After their service with the Navy SEALs, the authors, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin created Echelon Front in order to provide leadership training to those in the business world. They developed their perspective during their time as SEALs, applying lessons learned while leading their SEALs in combat and in training environments. The fundamental argument they make for why you are able to have a bridge between military and business leadership principles is that they are fundamentally human in nature. Humans engage in conflict and business, and; therefore, our nature is manifested in their conduct. This is a foundational aspect of War Is My Business as well, which we summarize in our section called Bridging the Civil-Military Divide.
Extreme Ownership is broken down into three separate parts. These parts cover various overarching topics, which include 1) the “building blocks and mind-set” necessary to understand leadership principles, 2) the concepts that authors believe lead to a team's success, and 3) the ways in which a leader balances their responsibilities. The chapters within these parts are also broken down into three sections. Each chapter begins with a lengthy historical anecdote, based on their training and combat experiences, that describes a situation in which a particular military principle was at play. The anecdote is followed by the discussion of the principles itself, short and to the point, which is followed by an applicable business-world anecdote from students and organizations that they have engaged with in the past.
While some of the topics in the book are also covered in their other published books, for this review I will discuss the particular concept that the authors developed and to which the book derives its name: Extreme Ownership.
Taking ownership of an organization’s performance is an understandable perspective to hold. How else would you lead, in a hands-off laissez-faire way? Obviously not, but Extreme Ownership takes responsibility for performance to an order of magnitude greater. The people that utilize Extreme Ownership, the way the authors describe it, not only take responsibility for their own failures, but also for the failures of their subordinates, partners, and superiors.
- If subordinates fail in their mission, it is because you, as their leader, failed to train, brief, or guide them accordingly. If they constantly fail due to their incompetence, it is the leader’s failure to properly assess their capabilities and either find a better use of their talents or to simply let them go.
- If your partner fails in their tasks, then it is your failure in not having provided them the necessary support they needed to succeed. To help compensate for their weakness and advise them if they were lacking in some critical area.
- If your superiors fail to lead or fail to understand the situation, it is because you failed to provide or communicate the criticality of necessary information required for them to effectively do so. Additionally, their lack of leadership in the given situation should have compelled you to step up and take charge to ensure the success of the mission, and your choice not to do so brought about failure.
Now, none of this is to imply that you are expected to be all-knowing and that you should never make mistakes. On the contrary, they assume you will inevitably make mistakes, but instead of passing off responsibility for failures to others, seek instead to take responsibility for that failure. But why? For some of these reasons:
- People don’t like others that shift blame, and respect those that take the blame upon themselves.
- When people are looking to determine who is at fault, everyone becomes defensive in order to protect themselves. If you take the blame in their stead then they may begin to drop those defensives, acknowledge their own failures, and everyone can start working as a team again to prevent future failures.
- When you take responsibility you also take control of the situation. At least from the perception of others, your contributions to the team’s effort will appear greater than it may have been. Moving forward, more responsibility may be thrust upon you.
- There is always something that you could’ve done to improve the outcome. By looking for your own shortcomings, instead of looking for the shortcomings of others, you end up improving yourself.
Other than admitting fault, there is another important thing that a person executing Extreme Ownership must do, and that is to come up with a solution to ensure a fault or problem is mitigated should similar conditions arise in the future. Ever since I was a young officer, one idea has always stuck with me. And that idea is that if you identify problems you should indeed bring those problems up to your leadership, however, don’t just bring a problem. You should also bring forth various courses of action that can be taken to correct the problem, and be prepared to take lead should the chain of command decide to act upon your suggestion.
In business, Extreme Ownership has great applications towards the success of organizations. This should be obvious as Jocko and Leif have dedicated an entire book to it, and have made it a major pillar of Echelon Front’s training program. Taking charge and leading from the front, or seeking to support those that do, to the best of your ability is important for all organizations. And while the principles that the two authors discuss improve the efficacy of military and business organizations, I don’t necessarily think what they state is inherently new or showcase a revolution in leadership training. I think it is simply an acknowledgment of principles and concepts, at the intersection of leadership and responsibility, that are proven to work in practice. For example, here are a few:
On any team, in any organization, all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader. The leader must own everything in his or her world. There is no one else to blame. The leader must acknowledge mistakes and admit failures, take ownership of them, and develop a plan to win. (PG 30)
Teams need a forcing function to get the different members working together to accomplish the mission and that is what leadership is all about… Life can throw any number of circumstances in the way of any business or team, and every team must have junior leaders ready to step up and temporarily take on the roles and responsibilities of their immediate bosses to carry on the team’s mission and get the job done if and when the need arises. (PG 55)
Leadership is the most important thing on any battlefield; it is the single greatest factor in whether a team succeeds or fails. A leader must find a way to become effective and drive high performance within his or her team in order to win. (PG 62)
The value of Extreme Ownership is; therefore, its ability to frame leadership and responsibility into easy to remember and implement principles. Like a mnemonic, it becomes easier to be an effective leader when its principles are tied to an overarching paradigm - Extreme Ownership. You don’t need to remember twenty or thirty different principles, tenets, or concepts, you just need to understand and visualize how a leader employs Extreme Ownership, and how it appears in practice to those around them. A mental image is worth a thousand words written in text, and through the stories and principles they write about you will begin to develop that mental image of Extreme Ownership that will make it easier to implement.
For this, I recommend the book Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. It is valuable in not only the principles they teach, but in the ways they frame them alongside the stories of their experiences. If this book interests you and you would like to support War Is My Business, please consider purchasing the author's book. By purchasing it from any of the links provided on our website, a small portion of the payment goes back to us as a referral bonus as an Amazon Associate. No increase in the cost on your part, just a minor loss to Amazon that is redirected to us instead. For more information, check out our Support page.