Review: Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

February 28, 2019

I read this on Audible in the month of February, mostly while driving or on an evening ruck.

The book is read by the authors, whose concise military diction adds both weight to the advice and matches their writing/speaking style well.

I liked this book very much, and would highly recommend it. I will most likely re-listen or re-read it in a few years. I read it initially out of curiosity, but found myself greatly convicted as to my lack of leadership at home and at work.

The book will describe a leadership lesson from a military/training context, break down the principle at play, and demonstrate how it unfolds in a business context. I enjoyed the business stories a lot more than normal. I found that the subtle ways that Jocko and Leif led their clients as they coached leadership lessons very interesting: teaching moment like asking “do you think that [person in conflict] is out to destroy the business?” Such a question resets the us vs. them mindset that people can adopt, and encourage alignment to the mission.

Structure

The book has three parts: Winning the War Within, The Laws of Combat, and Sustaining Victory.

Winning the War Within

Winning the war within is all about the character and mindset of a good leader. This is all within the individual, as a warning and guide to those who feel called or pressed into leadership.

Extreme Ownership

This is the titular lesson of the book. The idea is simple, but not easy: As a leader, you are responsible for everything in your space. These include details, emergency plans, junior leaders below you and senior leaders above you. A mindset of ownership, of a dedication to the success of the mission makes leaders successful.

Extreme Ownership requires owning your mistakes as well. If you acknowledge them, you can face them and come up with a new plan to overcome them and win.

No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders

This drives home the hard lesson of the previous chapter. The measure of a leader is the success or failure of the team.

He describes a convicting picture of the “tortured genius,” a leader who feels that they are a good leader even though their team is not succeeding. Such a leader will display victimization, blaming their followers understanding and motivation rather than taking ownership of their failure to lead.

It was incredibly inspiring… and convicting.

Believe

To perform at a high level, you have to believe the mission. To believe the mission, you have to understand it. To understand… you have to go get knowledge.

Part of extreme ownership is the accepting that knowledge, understanding, and strategy will not be spoon fed to you, you have the responsibility to go get it. Very rarely will someone hand you the “Why?” of the mission. You have to find it.

By understanding the mission, you can improvise, adapt, and improve.

This chapter was convicting to me… I have often complained that I don’t understand what my leader’s strategy is… and I don’t seek them out. That is my fault.

The chapter also touches on the leader’s responsibility to make themselves available for such questions, and discusses the distance that even a friendly leader may not realize their position gives them.

Check The Ego

This chapter does a good job of listing several of the insidious ways that ego can creep in and ruin leaders.

Ego is pride. It is destructive and dangerous, and I was glad to see humility be a key part of Jocko and Leif’s mindset for leaders.

The Laws of Combat

This section of the book is about the essential skills and aspects of leadership that can be focused on and trained… strategies for solving problems and dominating as a team.

Cover and Move

Cover and Move is teamwork. It has an additional advantage over the normal sports-oriented language of teamwork because in a military context, each element has a separate mission and location. They have to understand the greater strategy and communicate effectively, considering each other’s moves and needs in order to prevail.

The book lists some of the easy failures to cover and move:

Make those around you a part of your team. Great lesson.

Simple

Life and combat has layers of complexity, where one small mistake can cascade into a snowball of problems. Simplify your communication and plans. Orders must be clear and simple so that everyone can understand their role and the backup plan. It doesn’t matter how clear you think you have been if your team does not understand, you have failed. (That last point hurts.)

It is easy to be so intimate with your plan’s details that you ignore how complex it really is… if people don’t understand it… that is your clue.

Simplicity gives flexibility and robustness to planning and communication. You can’t adjust or compensate when the plan is too complex for each element to comprehend.

Prioritize and Execute

You can’t do everything at once. Relax. Look around. Make a call.

In order to choose the right problems and execute with wisdom, you have to actively maintain situational awareness. This was a good point… I often accept information about the world as it comes, and don’t always seek it out actively.

You can plan, but you can’t plan for everything. A key aspect of leadership is the ability to step back, see the big picture, and tackle the most important thing with the whole team, one problem at a time.

I’m very guilty of “solution binging,” getting so excited about progress and so overwhelmed with the number of problems that I attempt to engage four or five problems at once. This was a good wake-up call for me.

Decentralized Command

This chapter was worth the book.

This is about delegation, but about more than delegation. It is an understanding that there is an upper bound to the people a leader can effectively lead. It builds on the previous chapters… you can’t have decentralized command without the teamwork of Cover and Move and the clarity of keeping things Simple.

There is a lot of excellent counsel in this chapter on how to empower and coach junior leaders on your team to take ownership of their teams, and how to build an effectively network. It all comes down to being a strong enough leader to not only give direction, but to empower your leaders to carry out the mission without you. Your junior leaders should not ask “what should I do?” they should be telling you “This is what we are going to do.”

It takes strength to let go. I fail at this a lot, especially at home. Taking the long game, and slowly coaching my team at home and work to succeed without me… that’s my new mission.

Sustaining Victory

I really loved that they included this chapter in the book. It’s not enough to have the right mindset, it’s better but not sufficient to have strategies for dealing with the day to day of leadership activities, you have to build in a thoughtful strategy for maintaining and improving.

Plan

This chapter is also worth the cost of the book. In hearing the stories and examples I could see so many ways that I have failed people on my team by not planning and communicating effectively. I am excited to learn and grow.

While there is a ton of notes and insights I gleaned from this chapter (see my full notes or buy the book for more!) the one thought that really stood out to me was the necessity of a form of review of your plan after execution. Without a “post operation debrief” of some kind, you will make the same mistakes over and over again.

Another really excellent point that I will use this very week is to only focus on risks that you can actually mitigate. It doesn’t help to worry or spin in place trying to fight a risk you can’t control… just move on and execute. Many times I waste the most time in my planning process worrying about what I can’t control instead of focusing on what I can.

Leading Up and Down the Chain of Command

This chapter has many gems of knowledge about communication up and down your organization… and I found conviction in both parts.

Leading Down

As a senior leader I can bless my junior leaders by showing them the strategic impact of our team.

Your team enters briefs wondering “what are we doing next”. In addtion, you need to give them a “why”. Your men need help to connect their tactical missions to the greater strategic goal.

If a team member helps plan the mission, they’ll often catch the vision and increase their morale and purpose thanks to hearing their commander’s intent.

This is leading down the chain of command. Providing vision to those junior to you. Giving them ownership.

Leading Up

Before blaming the boss, blame yourself. What can you do to push SA up the chain? This requires a lot more skill than leading down. You must also recognize your needs are part of a larger picture, you may not be the priority. This takes humility. At the end of the day, you must execute the plan as if it were your own.

Decisiveness Amidst Uncertainty

This was a great chapter… an area that I am very weak on. A leader must be decisive amidst uncertainty. Act on logic, not emotions.

This was really similar to Bezos’s 70% rule. There was even a passage giving a heuristic for decision making under stress… it can be helpful to understand that some decisions are irrevocable and some can be changed. A wise leader knows how to resist the stress of the situation and make the best call given the information they have.

Discipline Equals Freedom / The Dichotomy of Leadership

This chapter spawned two more books of their own… so its dense with ideas and concepts that are more fleshed out in their respective titles.

In the passages on discipline, Jocko describes how the only way to excel is to systematically build discipline in your personal life and process. He describes the battle to get up on time in the morning as the first step on this journey, proclaiming that little discipline leads to discipline in greater things. (Sound familiar?.) He also demonstrates how being disciplined with process can lead to making time for what’s important, but personal discipline will empower you to spend that new time on the best things.

I have spent a fair amount of my life learning how to do things with a discipline and speed, I am just now on the path of learning how to be disciplined to spend this new time on good things. Great lesson.

Under the dichotomy of leadership, Jocko and Leif muse on how leadership is always about striking a balance between extremes. Recognizing this fact will allow you to self-diagnose and better balance these forces.

This was also very powerful… I tend to stay very heavily on one side of this balance… I am gracious but not competitive. I can be humble, but I am not active. Going through a recent leadership summit at work introduced me to how I excuse my weakness as part of my strengths, and this chapter drove home that I need to work to fight my weaknesses and find that balance.

Conclusion

I would like to read a few more perspectives on leadership. While this one is practical and excellent, it’s not written from the worldview I hold, and there were a few things that I didn’t agree with here in there, mostly in terms of severity of expression.

Read this book. I will likely read it again soon-erish. I think it has application as a leader and as a follower, and we are all leaders at one level or another. I thought it would be an easy listen, but I wound up writing around 3k words of notes on the book and talking about it nearly incessantly. Highly recommended.

Additional Resources

  • 2019-03-01 14:03:49 -0600

    Change stupid typo

  • 2019-03-01 10:18:31 -0600

    Add image for post

  • 2019-02-28 19:04:21 -0600

    Fix some typos and run on sentences, thanks mom!

  • 2019-02-28 16:07:03 -0600

    Post: Extreme Ownership