Reviewed in Saudi Arabia on 19 February 2019
The best leaders are not driven by ego or personal agendas. They are simply focused on the mission and how best to accomplish it.
We hope to dispel the myth that military leadership is easy because subordinates robotically and blindly follow orders. On the contrary, U.S. military personnel are smart, creative, freethinking individuals—human beings. They must literally risk life and limb to accomplish the mission. For this reason, they must believe in the cause for which they are fighting. They must believe in the plan they are asked to execute, and most important, they must believe in and trust the leader they are asked to follow. This is especially true in the SEAL Teams, where innovation and input from everyone (including the most junior personnel) are encouraged.
The book derives its title from the underlying principle—the mind-set—that provides the foundation for all the rest: Extreme Ownership. Leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame.
If an individual on the team is not performing at the level required for the team to succeed, the leader must train and mentor that underperformer.
Extreme Ownership requires leaders to look at an organization’s problems through the objective lens of reality, without emotional attachments to agendas or plans. It mandates that a leader set ego aside, accept responsibility for failures, attack weaknesses, and consistently work to build a better and more effective team.
With Extreme Ownership, junior leaders take charge of their smaller teams and their piece of the mission. Efficiency and effectiveness increase exponentially and a high-performance, winning team is the result.
“You can’t make people listen to you. You can’t make them execute. That might be a temporary solution for a simple task. But to implement real change, to drive people to accomplish something truly complex or difficult or dangerous—you can’t make people do those things. You have to lead them.”
“That might be one of the issues: in your mind you are doing everything right. So when things go wrong, instead of looking at yourself, you blame others. But no one is infallible. With Extreme Ownership, you must remove individual ego and personal agenda. It’s all about the mission. How can you best get your team to most effectively execute the plan in order to accomplish the mission?” I continued. “That is the question you have to ask yourself. That is what Extreme Ownership is all about.”
there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.
How is it possible that switching a single individual—only the leader—had completely turned around the performance of an entire group? The answer: leadership is the single greatest factor in any team’s performance. Whether a team succeeds or fails is all up to the leader. The leader’s attitude sets the tone for the entire team. The leader drives performance—or doesn’t. And this applies not just to the most senior leader of an overall team, but to the junior leaders of teams within the team.
“There are no bad units, only bad officers.”3 This captures the essence of what Extreme Ownership is all about. This is a difficult and humbling concept for any leader to accept. But it is an essential mind-set to building a high-performance, winning team.
When leaders who epitomize Extreme Ownership drive their teams to achieve a higher standard of performance, they must recognize that when it comes to standards, as a leader, it’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate. When setting expectations, no matter what has been said or written, if substandard performance is accepted and no one is held accountable—if there are no consequences—that poor performance becomes the new standard. Therefore, leaders must enforce standards. Consequences for failing need not be immediately severe, but leaders must ensure that tasks are repeated until the higher expected standard is achieved. Leaders must push the standards in a way that encourages and enables the team to utilize Extreme Ownership.
Leaders should never be satisfied. They must always strive to improve, and they must build that mind-set into the team. They must face the facts through a realistic, brutally honest assessment of themselves and their team’s performance. Identifying weaknesses, good leaders seek to strengthen them and come up with a plan to overcome challenges. The best teams anywhere, like the SEAL Teams, are constantly looking to improve, add capability, and push the standards higher. It starts with the individual and spreads to each of the team members until this becomes the culture, the new standard.
Every leader must be able to detach from the immediate tactical mission and understand how it fits into strategic goals. When leaders receive an order that they themselves question and do not understand, they must ask the question: why? Why are we being asked to do this? Those leaders must take a step back, deconstruct the situation, analyze the strategic picture, and then come to a conclusion.
A common misperception among military leaders or corporate senior executives, this was an example of a boss who didn’t fully comprehend the weight of her position. In her mind, she was fairly laid back, open to questions, comments, and suggestions from people. She talked about maintaining an “open-door policy.” But in the minds of her sales managers, she was still The Boss: experienced, smart, and most important, powerful. That position demanded a high level of reverence—so high, in fact, that for an employee to question her ideas seemed disrespectful. None of them were comfortable questioning her, even though none of the midlevel managers actually worried about losing their jobs because they asked a question. But they were certainly worried about looking bad in front of The Boss.
That is what Extreme Ownership is all about. If you don’t understand or believe in the decisions coming down from your leadership, it is up to you to ask questions until you understand how and why those decisions are being made. Not knowing the why prohibits you from believing in the mission. When you are in a leadership position, that is a recipe for failure, and it is unacceptable. As a leader, you must believe.”
“But the boss should have explained this to us, right?” one manager asked. “Absolutely. I explained that to her, and, sure enough, she came down here and did just that. But she’s not a mind reader. The CEO can’t predict what you won’t get or understand. She’s not perfect; none of us are. Things are going to slip through the cracks from time to time. It happens.
Leadership isn’t one person leading a team. It is a group of leaders working together, up and down the chain of command, to lead. If you are on your own, I don’t care how good you are, you won’t be able to handle it.”
While the SEAL platoon commander quickly put his ego in check, unfortunately, there were other egos getting in the way.
Ego clouds and disrupts everything: the planning process, the ability to take good advice, and the ability to accept constructive criticism. It can even stifle someone’s sense of self-preservation. Often, the most difficult ego to deal with is your own. Everyone has an ego. Ego drives the most successful people in life—in the SEAL Teams, in the military, in the business world. They want to win, to be the best. That is good. But when ego clouds our judgment and prevents us from seeing the world as it is, then ego becomes destructive. When personal agendas become more important than the team and the overarching mission’s success, performance suffers and failure ensues.
Implementing Extreme Ownership requires checking your ego and operating with a high degree of humility. Admitting mistakes, taking ownership, and developing a plan to overcome challenges are integral to any successful team. Ego can prevent a leader from conducting an honest, realistic assessment of his or her own performance and the performance of the team.
On the battlefield, countless problems compound in a snowball effect, every challenge complex in its own right, each demanding attention. But a leader must remain calm and make the best decisions possible. To do this, SEAL combat leaders utilize Prioritize and Execute. We verbalize this principle with this direction: “Relax, look around, make a call.”
“With so much going on in the chaos and mayhem, they would try to take on too many tasks at once. It never worked. I taught them to Prioritize and Execute. Prioritize your problems and take care of them one at a time, the highest priority first. Don’t try to do everything at once or you won’t be successful.” I explained how a leader who tries to take on too many problems simultaneously will likely fail at them all.
The plan must mitigate identified risks where possible. SEALs are known for taking significant risk, but in reality SEALs calculate risk very carefully. A good plan must enable the highest chance of mission success while mitigating as much risk as possible. There are some risks that simply cannot be mitigated, and leaders must instead focus on those risks that actually can be controlled.
The best teams employ constant analysis of their tactics and measure their effectiveness so that they can adapt their methods and implement lessons learned for future missions. Often business teams claim there isn’t time for such analysis. But one must make time. The best SEAL units, after each combat operation, conduct what we called a “post-operational debrief.” No matter how exhausted from an operation or how busy planning for the next mission, time is made for this debrief because lives and future mission success depend on it.
Looking back, one of the greatest lessons learned for me was that I could have done a far better job of leading down the chain of command. I should have given greater ownership of plans to the troops—especially those who were negative and weren’t fully committed to the mission. I should have taken the time to better understand how what we were doing contributed to the strategic mission.
“We can’t expect them to be mind readers,” Jocko said. “The only way they are going to get this information is from what we pass to them, the reports we write and the phone calls we make. And we obviously aren’t doing a good enough job if they still have major questions.”
Jocko had always encouraged us to be aggressive in decision-making. But part of being decisive was knowing and understanding that some decisions, while immediately impactful, can be quickly reversed or altered; other decisions, like shooting another human being, cannot be undone.
In the uncertainty and chaos of the battlefield, despite the pressure to take the shot, I had to act decisively, in this case holding back my lead sniper from taking a shot on a target because we didn’t have clear, positive identification. It was one of any number of combat examples from our time in Ramadi that demonstrated how critical it was for leadership to be decisive amid uncertainty.
As with many of the dichotomies of leadership, a person’s biggest strength can be his greatest weakness when he doesn’t know how to balance it.
A leader’s best quality might be her aggressiveness, but if she goes too far she becomes reckless. A leader’s best quality might be his confidence, but when he becomes overconfident he doesn’t listen to others.
A leader’s best quality might be her aggressiveness, but if she goes too far she becomes reckless. A leader’s best quality might be his confidence, but when he becomes overconfident he doesn’t listen to others. In this case, Andy was a very loyal leader. He knew his people well and took care of his leaders and employees. But here, his loyalty to Mike was jeopardizing the financial stability of the entire company. His loyalty was out of equilibrium. But beyond the company’s balance sheet, Andy’s other leaders throughout the company saw what was happening, and it slowly undermined Andy’s leadership as their CEO.
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