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.

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