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"Extreme Ownership": 12 Lessons To Master Life

(a 15 minute read)
With the year coming close to an end, lots of people spend their time reflecting on what the **** went down this year. I won’t go over all that’s happened because everyone’s done so enough already. What I want to focus on now is the one thing that’s become apparent to all is most needed: Leadership. 

The challenges our leaders faced this year have been incredibly hard to tackle and they exposed a lot of cracks everywhere. Some leaders coped better than others, and some simply weren’t up to the task at hand (...you know who). And it shows...a theme that continues in every instance where leadership is an important aspect - from governments to jobs to everyday life.

When we hear the word “leadership” we usually think about politicians, managers or higher-ranked people in general. What we often don’t realize is that basic leadership principles can be applied to any of our lives to make a huge difference. While people in power literally get paid to lead, this year left all of us more on our than ever before. It’s therefore never been more important for all of us to take ownership of our own situations and make the best of them.

The Essence Of Extreme Ownership

What I want to talk about today is Jocko Willink’s and Leif Babin’s 2015 book Extreme Ownership. These two are U.S. Navy SEAL officers who led the most highly decorated special operations unit of the Iraq War and in the book they demonstrate how to apply powerful leadership principles from the battlefield to business and life. Put short: they know their sh*t, and it’s worth listening to what they have to say.

The book is split into three parts, each of which touches on different aspects of leadership and responsibility. I’ll try to take the most important bits and explain them to you as best as I can. Throughout the book they tell stories of combat because it’s the most intense and dynamic environment imaginable which teaches the toughest leadership lessons with absolutely everything at stake. But that’s not it.

They also expand that knowledge by applying it to everyday life in business and at home. The principles are rather simple, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to execute. Taking ownership for mistakes and failures is hard but those who can successfully implement these principles will run circles around everyone else. And as usual, if you want to get even more value then you should definitely hear it from them. Give the book a shot and even check out their other work too...it’s worth it. I also put a summary of everything at the end for you to revisit, so keep on reading until the very end. Enough talking. Let’s start.

PART I - Winning The War Within

  1. Own Everything In Your World.

If leadership could be summarized into one principle, it would be that a leader has to take full responsibility (or better: ownership) for a situation. The leader must own everything in his or her world and that of the team. There is no one else to blame. Acknowledge your mistakes and admit failures. Take ownership and develop a plan to win. And the same goes for team-play situations which can be projects at work, family life or simply your group of friends on a night out.

We often attribute the success of others to luck or circumstances while making excuses for our own shortcomings. We start blaming factors beyond our control or bad luck and we try to push away the responsibility for that situation. Taking ownership for a situation - even if you’re not at fault - takes a lot of courage. But that’s what leadership is about. Once you do, your life will change for the better. You are now in control and can begin shaping the world to your advantage.

  1. There Are No Bad Teams.

It doesn’t matter if you’re in a position where you lead others or if you simply want to be the best version of yourself, there is one thing you always have to remember: it’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate. When setting expectations, if substandard performance is accepted and no one is held accountable, that poor performance becomes the new standard. And the cycle continues...there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.

In times like this year it’s become more important to structure your days than ever before. While we’re all not to blame for being in this position, we are now responsible for what we make of it. I know that it’s challenging for everyone and we need the time to cope with everything. But does slacking for months on end without improving your own situation really do anything positive after a while? If you keep on tolerating that, you set your standard of expectations lower and lower by the minute. How about we try to improve step by step in simple areas of life and build our way up from there?

For example, let’s say you want to establish a new morning routine by waking up earlier...or you want to learn a new skill, or you want to read 50 pages of a book everyday - it really doesn’t matter. Don’t keep on hitting the snooze button right from the beginning and lower your personal standards. Don’t fall into this cycle. Instead, try waking up 5 minutes earlier, day after day, and build your momentum from there. (Yes, this is a serious topic!)

By honestly assessing your situation and building that mindset into your team (starting with yourself), you can get much further. Taking your time is okay, and so is fear of failure. But more important are actually moving forward and the fear of being stagnant. Go one step at a time and try to be a little better than you were yesterday.

  1. Believe In The Mission.

If you want to accomplish a goal and inspire others to make that happen, you have to be a true believer in that mission. If a leader starts to show doubts, the goal probably won’t be accomplished - you must believe in the greater cause. Dig deeper for the WHY of that mission and understand how it all plays into your strategic goals. But don’t stop there - simply believing won’t do anything. 

You also have to take action and convey that goal to your team. That’s the only way you can inspire others to make it happen. To understand and convey the greater cause you have to ask a very important question: WHY? Why do you want to achieve this goal? Why are you asking others to do this? If someone doesn’t understand the greater cause, they cannot truly believe in it.

For example, to those of you that went through the struggle of getting their child to brush their teeth, to eat healthy, to sleep well and all that other stuff, this is exactly where this comes into play. If your little one has no understanding of why they have to do all of this, they won’t do it willingly. That’s why it’s your responsibility as a leader to convey the message. Don’t just think in terms of WHAT you have to do but also WHY. Only then can you align your goals with others and work to make it happen.

  1. Check Your Ego.

Ego clouds and disrupts everything: the planning process, the ability to take good advice and the ability to accept constructive criticism. And often, the most difficult ego to deal with is your own. When ego clouds our judgement and prevents us from seeing the world as it is, then ego becomes destructive to ourselves. We stand in our way.

Implementing Extreme Ownership in your life requires checking your ego and operating with a high degree of humility. Admitting mistakes, taking responsibility, and developing a plan to overcome challenges are integral to any form of success. Ego can prevent an honest assessment of one’s situation and therefore lead to failure...You’re not above brushing teeth. Strive to be confident, but never cocky. And never get complacent. This is where controlling your ego is most important.

As you can see, Part I of the book doesn’t really talk about strategies or advice to implement on how to manage other people. It’s all about showing that success starts from within. It comes when you make a decision to do more, to BE more. Something that can only be done if you realize that you’re always the leader of your own situation and that it’s up to you to make the most of it.

PART II - The Laws Of Combat

  1. Cover And Move: Teamwork.

“Cover and Move” is one of the most fundamental tactics in the military and put simply it means this: Teamwork. The larger a team gets, the more subdivisions within that team will arise. Often, when one team within the team gets so focused on their own tasks and goals, they forget about everyone else. They may even start to compete with one another and over time this will create friction if it isn’t dealt with.

It falls on leaders to continually put everything in perspective and remind the team that they’re part of a greater picture and the overall mission. When the entire organization fails, everyone loses. On the other hand, when the entire organization wins, everyone wins. A no-brainer. That’s why you have to keep on working together, communicate with each other and mutually support one another to win.

If you’re hanging out with friends and play a quick round of Charades, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. Get everyone on board and do everything in your power to get that W. Again, his is a serious topic and if you want to win in Charades - or any team game for that matter - you have to know the basic skills of great leadership.

  1. Keep It Simple.

Most things in life are layered and once things get more layers, they also tend to get more complicated. And when plans and orders get too complicated, people may not really understand them (something related to lesson 3). Things will therefore inevitably go wrong, issues get compounded and spiral out of control into total disaster - if you fail to lead wisely.

As a leader, it doesn’t matter how well you feel you have presented the information or communicated a plan. If your team doesn’t fully get it, you haven’t kept things simple and have failed. Plans and your communication of those plans must be kept simple and precise so that everyone understands. “If you don’t brush your teeth, they will rot and fall out, and no one will like you.” See, very simple and straight to the point. Also very extreme and not advisable, but you get the point.

  1. Prioritize and Execute.

This is pretty much exactly what it says. Anyone can get overwhelmed when trying to tackle multiple things at once. If you want to get the best results for whatever it is you’re doing, you have to decide on what’s most important for you and then execute in order. To build momentum, look for the smallest domino and hack at it until it falls onto the next one. Don’t try to build The Empire State Building right from the beginning - start with the foundation first and move your way up.

In the book, Leif Babin uses a brilliant real-life battlefield experience to undermine the importance of this lesson and he breaks it down to the most important aspect: don’t tackle every problem at once. Pull yourself off the firing line and remember this sequence: Relax, Look around, Make a call. This is the reason why great planning is so important...if you have everything somewhat planned out, then you can think one or two steps ahead and adapt to changes much more quickly. (more on that in a minute)

  1. Decentralized Command Is Key.

This lesson doesn’t really apply to ALL everyday situations but it’s still incredibly valuable. Fact is that you can’t keep track of every detail and you can’t manage every aspect at once. Multitasking is a myth because you end up doing less all around the board. A rule of thumb says that you can generally only manage between six to ten people but after that things start to get out of your control. 

Teams and tasks must be broken down into smaller, simpler elements of four to five people with a clearly stated priority and a designated leader. Those leaders must have an understanding of the overall mission which means they have to understand the WHY behind the WHAT. And they’re the ones you have to manage instead of taking on the entire organization. The effectiveness of decentralized command is critical to the success of any team in any industry. Leaders at all levels must be empowered to make decisions.

At this point we have learned that real success can only come from within and we have touched on the most important fundamentals that define great leadership. If you stop right here and apply every principle so far, you will undoubtedly find more success in your personal life and get much further in whatever you pursue. But we won’t stop quite yet. In the final part of this book we’ll take a look at how to actually stay successful and therefore sustain our victory for the long term. Let’s get to the largest dominoes.

PART III - Sustaining Victory

  1. Great Planning Is Essential.

I touched on this already in lesson 7: Great planning is essential and it all begins with a deep understanding of the overall mission and goals. To prevent misunderstandings, the mission must be carefully refined and simplified so that it’s explicitly clear and focused on great planning. I could go on and on about how you could plan things and what to keep an eye on, but I think it’s best if I just show you what the guys themselves think planning should look like. So, if you want to your kid to eat more broccoli or if you want to wake up at 7:30 AM instead of 7:55 AM, listen to Jocko and Leif:

  1. Analyze the mission (the goal and the WHY).
  2. Identify the personnel, assets, resources, and time available.
  3. Decentralize the planning process.
  4. Determine a specific course of action.
  5. Empower key leaders to develop the plan for the selected course of action.
  6. Plan for likely contingencies through each phase of the operation.
  7. Mitigate risks that can be controlled as much as possible.
  8. Delegate portions of the plan and brief to key junior leaders.
  9. Continually make sure that the plan still holds against upcoming information.
  10. Brief the plan to all participants and supporting assets.
  11. Conduct a debrief after everything is over.

I know, this isn’t really information for everyday life anymore and it’s heavily influenced by their military background but I still think that everyone can make some use of it. As you can see, great planning is somewhat of a natural extension of all the things we talked about so far...and who knows, maybe you can surprise me with how effectively you’re able to implement this into your new cooking habits.

  1. Lead Down The Chain.

I’ll try to keep this short because there’s a lot to cover. We already talked about how important the WHY of a mission is and the reasons for why everyone should know why they’re doing what they’re doing. Everyone should be aware of their role and contribution to the bigger picture of the process. But that’s not it. Everyone should also have a general understanding of the others’ jobs. If you’re only focusing on what you’re doing, you won’t get very far.

On the other hand, if you establish a clear chain of command with precise, simple and direct communication then things should go pretty smoothly. And if something isn’t working out, look in the mirror first to see if you can change the outcome. Always remember lessons 1 and 4. If you do, you will win.

  1. Decisiveness Amid Uncertainty.

As much as I’d love for it to be this way, the full picture is probably never complete. There’s always some information you haven’t quite taken into account or something you didn’t even think about which is why you can’t always make THE best decision possible. It’s in moments like these where this lesson becomes invaluable. You can’t be paralyzed by fear because that leads to the worst of all: inaction.

It’s critical for leaders to act decisively amid uncertainty; to make the best decision they can based on only the immediate information available. This “incomplete picture” principle is not unique to any situation and it separates the good from the great. Waiting for the 1000% correct and certain solution leads to delay, indecision and an inability to execute. It does more harm than good. If something goes bad, just say “Good!” and make the best of that new situation. You won’t always be right, but you can try to be right enough most of the time. That’s how success compounds.

  1. Just Do.

That’s it. That was most of what Willink and Babin talk about in their book. As said earlier, there’s obviously so much lost while making a summary like this and that’s why you have to give the book a shot on your own. Don’t get left behind. Hearing them talk about their battlefield experiences and how they were able to implement that knowledge in daily business and everyday life is incredibly inspiring.

And now, as promised, here’s a summary of everything we’ve learned so far - everything a leader should do and everything a leader should be. A leader…

  • ...must lead but also be ready to follow.
  • ...must be aggressive but not overbearing.
  • ...must be calm but not robotic.
  • ...must be confident but not cocky.
  • ...must be brave but not foolhardy.
  • ...must have a competitive spirit but also be a gracious loser.
  • ...must be attentive to details but not be obsessed with them.
  • ...must be strong but likewise have endurance (mentally and physically).
  • ...must be humble but not passive.
  • ...must be quiet but not silent.
  • ...must be close with subordinates but not too close.
  • ...must exercise Extreme Ownership.
  • ...has nothing to prove but everything to prove.

Now there’s not much left for me to say. I hope that you can channel the experience of this year to take this newfound knowledge and actually apply it. Don’t let this be just another thing you once read and then forgot about because you simply kept on scrolling. And with that being said, just remember: Don’t try to be better than someone else is today, just try to be the best YOU you can be.