U.S. Navy SEALs are probably one of the highest-performing military teams in the world. In “Extreme Ownership”, retired SEAL officers Willink and Babin share the vital leadership principles that have enabled SEAL leaders and teams to achieve extraordinary results, and explain how these insights can be applied to achieve success in all aspects of business and life. In this Extreme Ownership summary, we’ll outline the 12 leadership principles that bring leadership and team success on 3 levels: Victory from Within, Victory in Combat, and Sustaining Victory.
In high-pressure, high-stake situations, leaders’ decisions and actions have an immediate impact, and often decide the outcome of a mission. On the battlefield, this could mean the life or death of team members, with implications for the mission and war. In business, this could determine if the company sinks or prospers.
Willink and Babin fought in Ramadi (Iraq) after the terrorist attack on the U.S. on 11 September 2001. They later became leadership instructors for the Navy SEALs, before starting their own consulting firm, Echelon Front, to work with companies from a wide range of industries. The success of SEAL operations is built on individual excellence and teamwork, made possible by great leadership at all levels. This foundation also applies to business and life.
Victory from Within
The first leadership principles cultivate internal victory:
1. EXTREME OWNERSHIP (E.O.)
A true leader takes 100% ownership of everything in his domain, including the outcome and everything that affects it. This is the most fundamental building block of leadership that cuts across all other principles. It applies to leadership at any level, in any organization.
• When something goes wrong, a true leader doesn’t find excuses or blame others. He puts aside his ego, takes full responsibility for the outcome, and reviews what he must do differently as a leader to create success. If an under-performer is dragging the team down, it’s the leader’s role to train and mentor the person. If people aren’t doing what they should, it’s the leader’s responsibility to clarify the mission and action plan, get people’s commitment and equip them to perform their roles.
• Taking E.O. requires that you put aside your own ego and review what you must do differently as a leader to create success. This involves accepting criticisms, securing resources, winning hearts and minds, building clarity and processes, etc.
• Leadership attitude is contagious. When you demand E.O. of yourself and others, people start to emulate you and the mindset spreads throughout the organization.
During an operation, SEALs were about to storm a building that was supposedly under attack by enemy troops. At the last minute, Willink realized that it had been a “blue-on-blue” (i.e. friendly fire) and stopped the attack. However, there’d already been casualties, with an Iraqi soldier dead and a SEAL injured. Blue-on-blues are one of the worst blunders in combat; the senior leaders were furious and Willink knew his career was at stake. During investigations, they uncovered many mistakes made by people handling the planning and operations. Still, Willink took the full blame as the commander of the operation, and focused his efforts on reviewing the standard operating procedures (or S.O.P.s) to prevent similar incidents from happening again. In so doing, he not only earned the trust of his superiors, but also set an example for other team leaders.
An executive was frustrated that his brilliant plan had fallen apart during execution, due to the lack of support from the Board and his staff, as well as poor market conditions. After speaking with Willink, he realized that he had been blaming others instead of doing what was needed to ensure his plan’s success. He found new ways to engage and rally his staff behind the plan, secured the essential support/resources from the Board and tackled the challenges to turn things around.
2. NO BAD TEAMS, ONLY BAD LEADERS
Leaders fundamentally decide their teams’ level of performance. Under the right leadership, any team can thrive.
3. CLARITY AND BELIEF
As a leader, you must fully understand and believe in a mission, before you can convince others to embrace it and lead them to do what’s needed to succeed.
4. MANAGE YOUR EGO
Great leaders prioritize the wider mission over their personal ego. They’re willing to learn, accept good ideas from others, and own up to their mistakes. They also of manage their team members’ egos to keep everyone focused on the team mission.
Victory in Combat
The next 4 leadership principles cultivate a winning team that delivers results built on extreme ownership:
5. COVER AND MOVE (TEAMWORK)
Cover and Move is a common military tactic, where one team covers while another moves, so they can jointly gain ground. This is all about having different teams working together and supporting one another.
6. KEEP THINGS SIMPLE
Keep your plans simple, so they can be easily communicated, understood, and adjusted in response to real-time changes.
7. PRIORITIZE AND EXECUTE
It can be overwhelming to be faced with many time-sensitive, high-stake problems, all of which may snowball into bigger issues. In such situations, good leaders stay calm, take stock to identify the top priorities, then tackle them one at a time.
8. DECENTRALIZED COMMAND
Break down your teams into groups of 4-5, with a clearly assigned leader for each group. Ensure that leaders at all levels understand the overall mission and immediate goals, including what the team must do and why.
Finally, sustain victory with these leadership principles:
9. SOUND PLANNING
Great leaders ensure there’s a sound planning process that includes mission clarity, evaluation of options and risks, engagement of all levels, post-action debrief, and systematization of the planning process..
10. LEAD UP AND DOWN THE LINE
Great leaders concurrently lead lead upward (by offering information and updates to help their leaders understand their work and support them) and lead downward (to help junior leaders and frontline staff to see the bigger picture).
11. BE DECISIVE AMIDST UNCERTAINTY
As a leader, you must be prepared to make the best possible decisions based on available information.
12. DISCIPLINE BRINGS FREEDOM
Discipline doesn’t mean rigidity and is in fact essential for freedom and results. In the book / full summary, we also look at the other dichotomies of leadership and what it means to balance them. Read The Dichotomy of Leadership summary here!
Other Details in “Extreme Ownership”
The authors illustrate the 12 key leadership concepts using detailed and vivid stories, reinforcing their messages and tips with a mix of real-life combat and business examples. Do get a copy of the book for the full details, get our Extreme Ownership summary bundle for an overview of the various ideas and tips, or learn more about the authors’ consulting firm at www.echelonfront.com.
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