Countless teams throughout history owe their success to a great leader: someone to formulate a brilliant plan, make tough decisions, and inspire their team to achieve victory. How do you become a leader like this? According to Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, the one thing that sets apart the best leaders is “Extreme Ownership”—the willingness to accept responsibility for every flaw or failure related to your mission, no matter whose “fault” it is. Only when you quit blaming others and looking for excuses will you do everything within your power to achieve victory.
Willink and Babin are both former US Navy SEALs who trained SEAL leaders and led teams of their own as officers during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Upon returning to the United States, Willink and Babin founded Echelon Front: a consulting firm dedicated to training leaders in the corporate world. By advising high-level executives in a wide range of industries, Willink and Babin gained even more expertise in what it takes to be a leader.
However, Willink and Babin emphasize that Extreme Ownership isn’t just for military officers or business executives. You could use Extreme Ownership to successfully lead your family or even just discipline yourself. Anyone can take advantage of these principles to achieve their personal goals and improve their relationships.
Why “Extreme” Ownership?
In The Dichotomy of Leadership, Willink and Babin’s sequel to Extreme Ownership, the authors explain that some readers misunderstand the title “Extreme Ownership.” They assume that it means being an “extreme” leader—for example, forcing your team to be strictly disciplined about every minute detail or to perpetually maintain manic energy and momentum while accomplishing tasks. Willink and Babin assert that doing everything as “extremely” as possible is counterproductive.
Instead, Willink and Babin use the word “extreme” to convey that you should embrace more responsibility than is logical—for things no one would expect you to take responsibility for (like the actions of others). This core message is arguably the part of the book that’s most applicable to readers not in official leadership roles. Taking more responsibility than expected is a respectable move in virtually any context. The alternative, blaming other people, is rarely helpful—it impedes empathy, causes division, and often offends others.
For example, Willink has stated that Extreme Ownership is a powerful tool to maintain a healthy marriage. When both partners refuse to blame one another, they’re more likely to see themselves as a team and resolve conflicts without trying to “win.”
First, we’ll explore how Extreme Ownership leads a team to success: It enables rapid self-improvement and inspires those around you to take Extreme Ownership. Then, we’ll explain what Extreme Ownership looks like in action, discussing Willink and Babin’s specific rules for organizing a mission with the greatest chance of success.
To achieve greatness, you must be constantly on the lookout for ways your team can improve. According to Willink and Babin, Extreme Ownership is the best way to do so. By taking responsibility for your mistakes and the mistakes of your teammates, you’re choosing to see all mistakes as problems you need to solve, not as things to blame someone for. This empowers you to continuously improve yourself and your team.
Let’s explain this process in more detail: First, we’ll explain how taking ownership of others’ mistakes is necessary for improvement, then, how admitting to your own mistakes is necessary for improvement. Finally, we’ll clarify why taking ownership of your team’s failures doesn’t mean taking credit for its successes.
A great team is made up of great team members—every person on your team needs to operate at peak performance for the best chance of accomplishing your mission. As a leader taking Extreme Ownership, it’s your responsibility to make sure this happens: Maintain high standards by taking ownership of the mistakes of others. Whenever someone on your team does something wrong, ask what you can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again, rather than blaming others for the error.
Refusing to take responsibility for your team’s mistakes prevents you from improving yourself and improving the team. Why is this the case? When you blame someone else, you’re telling yourself that the only way the team can improve is for them to do better. You ignore all the things you could be doing to improve, thereby limiting your team’s potential. In reality, there’s always something you can do to prevent your team members’ mistakes.
For example, imagine you’re in charge of a bank and your unmotivated team of tellers is driving away customers with their bad attitudes. To improve, you need to take responsibility for the situation rather than just blaming your team for being surly. You might instate new incentives that reward your tellers for treating their customers well or fire the teller with the worst attitude who may be bringing down the others.
Willink and Babin note that it’s important to fix every mistake your team makes because it’s easy to let high standards slip. If a team member is doing a task poorly and you fail to correct them, that behavior becomes your team’s new standard for success. Be diligent about taking ownership of your teammates’ mistakes or your team will slide into mediocrity over time.
(Shortform note: In Good Strategy Bad Strategy, Richard Rumelt [refers to this process of gradually-lowering standards as...
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The book’s authors, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, are both former U.S. Navy SEALs who trained SEAL leaders and led teams of their own as officers during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Willink was a lieutenant commander and Babin served under him as a ground force commander in Ramadi, Iraq, the deadly and hostile center of Iraqi insurgency. After their military careers, they went on to advise businesses in a wide range of industries through their consulting firm, Echelon Front.
Willink and Babin found combat to be a more intense, amplified version of regular life. But the principles of decision-making and leadership...
In this chapter we get an introduction to the concept of Extreme Ownership and several leadership principles and strategies. Each of the principles will get a more in-depth explanation in later chapters.
While many leadership books and training courses focus on developing individual habits and traits, leadership is inextricably tied to the team’s performance. There are only two types of leaders — effective and ineffective — and the only way to measure a leader’s effectiveness is based on whether her team succeeds or fails.
As the person at the top of the chain of command, everything ultimately reflects back on you. You must make decisions quickly and definitively, and accept their consequences, good or bad.
Additionally, you need to believe in your mission or plan, and have no doubt about why you and your team are working to achieve it. When a leader displays that confidence and certainty, her team will also feel confident and can carry out the plan effectively and with conviction. If someone on the team doesn’t agree with or understand the purpose — the “why” — of a plan, then the leader must be able to thoroughly explain it. We’ll...
The first four chapters discuss the mindset a leader must have to lead her team successfully. The foundation of good leadership starts within, and a leader needs the right attitude to implement the strategies in Part II. An effective leader takes responsibility for her team’s shortcomings, establishes and maintains high standards, understands and clearly communicates the purpose of each goal, and checks her ego.
This chapter focuses on how leaders can practice Extreme Ownership by taking accountability for everything that happens under their direction. Leadership carries great responsibility, and a leader’s authority to direct her team means that she is also the one who must answer for the team’s performance.
If an employee or subordinate makes a mistake, a leader should not blame him. Instead, the leader has to question whether she adequately explained the mission and the plan, and if she gave the team member the training and resources he would need to be successful.
If a member of your team is underperforming, you must take it upon yourself to train and mentor that person for the good of the team. However, if the team member continues to fall short, the leader...
Accepting fault and admitting failure is one of the hardest things to do as a leader. Use this exercise to practice recognizing and admitting your own shortcomings in order to improve for the future.
Describe a recent incident in which you were working with at least one other person to accomplish something, and either you didn’t achieve it or things didn’t go as planned.
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A leader is responsible for maintaining and enforcing high standards of performance as her team works toward its goals. The leader must not only dictate high standards, but refuse to tolerate anything less, because if poor performance is accepted without consequence, that becomes the new standard. If a team or team member completes a task that is not up to par, the leader needs to insist that task be re-done until it meets the standard.
Initial consequences for poor performance don’t need to be extreme. But if the problem is consistent and unaffected by efforts to correct it, then a leader needs to take more serious action. If a particular team member consistently performs poorly — despite the leader’s efforts to mentor and help her improve — and is holding the team back from its potential success, the leader must remove her from the team as a means to maintain high standards. Allowing her to stay means implicitly accepting her substandard performance, which indicates to the rest of the team that this is acceptable.
A leader should always be looking for ways to improve, and inspire her team to adopt the same mindset. **As a leader, you can consistently raise the bar by...
As a leader, you have to believe in a plan and its goal before you can inspire your team to work toward it. How can you effectively explain a strategy to your team, let alone expect them to carry it out, unless you understand and believe in the purpose, or the “why”?
Doubts — or anything less than full confidence and conviction — will be apparent to your team members or employees, and that will undermine their confidence in the plan. Why would they execute something that their leader clearly doesn’t believe in? Additionally, if you don’t believe in the plan or the goal, you won’t do the hard work and take the necessary risks to achieve it. That means neither you nor your team is on the path to achieving anything unless you first believe in it.
If you don’t believe in the plan, adapt it (if you have the authority to do so) to something you can stand by. If that’s not an option, talk to your boss and reach an understanding about the purpose of the mission and how it fits into the entire organization’s larger goal. It takes Extreme Ownership to ask your boss for clarification on a plan or its why; it shows that you have the humility to admit that you don’t understand,...
Sometimes upper management issues a directive that seems to have no logic. This exercise can help you make sense of it (of course, if possible, the fool-proof way to understand it is simply to ask).
Describe an order or plan your boss recently handed down that you disagreed with or didn’t understand. What part of the plan didn’t make sense to you?
Too much ego — whether the leader’s or a team member’s — inhibits a team’s or company’s ability to succeed. You must be humble and open-minded to practice Extreme Ownership, and that requires you to check your ego.
The team and its mission must always come first; no one person can be more important than the collective team. As a leader, you set the tone for your team; establishing a culture that encourages teamwork and discourages competitiveness and ego sets your team up for success.
Too much ego can cause a leader or team member to put herself and her own personal goals above the team’s mission. As soon as someone is acting in their own interest, instead of the best interest of the team, it is detrimental to the team and its success. No matter how talented a person is, having too much ego can jeopardize an entire organization’s success. Leaders need to recognize when an employee’s ego is outweighing her strengths, and they must cut her if she is holding back the team or company.
Ego impedes progress; you can’t objectively assess your performance and continually look for ways to improve in the future if your ego is telling you that you did everything right. As a...
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With the appropriate mindset — one that involves taking Extreme Ownership, setting high standards, emphasizing the “why” of each goal, and checking your ego — a leader can implement key strategies to help her team achieve its goals. In chapters 5-8 we will discuss each of four critical strategies, collectively called the Laws of Combat.
Chapter 5 explores the Cover and Move strategy. On a battlefield, Cover and Move allows a team to work together to reach a destination: One group provides cover — keeping an eye out and having weapons ready to ward off enemies — as the other group advances forward. Then they switch roles, essentially leapfrogging forward, until they reach their destination.
This may not appear to have much relevance outside a warzone, but the principle of Cover and Move is teamwork. The entire team must work together, supporting and protecting each other, for everyone’s safety and success. Everyone on the team (or in the company) must be aware of everyone else’s position and objective to be able to move and act cohesively for one effort.
Leaders need to keep the...
When another department is creating a hurdle for your own team’s success, sometimes the best course of action is to figure out how to help them get their work done so they can do what you need from them.
Describe a current or recent situation in which another team, department, or division impeded your team’s work.
Life always brings surprises, so you must always expect the unexpected. If you keep plans simple, you control what you can while minimizing confusion when something inevitably goes off course. Simplifying a plan also requires you to narrow your focus to the most critical priorities, which helps reinforce the overarching goal for both you and your team.
By contrast, when plans are complicated, you increase the chances of people not understanding them. If people don’t understand the basic plan, how can they execute it? Furthermore, they are less able to adapt when things go wrong with complicated plans.
A team works more effectively when communication is simple and straightforward. Everyone on the team should strive to relay information to each other simply, explicitly, and concisely, especially in times of stress. This reduces the chance of wasted time and effort due to confusion or misunderstanding.
Plans must be made to be simple, and leaders need to explain them in a simple, clear, and concise way. A leader should also encourage all team members, no matter how junior, to speak up if they have questions or concerns. (As we discussed in Chapter 3, a leader is...
There are times when it feels like everything goes wrong at once, and that there is no way to accomplish everything at the same time. In these situations, a leader has to be able to calmly take stock of the situation, decide what needs to happen first, and carry it out; this Law of Combat is called Prioritize and Execute.
Trying to address several issues at the same time is overwhelming and inefficient. Most likely, you are only dividing your attention and won’t be able to tackle any of them effectively. Instead — even when it feels like five fires are burning at once — leaders must assess which problem poses the highest risk to everything else, and attack it.
Stress and high stakes can make this even more difficult, clouding a leader’s ability to clearly take stock of the situation and make definitive decisions. Leaders must be able to keep their eyes on the big picture in order to effectively prioritize.
Thorough planning can help leaders anticipate what problems may come up while carrying out a plan, and develop responses to those issues. This allows leaders to stay a step ahead, and makes it easier to Prioritize and Execute; a leader won’t get flustered by a...
You can be the best leader in the world, but you’re still human and you simply can’t do everything yourself. Decentralized Command is a form of delegating that allows leaders to stay focused on their unique job — leading the overall team in pursuit of the larger goal — by allowing each junior leader and team member under them to carry out her own unique job.
Leaders can only be effective at managing a limited number of people, generally about six to 10 people. To work efficiently, teams must be divided into smaller groups; senior leaders directly manage junior leaders, who directly manage teams of employees.
Senior leaders need to have an understanding of the larger goal and the plan to reach it. They must communicate this clearly to junior leaders, so that they, too, can understand the plan and the “why” (as we discussed in Chapter 3). Junior leaders have to understand the mission and how it ties in with the greater goal so that they can relay that to their teams and answer questions if anyone is unclear or skeptical of the plan.
With the understanding of the company’s mission and plan to achieve it, **junior leaders must also be empowered to take action and make decisions...
Even with the right knowledge and strategies in place, leadership comes with many challenges. In the next four chapters, we’ll explore the hurdles leaders need to navigate and the balance they must keep in order to use their tools and strategies effectively.
This chapter discusses the importance of planning. It may sound obvious, but a leader has to be able to develop a clear and well-thought-out plan; with a whole team of people following you, you can’t simply wing it. There are several steps to developing an effective plan.
In order to craft a plan, the leader needs a clear understanding of what the overarching mission or goal is. The mission must be simple, concise, and explicit, targeting a very specific goal that gets the team or company one step closer to the larger strategic vision. A mission that is too broad or vague leads to a lack of focus and prevents a team from successfully achieving the goal.
Furthermore, the mission needs to incorporate the larger purpose and goal, so that everyone, from the leader down to the lowest level employees, understands the “why.”
A leader should explore different possible...
A leader needs to coordinate the efforts of her team as well as her senior leaders in order to accomplish any goal. This is called leading up and down the chain of command, and requires careful balance of your role as both a leader and a subordinate, effective communication, and Extreme Ownership. In order to successfully lead up and down the chain of command, keep three things in mind.
First, take ownership of leading everyone in your world, from the junior team members below you to the bosses above you. It is your responsibility to inform everyone of your plan, how that fits into the larger vision and goal, and what you need to accomplish that.
An effective leader makes a point of interacting with her team members and observing the challenges and reality that employees face in the field. Understanding employees’ roles and challenges can be a huge asset in making future plans and decisions for the team. However, leaders don’t need to know every detail of frontline employees’ jobs, and junior employees don’t need to know every aspect of the big picture; it can distract and overwhelm them. Having a whole team of people who all know the same insight and information is...
Although sometimes it feels like your boss is creating hurdles for you to do your job, Extreme Ownership requires you to analyze what you can do to break down that barrier.
Describe a recent occasion when you felt your superiors were impeding your work more than supporting it. Specifically, how were they creating roadblocks?
Part of a leader’s responsibility is to lead her team courageously and decisively, no matter what stress and confusion is happening around her; presumably, this is part of the reason she has earned her position as the head of the team. Sometimes, a leader will only have limited information available to make a critical decision, and in these cases she must be comfortable making the best decision possible with what she has.
At times an educated guess will be the best option available, and this is when a leader’s knowledge and experience is especially critical to compensate for missing information. But leaders or not, there are times in life when we all must make decisions based on an incomplete picture — for example, in healthcare decisions when you know only the likelihood of a risk but not its certainty, or in deciding whether to evacuate before a forecasted severe storm.
Leaders can’t afford to waste time with too much deliberation, waiting on further research or hoping to reach the absolute right solution. They need to be able to make decisions quickly, and to adapt those decisions just as quickly if new information or circumstances arise.
Additionally, it’s important...
Leaders set the tone and example for their teams, and as they navigate challenging situations leaders must constantly keep a careful balance of seemingly opposite forces. When a leader struggles or is ineffective, it is typically a sign that she has veered too far to either side of one of these dichotomies; in this way, a leader’s greatest strength can become her weakness if she doesn’t keep it balanced.