become so restricted by imposed discipline that they inhibit their leader’s and team’s ability to make decisions and think freely. That’s why it is really important to find the right balance.
What I really liked in this book is that it has broken the myth that leadership in the army was limited to people that launch an order and subordinates that blindly follow them.
It is fascinating to discover those leadership principles that make a lot of echo to the agile mindset : strong vision, adaptation to change, autonomous teams, top down and bottom up transparency, decision taking, simplicity, team work, ownership, breaking silos…
Thanks to the authors for this great book.
To go further
- Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
- The Dichotomy of Leadership: Balancing the Challenges of Extreme Ownership to Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
- Extreme Ownership, Ted talk by Jocko Willink| TEDxUniversityofNevada