Extreme Ownership

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.

Extreme Ownership

“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.

Ego Is The Enemy

Like many of the books I read, I picked up and read Ego Is The Enemy after hearing about it from multiple sources. I first heard about it from a friend about 8-9 months ago. Last weekend an acquaintance mentioned it and this time the topic struck a chord with me. I have found reading books based on inspiration in a particular season of life is the best way to find the most useful applications. This book did not disappoint me.

Ryan Holiday conveniently splits the book into 3 parts: Aspire, Success, and Failure. He shows how ego can destroy us in each of these phases. Holiday also weaves in stories from historical figures, currently successful people, and his personal life to illustrate the points he makes.

Aspire

Passion

Aspiring is all about the journey from obscurity to success and what you do to get there. Passion is typically seen as a good trait. We recognize it in people who tell us all about the things they intend to accomplish, often very convincingly. However, when it comes to showing actual progress there often isn’t any. Why? Because you can be busy with intentions without actually accomplishing anything. This is what Holiday calls the “passion paradox.”

I am no better. I fall prey to this all the time whether it is imagining to myself all the books I will read, telling my friends about all the miles I will run, or telling my co-workers about all the work I plan to complete. Passion tends to cause us to overestimate what we can accomplish in the future but underestimate what we can accomplish right now. We always seem to have far less time than we imagined.

The Canvas Strategy

The canvas strategy is all about making other people look good and be good by providing support for them.

“Find canvases for other people to paint on.”

“It means you’re the least important person in the room – until you change that with results.”

“Say little, do much.”

“…the person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction, just as the canvas shapes the painting.”

My struggle with this is that I often want recognition and reward now. It is hard to sit back and let someone else take credit for my idea. My ego causes me to think short-term rather than planning for the long run. As Holiday says “Let others take their credit on credit, while you defer and earn interest on the principal.”

Work, Work, Work

So what should we do? Henry Ford said “You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.” My ego wants the fact that I aspire, plan, and have great ideas to count toward success. This doesn’t work. I have to sit down, delay gratification, and put in the hours. This isn’t sexy and popular in the short term but pays off in the long run.

Success

Always Stay A Student

“An amateur is defensive. The professional finds learning (and even, occasionally, being shown up) to be enjoyable; they like being challenged and humbled, and engage in education as an ongoing and endless process.”

As soon as you believe you already know everything, you stop learning anything new. To maintain success and excellence we have to continue being a student. It can be easy to fall in the trap of believing you have arrived. But what got you there? Unless your success is a flash in the pan, it took hard work, effort, and persistence over a long period of time. This effort does not end once you become successful. This point also reminds me of Carol Dweck’s work and book Mindset which delineates between 2 different mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. With a fixed mindset we feel our intelligence is fixed and are obliged to prove how smart we are. Someone with a growth mindset knows they have deficiencies but strives to learn and grow. They don’t need to prove how smart they are because they are in the process of “becoming.” I personally don’t always get this right and often fall into a fixed mindset, however, I am applying this to my life and want to cultivate being a learner.

Managing Yourself

“As you become successful in your own field, your responsibilities may begin to change. Days become less and less about doing and more and more about making decisions. Such is the nature of leadership.”

Although I have received a few promotions, I would not say I have arrived in my field of engineering. I still have a lot to learn with regard to technical skills and will always be honing my leadership skills. I have definitely found the quote above to be true. Before I was given the opportunity to take more responsibility, I would be given a task or direction, and could focus solely on that thing. I did not have a lot of influence in the office so I was rarely interrupted and I was not communicating directly with clients so my phone calls were few. As time has gone on, however, I have gained more influence, built more trust, and taken on more responsibility. These days I may have 4-5 things going on at one time and be delegating work to the younger engineers. If I don’t learn to cope with this effectively as time goes on, it will be very easy to become overloaded. I am learning to steer the ship and delegate the other tasks.

Failure

We are all bound to fail at some point. We can do everything right and still get into trouble. Since we all fail, it’s not so much a matter of if it comes, but when it does, how do we respond? Holiday points out that often when we fail we lack the ability to examine ourselves and figure out what behavior led to our failure. We have to learn to invest our time and energy into habits and patterns that will fix our trouble, not lead us to make the same mistake later.

I found Holiday’s book very helpful and practical. I appreciate the way it is organized in a very simple way and easy to follow. If we are honest, pride and ego are traits that we all struggle with on some level. I found that after reading this book I walked away with tools to fight the ego that so often crops up in my life and hinders me from making an impact and being successful.

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

I first learned about Marshall Goldsmith when he was a guest on the EntreLeadership podcast and quickly decided I would read one of his books. What stuck out to me about his interview on the podcast was when he described his purpose in life and what motivates him. He said his purpose in life is not to prove himself smarter than others but to provide positive value to other people’s lives. This struck me as something that I also strive for but often fall short of and I wanted to learn more. A few weeks later I found Goldsmith’s book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There sitting on my bookshelf at home. It turns out my wife had a copy from years ago! I grabbed the book off the shelf and began to read it. Here are a few of the helpful ideas I got from the book.

  1. Changing behavior

“People will do something – including changing their behavior – only if it can be demonstrated that doing so is in their own best interests as defined by their own values.”

The fact is that I cannot make anyone change unless they choose to change. I cannot convince anyone to change unless that change aligns with the values they hold. I am learning that I see the world not as it is, but as I am. I see the world through the lens of my own experiences.

On the other hand this has shown me that when I continuously fail to change my own behavior, even though I know I need to change, it means I need to look deeper. Is it because I am not fully convinced of the value of the change? How do I link the change to what motivates me? A good illustration of this idea happened recently in my home. For weeks my home office has been a mess of unpacked boxes as we just moved into the house. I do not love to unpack and organize my things; however, my wife loves the house to be organized and looking presentable. I do not love to unpack but I love a clean and organized work space. I realized the motivation to unpack and organize my office came from the fact that I love my wife and want to please her and I value a clean working environment. I had to link the mundane task of unpacking and organizing to a deeper value that truly motivates me.

  1. Interpersonal behavioral habits

Goldsmith outlines 21 behavioral habits in his book that we have all probably been guilty of at one point or another. The trick is picking the right ones to begin working on. Here are the four that stuck out to me as the ones I need to work on the most:

#2 Adding too much value – when we feel the need to add our own opinion to every conversation or discussion.

#12 Making excuses – when we express our behavior as fixed trait so that people will excuse us. If we set low expectations for ourselves they become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you fight for your limitations you get to keep them.

#16 Not Listening – this habit is very disrespectful to others. It sends the message “I don’t care about you”, “I don’t understand you”, and “You’re wasting my time.”

#21 Goal obsession – when we are so focused on achieving our goal we do it at the expense of our larger mission.

The habit of goal obsession is the behavior I have been working on changing recently. I love to read and learn from books. I have certain goals and ways to measure those goals based on how many words per minute and how many books I want to read. When I am reading a book in the morning and my wife or someone else interrupts me, how do I respond? My goal is to read, learn, and grow so that I can be a better communicator, leader, and serve others better. When I get interrupted by someone it is often a chance to display the same behavior I am trying to grow in. I should not obsess over the goal of reading a certain amount at the expense of ignoring people around me.

  1. Feedback

“It’s my contention – and it’s the bedrock thesis of this book – that interpersonal behavior is the difference-maker between being great and near-great, between getting the gold and settling for the bronze.”

In order to develop better interpersonal behavior, we need to receive feedback. We know we need to change, we know we need feedback from those around us to know what to change, but we don’t always know how to get the feedback. Goldsmith writes about three forms of feedback: solicited, unsolicited, and observation.

Solicited feedback – we ask people for their opinion and they give it. This is hard because in general people don’t want to give this kind of feedback and we don’t want to hear it. It’s best to get this kind of feedback confidentially so that no one is embarrassed and we don’t get defensive. Instead of asking “What do you like about me?” ask “How can I do better?” The first question is basically asking a person how they feel about you, which if you think about it is irrelevant for enabling you to be better.

Unsolicited feedback – Every once in a while we get feedback which we did not ask for, but that truly opens our eyes to how the world sees us. These experiences can be painful and uncomfortable; however, they often reveal how the world actually sees us and can motivate us to change. There is a disconnect between the way we see ourselves and the way the world sees us. Often those around us have a more accurate perspective.

Observational feedback – People and situations are giving us feedback all day long but whether we pay attention or act on it is another matter. People are sending us feedback through their eye contact, body language, and response time. It is up to us to observe these moments, accept them, and act on them. Here are five ways Goldsmith gave for observational feedback to be used:

  1. Make a list of people’s casual remarks about you. At the end of the day rate each of them as positive or negative and see if any patterns emerge.
  2. Turn the sound off. In a meeting or interaction, pretend you’re watching a movie with the sound off. Concentrate only on how people present themselves physically.
  3. Complete the sentence. Pick something you want to get better at and list the benefits for you and those around you if you accomplish it. For example, if you want to take better care of your body and eat better you will…live longer, feel better, set a better example for your family, etc. As the benefits become more personal and less expected, that’s when you know you have hit on something that you need to fix.
  4. Listen to your self-aggrandizing remarks. We all have heard friends boast about some quality they think they possess when in reality the opposite is true. A friend may claim they are always on time, when the truth is they are always late. What do you boast about? Observe yourself and you may find out that a strength you claim is actually a weakness.
  5. Look homeward. If you want to change certain interpersonal behavior, it is good to get feedback from your colleagues. However, if you don’t believe them, take the same questions for feedback home and see what your family thinks. This will ensure feedback from those who truly want you to succeed and have no agenda.

I am very thankful I found this book on my shelf at home and took the time to read it. I learned a lot about changing behavior, common behavioral habits that many of us need to break, and how to get feedback. I hope you can also get some value from my three takeaways.