Ten years into my career, I came across a book entitled Extreme Ownership: How Navy Seals Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. The authors are former Navy Seals that worked together in the most violent city in Iraq during 2006. They met many challenges during that deployment but the team was successful in drastically reducing the violence from insurgents towards the civilian population. With the lessons they learned about leadership in combat, they started a company called Echelon Front in order to help businesses through leadership challenges.
The title “Extreme Ownership” refers to a level of commitment each member of a team should have in ensuring the success of a mission. Challenges can be overcome when team members exhibit extreme ownership over their parts of the mission and work together to find solutions to get plans back on track. When the mission succeeds, the team succeeds; when the mission fails, the leader has failed. The book identifies two kinds of leaders: effective and ineffective. The most important quality for a leader to possess in order to be effective is humility, which is the ability to accept that there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.
The book describes four principles that will help leaders and teams navigate challenges:
#1 Simple has to do with the mission of the team and communication. The mission should be simple. Communication of plans should be concise and clear. The role of the leader to is ensure that the information is shared in a meaningful way. The responsibility of the team receiving information is to ask questions until they understand the end goal.
#2 Cover and Move is a tactical term for when one person is shooting while another person is moving to the next position. For this maneuver to succeed, each person is active in their own role, aware of what the other person is doing and communicates as needed in order to take the next step. In Orchestra Operations, we can’t move onto our next position until we receive accurate information from other departments. Likewise, other departments can’t move forward in some cases until we meet their needs.
#3 Prioritize and Execute can be a method for working through the every day to do lists. In order to prioritize, we need to identify what is most critical and in order to execute we need to be active but aware of our surroundings in case we need to adjust. This can also be an effective method to simplify tasks when there is overwhelming stress: relax, look around, make a call.
#4 Decentralized Command is a term that describes how everyone on the team is a leader in their own right and encourages leading up as well as down the chain of command. Leading up is reporting to your supervisor and asking clarifying questions, being your own best advocate for what you need. Leading down is sharing clear and concise information to those relying on you for instructions, so that they fully understand the mission. Decentralized Command empowers leaders to take ownership over the problems and solutions in their realm, making complicated missions possible. Each of us has the ability to lead up and down the chain of command.
After reading the book, I finally have a framework to work through challenges at work and home. The core concepts are simple to remember but implementation is not always easy. I have found that as I push to excel as a leader, there are deeper nuances to each concept. I will continue to make mistakes along the way but I believe each experience will only refine my definition of an effective leader.
I would encourage every student and professional to read or listen to this book. The stories are exciting to read, application is universal and there is an opportunity for life-long learning!