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“Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win” by Jocko Willink

After spending 20 years with the SEALs and leading the most highly decorated special operations unit of the entire war in Iraq, the author turned to the civilian sector to train executives and companies the leadership lessons from combat. This book contains his principles on how to lead and win beyond the battlefield in all leadership situations.

How this book impacted me

In my work career I frequently felt unsatised with the situation handling, decision making or priority setting in my organization. Most of the times, I could not attribute precisely where my dissatisfaction was coming from and what was the root cause. Reading this book brought me a clearer understanding of what I, the team and my superiors are lacking and what we must do to better reach our targets.

Certain principles are clearly only applicable for ofcial leaders in an organization. While not a team leader myself, just assessing what must be done with what is done had and has a huge personal learning effect and, I feel, can prepare for a leadership position. Also, there is a message applicable for everybody independent of the individual status:

The 12 leadership principles:

Principle I: Extreme ownership

The leader must own everything, there is no one else to blame. He must acknowledge mistakes and failures, take ownership of them and develop a plan to win. If a team member is not performing, the leader cannot blame but must train and mentor him. But if the underperformer continually fails, the leader must be loyal to the team and the mission by ring them and hiring others.

Principle II: No bad teams, only bad leaders

Leaders must enforce standards and always push the standard higher in a way that encourages the team. They must pull the different elements of the team together to support one another with all focused exclusively on how to best accomplish the mission. Tasks are to be repeated until the higher expected standard is achieved: It is not what you preach, it is what you tolerate.

Look at yourself first, take responsibility and be focussed solely on the teams’ success.

Principle III: Believe

Leaders must be a true believer of the mission to be able to convince others. This belief in the mission is far more important than training or equipment and critical to win. Leaders must understand how the immediate tactical mission ts into the strategic goals. If they do not understand an order, they must ask questions up the chain of command until they understand the “why”. Likewise it is critical that senior leaders impart a general understand of that strategic knowledge to their teams.

Principle IV: Check the ego

Ego drives the most successful people in life, which is good. But when ego clouds our judgement and personal agendas become more important than the team and the mission, performance suffers and failure ensues. Always operate with a high degree of humility. Admitting mistakes, taking ownership and developing a plan to overcome challenges are integral to any successful team.

Principle V: Cover and move

It means teamwork and is the most fundamental tactic as divisions will arise within any team. Often, when smaller teams within the team get so focused on their immediate tasks, they forget about what others are doing or how they depend on other teams and might even compete with each other. When there are obstacles, animosity and blame develop, which inhibit the overall teams performance. The leader must break down silos and continually remind the team that they are part of the greater team and the strategic mission. Instead of pointing ngers, the focus must always be on how to best accomplish the mission.

Principle VI: Simple

When plans and orders are too complicated, people may not understand them. They must be communicated in a simple, clear and concise manner. Everyone that is part of the mission must know and understand his role and what to do in the event of likely contingencies. If your team does not get it, you have not kept things simple and you have failed. Leaders must encourage questions that clarify and take the time to explain so that every member of the team understands.

Principle VII: Prioritize and execute

Leaders must determine the highest priority effort and focus all energies towards its execution but maintain the ability to quickly reprioritize efforts and rapidly adapt to a constantly changing environment. If priorities shift, communication up and down the chain of command is critical.

  1. Prioritize: Evaluate highest priority
  2. Communicate: Lay out in simple, clear and concise terms the highest priority effort for your team
  3. Plan: Develop and determine a solution, seek input from key leaders and team where possible
  4. Execute: Direct the execution of that solution, focussing all efforts and resources towards this priority task
  5. Repeat: Move to next highest priority. Repeat
  6. Communicate: When priorities change, pass situation and awareness up & down the chain
  7. Adapt: Dont let focus on one priority cause target xation.

Principle VIII: Decentralized command

Teams must be broken into manageable elements of 4-5 operators with a clearly designated leader. Those leaders must understand the overall mission (“believe”). Junior leaders must understand what is in their decision-making authority and be empowered to make decisions on key tasks necessary to accomplish that mission in the most effective and efcient manner possible. Tell higher authority what you plan to do. Be proactive. Frontline leaders need implicit trust that their senior leaders will back their decisions.

Principle IX: Plan

The planning process must be standardized, repeatable and guide users with a checklist of all important things. Implementing such a planning process will ensure the highest level of performance and give the team the greatest chance to accomplish the mission. An optimal process contains the following:

  1. Analyze the mission: Understand the headquarters mission, the intent and the goal.
  2. Resources: Identify personnel, assets, resources and time available.
  3. Decentralize the planning process: Empower key leaders within the team to analyze possible courses of action.
  4. Determine a specific course of action: Lean toward selecting the simplest course of action and focus efforts on the best course of action.
  5. Empower key leaders to develop the plan for the selected course of action.
  6. Risk management: Plan for likely contingencies through each phase of the operation and mitigate risks that can be controlled as much as possible.
  7. Delegate portions of the plan and brief to key junior leaders to give them a buy-in: Stand back and be the tactical genius to ensure compliance with strategic objectives and identify weaknesses.
  8. Review: Continually check and question the plan against emerging information to ensure it still ts the situation.
  9. Briefing: Brief the plan to all participants and supporting assets with emphasize on the intent, ask questions and engage in discussion and interaction with the team to ensure they understand.
  10. Debriefing: Conduct a post-operational debrief to reevaluate, enhance and refine what worked and what did not to constantly improve. Ask:
    1. What went right?
    2. What went wrong?
    3. How can we adapt to make us even more effective and increase our advantage over the enemy?

Principle X: Leading down the chain

It is critical that each member of the team understands the others role and how it contributes to the big picture success. This is not intuitive and never as obvious to the employee as leaders might assume. It requires regularly stepping out of the ofce, personally engaging in face-to-face conversations with direct reports and observing the frontline. This mutual understanding facilitates Decentralized Command.

Principle XI: Decisiveness amid uncertainty

As the leader almost never has the full picture or a clear understanding of the situation, it is critical to make the best decisions possible based on the immediate information available. There is no 100% right solution. Leaders must be comfortable with this and be able to make decisions promptly, then be ready to adjust those decisions quickly based on evolving situations and new information. Waiting for the 100% right leads to delay, indecision and an inability to execute.

Principle XII: Discipline equals freedom

Leadership is challenging as it requires balancing many seemingly contradictory qualities. Generally, when a leader struggles, the cause behind the problem is that the leader has leaned too far in one direction. A good leader must be:

  • ready and condent enough to follow,
  • aggressive but not overbearing,
  • calm but not robotic,
  • condent but never cocky,
  • brave but not foolhardy,
  • attentive to details but not obsessed by them,
  • strong but likewise have physical and mental endurance,
  • humble but not passive,
  • close with subordinates but not too close,
  • competitive but a gracious loser,
  • quiet but not silent,
  • able to execute “Extreme Ownership” and “Decentralized Command” simultaneously.

The author closes with:

A leader has nothing to prove but everything to prove.

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