There are so many ways to consume information in our world today. If you have a desire to learn something new on a particular topic there are virtually no legitimate excuses to fail to seek it out. One of the ways I consume information is through podcasts which is how I originally heard about Jocko Willink and his book Extreme Ownership (co-authored by Leif Babin). I was listening to a podcast and Willink was the guest. He mentioned his book Extreme Ownership and it was a classic case of “That sounds like a good book. Maybe I will read it someday.” As time went on, Willink was the guest on two other podcasts I consistently listen to, an old friend recommended the book to me, and so I decided it was time to read this book. I do not regret that decision as the book is full of practical leadership principles that I have been able to apply at work and in my personal life. Willink and his co-author Babin use their experiences and stories as U.S. Navy Seals in Iraq and as leaders of a leadership consulting company, Echelon Front, to communicate leadership principles. The stories and principles flow well and develop the cohesive concept of Extreme Ownership. The book is completely full of valuable information so I will just highlight a few of the concepts that stuck out to me.
“As individuals, we often attribute the success of others to luck or circumstances and make excuses for our own failures and the failures of our team.” I personally find it very easy to live life as a victim and feel like the challenges I face and failures I experience are no fault of my own. I often go a step further and blame them on things outside of my control. That approach is easier to emotionally accept than taking ownership. The concept of extreme ownership described in this book requires self-awareness and humility, both of which are not developed overnight. I have caught myself in mid-thought multiple times over the past few weeks when I realized I was slipping into a blaming mindset. I find myself wanting to blame failures on a team member at work, someone who did not follow through, or someone else’s poor judgement. The truth is victimization is far less rewarding in the long run than accepting responsibility, identifying the direction to go, and executing. I am striving to practice extreme ownership but I am definitely a work in progress.
“When a leader sets such an example [extreme ownership] and expects this from junior leaders within the team, the mindset develops into the team’s culture at every level.” We cannot expect what we do not express. What we express will not be taken seriously if it is not backed up by example. No matter how willing I am to uphold a culture of ownership, unless I model it, I will not be able to affect any spheres of my influence. To create a culture of ownership and taking responsibility, I have to set the example. I have to admit it is a lot easier for me to recognize where others should take responsibility than to do so myself. I am realizing everything hinges on my initial reaction to failures or breakdown in communication. Is my first reaction to point the finger and try to determine where others dropped the ball or is it to look at myself first, figure out how I contributed to the problem, and then take responsibility?
No bad teams, only bad leaders
“…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.” Ultimately the poor performance of any team can be attributed to the leader. Again, this is not easy to accept but it is true. The leader is in charge of setting expectations, following up, and coaching to maintain performance. Whatever is being tolerated will become the standard and it is the leader’s job to set the expectation. John Maxwell says “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” This principle is definitely easier to talk about than to put into practice. I know this idea is true intellectually but I often fall back into a mindset of blame. I am learning that leadership is rewarding but it is hard. Being a leader is not always glorious and when you are doing a good job it can be taken for granted, whereas when you fail you attract attention. This is why it is important to enjoy your work, develop good relationships with your team and enjoy them, and figure out ways to celebrate success. In the same way that we each have to accept responsibility when practicing extreme ownership, we also have to take responsibility for celebrating our wins.
Prioritize and Execute
“Even the greatest of battlefield leaders could not handle an array of challenges simultaneously without being overwhelmed. That risked failing at them all. I had to remain calm, step back from my immediate emotional reaction, and determine the greatest priority for the team. Then, rapidly direct the team to attack that priority.” I recently went through a season at work of feeling overwhelmed. I felt there were just too many tasks to complete like keeping up with engineering tasks, juggling multiple projects, keeping up with dates & deadlines, phone calls, emails, questions from team members, and other people to talk to. I learned through that season that I need to rely on my team and trust them to take on some of the load, I can’t tackle all the tasks in front of me at once, and that I need to be ok with everything not being complete at the end of the day. The strategy recommended in this book is a helpful one: remain calm, avoid the initial emotional response, and determine the greatest priority and execute.
Another quote from the book said “Even the most competent of leaders can be overwhelmed if they try to tackle multiple problems or a number of tasks simultaneously.” I had to learn that to be an effective leader I cannot do everything myself and do it all at once. I have come to the conclusion that being busy with no margin is not a badge of honor for a leader; however, this is generally the perception people have. We tend to think that the busier you are the more important you must be. I am learning to set priorities and delegate. Another book I recently read called Getting Things Done by David Allen recommended a strategy involving 3 D’s:
- Do It
- Delegate It
- Defer It
Overall Extreme Ownership helped me identify areas of weakness in my leadership and personal life. The content itself was formatted well making it easy to follow. The principles from the book are not just vague concepts but leadership principles which can be readily applied. I will definitely be recommending this book to fellow readers in the future.