Thursday, September 29, 2016

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

I regularly read leadership and personal development literature as a means of increasing my capacity in my current role as Dean and Associate provost as well as for my coaching business. I consider Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin (St. Martin's Press, 2016) to be one of the Top ten books on leading well that I've read. I recommend it to administrators, business leaders, coaches, pastors, and anyone who desires to lead a team more effectively and productively.

Willink and Babin are retired U.S. Navy Seals who served multiple tours during the Iraqi conflict. They now serve as consultants to businesses and leaders. Extreme Ownership focuses on lessons that they learned while leading combat units in Task Unit Bruiser in the difficult and dangerous fight against insurgents in Ramadi. Extreme Ownership is a compelling read because it illustrates critical leadership principles by showing how they were learned (often the hard way) on the battlefield. 

In each chapter, Willink and Babin narrate personal incidents from their combat experiences in Iraq. They then break down the lesson into an easy to understand and apply principle. Last they illustrate how the principle can be applied in today's business environments.

This is not a book on warfare. Their battle stories are not gory and have been sanitized for a non-military audience without losing the seriousness of the situation described. This raised the poignancy of the teaching offered by Willink and Babin. They are not theorists but practitioners of the art of leading and they did it when their lives as well as those of their men were at stake.

Extreme Ownership unfolds in three movements: 

Part One: Winning the War Within

The title Extreme Ownership comes from the main principle advocated in the book of the absolute necessity of the leader taking 100% responsibility for what happens under his or her watch. They mean 100%. No excuses. No blaming. Ever. 

In their view, there are no bad teams but only bad leaders (chapter two). The leader is responsible for setting the tone for the team and explaining the mission to each member.

This begins with the leader's belief (chapter three). We are not ready to lead until we have focused on the "why" of the mission. If we are taking orders from someone above us, we must own the why so that we can pass it on to those whom we lead. As I leader, I must be "all in" if I expect my team to follow me.

Leaders must also check their egos (chapter four).

Part Two: Laws of Combat
In chapter five, the authors teach the principle of "cover and move." To be effective, teams must work together. This includes how one team within an organization relates to other teams. Conflict often occurs because teams within the same company compete against one another instead of focusing attention on winning.

Warfare is chaotic. So is life and business.  We cannot plan for every contingency. The key is to create actionable and simple plans and strategies that the entire organization can understand and implement (chapter six).

When under pressure, leaders must learn to prioritize and execute (chapter seven). Focus the team on one key activity at a time.

Empower others to lead smaller groups through decentralized leadership (chapter eight). No one can effectively lead more than 10 people. Communicate down the organization using simple plans and communicate clearly and concisely so that all are on the same page.

Part Three: Sustaining Victory 

Planning is critical to achieving victory (chapter 9). All organizations need to create a template for creating clear, compelling, and effective plans to advance the mission.

In the most efficient organizations, leadership flows up and down the chain of command (chapter 10). Each member of the team learns to lead up and down the flow chart by practicing extreme ownership at each level.

In warfare, uncertainty is a given. On the battlefield, there is never enough information. There is a balance between decisiveness and uncertainty (chapter 11). Knowing when to act and when to wait can be a matter of life and death.

Last, discipline equals freedom (chapter 12). Success in mission is not easy. It takes discipline to grow into the leaders that our world needs. It is often a dance between extremes (pp. 277-78): 

"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 not passive; aggressive not overbearing; quiet not silent; calm but not robotic...; close with the troops but not so close that one becomes more important than another or more important than the good of the team...;able to execute extreme ownership, while exercising decentralized command."

Great book. Inspiring. Insightful. I'll read it again. Consider picking up a copy. You'll be glad you did. So will your team!

To learn more about Jocko Willink check out his interview with Tim Ferris.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Preparing our Hearts and Minds to Read Scripture

Preparing our Hearts and Minds: Conversations with Scripture (Intro)

We must learn to read the Bible for transformation. As we seek to follow Jesus into the world on mission, Scripture serves as our interactive guide for the journey. We may think of it as a map to the life of God’s dreams. Yet unlike directions that seek to guide us to a particular geographical location, the Bible's goal is to shape us into the kind of persons that God created us to be. The journey of faith involves growth in our missional activity, personal holiness, and community. The Bible desires to convert us to its perspective and propel us into the world as witnesses to New Creation.

To read and study Scripture in this manner involves learning to adopt and practice a set of postures before it:

1) Be open to hearing the voice of God and being astonished. When we read Scripture, we are engaging a sacred set of writings that the Church affirms as inspired by God and foundational for our faith and practice. It is not enough to lift up Scripture as an authoritative artifact from the past. We need to approach our reading and reflection with an expectation of astonishment in the present moment. When Scripture astonishes us personally, we are ready to live and move in ways that will astonish the world with the love and grace of Jesus Christ. I find that prayer helps me to enter into a space where I’m ready to receive all that God has for me. Here is one that I’ve found helpful: “Lord, astonish me anew with the riches and good news of your Word. Amen.”

2) Take the stance of a learner rather than expert. There is an irony in our lifelong reading of Scripture. Over time, texts become so familiar that we speed through them assuming that we already know their message. This is dangerous to our spiritual formation. It is therefore vital that we consciously avoid treating the text as an object that we gain control over via study. The moment that we reckon ourselves experts will mark the time when our voice becomes the authority rather than God’s. Don’t pray, “Lord, help me to master this text.” Instead assume the posture of a learner and say, “Lord, I open myself to hear all that you have for me. Master me through my conversation with your Word.”

3) Embrace listening over demanding. Our conversation with Scripture requires patient and persistent listening. We cannot control the speed of illumination and insight. Some passages will release their riches quickly and easily. Others will only do so slowly and with difficulty. In either case, we must be willing to be fully present with God and the text in a spirit of humility and dogged resilience. We cannot demand a word from God; we can only receive one gratefully with open hands, hearts, and minds. Remember the mark of the happy person in Psalm 1: “He or she meditates on the Law of the LORD day and night” (1:3).

4) Align with the Text and Take Action. To listen to Scripture involves realigning with its message continually. Our conversation with Scripture must lead to tangible change and action. As James reminds us, “But be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like” (James 1:22–24).

How do we become “doers”? We become “doers” by taking action based on our reading. Here are some questions that help me (this is not meant as an exhaustive list):
How does this text challenge my current way of life as well as that of my community of faith?
How does this passage stand in tension with my current thinking or understanding of the Gospel? Who or what is this text calling me to care about?
What kind of person do I need to become to live out this text?
How does my community need to shift to embody this text?

We cannot treat this stage as merely rhetorical. We need to write down or journal the key actions that we need to take. Then, go out and live the Gospel for the world.

Thank you God for the gift of Scripture. Give us the hearts and minds to listen and meditate on it so that we may encounter you the Living Lord of the Text. Grant us the courage to dare to realign with its message and live it out before a world that desperately needs its good news. In Jesus’ name: Amen

© 2016 Brian D. Russell

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