Learn leadership from the Navy SEALs

Discover leadership principles than can make you lead teams to high performance and success.

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.

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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.

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

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.

“Leader’s ownership”

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

“Subordinates ownership”

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.

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Jocko has explained this principle in this video.

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.

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.

Principle 4 : Check the ego

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.

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.

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Principle 6 : Simple

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

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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…

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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.

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.

To conclude

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.

Thanks to the authors for this great book.

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