Extreme Ownership and the Dichotomy of Leadership

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  • February 8, 2016

In 2009, I went on a 10-day retreat to learn the meditation technique Vipassana, which was originally taught by the Buddha approximately 2,600 years ago. Upon returning from this life-changing experience, a friend told me that I had not just learned any form of meditation, but rather an “extreme” form of meditation. I think it likely gets this label because of the pure simplicity of the technique; to mediate using the Vipassana method, you practice mindful breathing. Through this contemplation of your breath, you can also gain insight into your body, the world and more. It sounds simple — just breathing! But it is truly a radical form of being, especially when we have so much noise in the outside world.

When I do something, I like to do it full force, including meditation. So when someone recently recommended that I read Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, a book on leadership written by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, two former U.S. Navy SEAL officers, my interest was piqued. First, ownership is a core value of Learning House. Second, it seems obvious to me that lessons learned in the most of trying circumstances, like those faced by the authors on the front lines of the Iraq war in the mid-2000s, can be translated to civilian and work life.

One of the things I tell my team is that everyone can choose to be a leader. Leadership isn’t about how many direct reports you have, but rather what is in your heart and mind. Therefore, these takeaways are applicable to everyone, not just those in “conventional” leadership positions.

Part I: Winning the War Within

  1. Extreme ownership means total responsibility. One of the most important marks of an effective leader — a leader that other leaders can trust — is the willingness to accept total responsibility for the outcome. Willink starts on a low note with an incident that went disastrously wrong. When it was over, a SEAL was injured, an Iraqi ally was dead and many others were placed in serious danger. Right after the event, the Navy wanted an investigation. Willink, who was in charge, collected all the relevant information. He found mistakes at all levels. But he didn’t feel right about submitting the list without adding one crucial detail. “I had to take complete ownership of what went wrong,” says Willink. “That’s what a leader does — even if it means getting fired.” It’s an example of what Willink and Babin call extreme ownership. It was not only the right thing to do, it also paid off. By taking the blame, Willink kept the trust of his team and was able to identify ways of improving operations. It also preserved trust with his commanders.
  2. There are no bad teams, only bad leaders. The authors provide a spectacular example of this tenet. During SEAL training, they had two boat crew leaders switch teams. One leader won with both teams, demonstrating that there was no issue with the team members. When leaders drive their teams to achieve a higher standard of performance, they must recognize this: When it comes to standards as a leader, it’s not what you preach, but what you tolerate. If substandard performance is accepted and no one is held accountable, that poor performance becomes the new standard. The authors conclude that leaders should never be satisfied. They must always strive to improve, and they must build that mindset into the team.
  3. Believe in the mission. In order to convince and inspire others to follow and accomplish a mission, a leader must be a “true believer” in the mission. If a leader does not believe, he or she will not take the risks required to overcome the inevitable challenges necessary to win. And, just as importantly, he or she will not be able to convince others. This really strikes home for me. I am very thoughtful and careful not to jump into something until I am a “believer” in what we are trying to accomplish. I know the best version of me will come out in this scenario, and I see this every day at Learning House, where I am so passionate about what we are trying to accomplish.
  4. Check the ego or stay out of your own way. Ego clouds and disrupts everything: the planning process, the ability to take good advice and the ability to accept corrective criticism. Willink and Babin also point out that ego can be a good thing. Ego can drive us to succeed, but it also can hinder our growth. Usually ego becomes a problem when we take our eye off the mission and start worrying about winning and losing by less important measures, like status. The authors talk a lot about the dichotomy of leadership, which really resonates with me. And in this case, it’s about being confident, but not cocky.

Part II: Laws of Combat 

  1. Cover and move or support your team. I’ve written about this before, but success is all about the team. It is essential that everyone on the team agrees with this principle. The moment a leader or others are out for themselves and focused on their own win, you’ve lost.
  2. Simplify. This advice will never get old to me. The authors tell us that combat, like anything in life, has inherent layers of complexities. Simplifying as much as possible is crucial to success. When plans and orders are too complicated, people may not understand them. And when things go wrong, and they inevitably do go wrong, complexity compounds issues that can spiral out of control. I often like to ask the question, “Do you understand?” I will keep asking that question until I get that look in their eyes or hear the tone of voice that they get what I am trying to communicate. If I have to ask a lot, that is a signal that I need to “simplify” the plan or the message.
  3. Prioritize and execute. There are a million distractions on the battlefield, and it’s the same with the office. If we lose focus on the priorities, we’ll get overwhelmed and fail. This is another key reason why I perform life planning and goal setting on a regular basis. They’re not ends in themselves. They enable us to set and stay focused on our targets.
  4. Decentralized command or empower your people. This one is critical. You might think if you’ve got to take this kind of total, extreme ownership that you have to do everything. No way. First, you can’t do it. Second, that’s why you have a team! Leaders delegate. Willink and Babin stress training, empowerment, and communicating clear responsibilities and expectations.

Part III: Sustaining Victory

  1. Leading up and down the chain of command. We all have gotten frustrated when superiors ask for information that to us seems trivial and perhaps even distracting to executing the plan. Willink really flips this concept on its head and believes we need to lead up the chain of command. Going back to the first point on extreme ownership, we need to own everything. The better we push situational awareness up the chain, the easier it will be for our superiors to help us make decisions as well as empower us.
  2. Have decisiveness amid uncertainty. The combat leader almost never has the full picture or a clear and certain understanding of the enemy’s actions or reactions. Regardless, leaders cannot be paralyzed by fear, because that results in inaction. It is critical for leaders to act decisively amid uncertainty.
  3. Discipline equals freedom. I have discussed this concept in a previous blog post, so this particularly resonates with me. The authors use an illustrative example on how they brought discipline to the process of gathering intelligence during targeted raids. Previously, they took the “ransack the place” approach, which ended up taking longer and led to inevitable sloppiness. Their increased discipline allowed them to accomplish more raids as well as to increase effectiveness on each raid. However, every leader must walk a fine line between discipline and freedom. Just as discipline and freedom are opposing forces that must be balanced, leadership requires finding the equilibrium in the dichotomy of many seemingly contradictory qualities. The simple recognition of this is one of the most powerful tools a leader has. For example, a leader must lead but also be ready to follow. Perhaps the junior person has more experience or has thought of a better way to attack the challenge.

Characteristics of a Good Leader

The point about the dichotomy of leadership is really powerful. There is likely some Star Wars metaphor here in terms of balance in the “force,” where a good leader must embody both aspects of a characteristic, but not succumb to the dark side. Some of the opposing forces include:

  • 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 but not passive
  • Aggressive but not overbearing
  • Quiet but not silent
  • Calm but not robotic
  • Logical but not devoid of emotions
  • Close with the team, but not so close that one person becomes more important than another
  • Able to exercise extreme ownership while exercising decentralized command

I will continue to practice my extreme form of meditation, but now will add extreme ownership to my practice. I hope you will as well.


About Todd Zipper

President & Chief Executive Officer

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Mark Hyland

I have also read this book and I really like how you brought it altogether in one synopsis. As a Senior Supervisor in manufacturing, with 4 supervisors and 8 line leads as part of my team, I am consistently coaching to them on these points. We need own everything we do, when we do that, that attitude WILL be transferred out to are manufacturing associates on the floor, creating the engagement we need to improve everyday.

Really well done!