Extreme Ownership, Or Extremely “Following Orders”?

extreme ownership book cover

Extreme Ownership (2015) is a leadership book written by two former navy seals to help readers acquire the mindsets of leaders and top performers.

extreme ownership quote

Exec Summary

  • Leaders embrace Extreme Ownership: you are responsible for everything
  • Leaders believe in the mission and make sure their team fully understand it
  • Leaders are humble, take the blame for mistakes and give full credit to the team for the victory 

About the Authors

About The Authors: Jocko Willink and Leif Babin are two former Navy SEALs who deployed in the Iraq war and later turned business consultants. They coach and write on leadership topics.

Exec Summary

  • The only measure of leadership: are you winning?

Willink and Babin make their philosophy clear right from the start: the only meaningful measure for a leader is whether the team succeeds or fails, they say.
Effective leaders lead their teams to accomplish their mission, ineffective leaders do not.
Simple

  • Great leaders are humble

The best leaders are not driven by ego or personal agendas.
As a matter of fact, humility is paramount. As for leaders, the humility to admit and own mistakes is essential to success.

Getting rid of ego and personal agenda will allow leaders to zero in on the mission.

And while the leader is responsible for failures, he gives the credit and honor of the victory to his subordinates.

Part I: Winning the War Within

Chapter 1: Extreme Ownership

Extreme Ownership means the leader must accept that he is truly and ultimately responsible for everything.

The leader must own everything in his world and all responsibility for success and failure rests with him. There is no one else to blame.

Total responsibility for failure is difficult to accept, and Extreme Ownership when things go wrong demands humility and courage. Being able to accept Extreme Ownership when things go wrong is an absolute necessity to learning and growing as a leader.

Even when subordinates aren’t following up on the plan, or making an expected blunder, leaders exercising Extreme Ownership cannot blame them. Because the leader was responsible to make sure they understood the plan fully and were fully trained for carrying on their tasks flawlessly.

  • Underperformers must go

The leader must take care that everyone in the team can get the job done.

If there are underperformers, it’s your responsibility to bring them up to par. And if the underperformer cannot meet standards, it’s your team, so it’s up to you to get on board someone who can do the job.
Because at the end of the day, the leader must be loyal to the team and the mission, not to any single individual.

The leaders must look at an organization’s problems with the objective in mind and without any emotional attachments.

Chapter 2: Not bad teams, only bad leaders

The precept that there no bad teams, only bad leaders, is a big recurring theme in Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink.

And when it comes to demanding a high standard of performance, it’s not about what you preach, but what you tolerate.

Another key to excellent performance is embedding Extreme Ownership at every level into the team. Everyone must feel Extreme Ownership of their tasks and duties, no matter if people around you fail to deliver their part.

bayonet platoon

Chapter 3: Believe

A leader must truly fully believe in the mission to convince and inspire his team.

If he doesn’t fully believe in the mission, a leader must work within himself to align with the thoughts and vision of the mission.

Aggressive and proactive
Jocko explains that, as a leader, your default setting should be aggressive – proactive rather than reactive. This is critical to the success of any team. Instead of letting the situation dictate our decisions, we must dictate the situation.

Chapter 4: Check the Ego

Ego is a big threat to top performance. And the most challenging ego to deal with, is your own. Be confident, not cocky.

Be confident, not cocky

Part II: The Laws of Combat

Chapter 5: Cover and Move

Cover and Move is the most fundamental tactic.
And cover and move means teamwork.

All elements within the greater team are fundamental and must mutually support each other and work together to achieve the final goal.

Leaders have the responsibility to link between the tactical and strategic perspectives.
It’s up to leaders to remind and explain how the team fits in the greater strategical mission and what’s their part in it to achieve that mission.

Chapter 6: Simple

Simplicity is key to success.

Always simplify as much as possible.
People will not understand complicated plans and orders and complexity compounds issue when things go wrong -and they will-.
Communicate plans and order simply, clearly and concisely.

And if your team doesn’t get it, again, it’s your fault. You must be clear enough to ensure everyone in the team understands.

Chapter 7: Prioritize and Execute

In the fog of war, dealing with too many tasks at a time is impossible and will make you fail.
Take a breath, step back for a second, prioritize and execute. Then deal with the next item on the list.

Prioritize and execute is your guiding principle at any time the situation is getting overwhelming and out of hand.

Contingency planning can be of great help here to stay a step ahead of real-time problems.
This is because a good contingency plan will force you to look into likely challenges and instead of being caught in the heat of the moment, you will execute a few already thought-through effective responses.

Chapter 8: Decentralized Command

Humans generally cannot manage more than six to ten people, and that’s all the truer when things start going wrong.
Hence there must a leader for each team of 4 to 5 people.

Expect and empower those leaders both below and around you to make decisions and make a good job (this is the same principle of the Autonomy Intrinsic Motivation from Daniel Pink).

Explaining to each tactical operator the overarching tactical goals, the WHY you’re doing something, is key: the people who were the least engaged, biggest complainers and often lowest performers were the ones who didn’t take any part in drafting the plan of actions.

US VS THEM
That “us versus them” mentality was common to just about every level of every chain of command, whether military unit or civilian corporation.  But breaking that mentality was the key to properly lead up the chain of command and radically improve the team’s performance.

My Note:
Funny how these guys talk about “us VS them” but can’t see that the whole dirty business of war is a huge “us VS them” mind-trap.

Part III: Sustaining Victory

Chapter 9: Plan

A leader must first understand himself the overall mission, and then prepare a simple enough brief the whole team will understand. The mission must be clear and specific, with a well-defined end result.

Chapter 10: Leading Up and Down

A leader takes responsibility for leading not just for his subordinates, but also his superiors.
It means you push up situational awareness to your superior and take care of obtaining all the support you need to enable your team to accomplish the mission.

Two parts I loved are:
If someone isn’t doing what you want them to do, look at yourself first and see what you are not doing best.
You should know your job so well that you don’t ask your leader what you should do but you tell them what you are going to do.

Don’t ask your leader what you should do but you tell them what you are going to do

Chapter 11: Decisiveness and Uncertainty

Intelligence and research are important, but you ought to be realistic about it.

Waiting to be 100% sure often leads to indecision and inability to execute.

Leaders must be prepared to make an educated guess based on previous experience and the intelligence available right now (an interesting example in the book of the last minute intelligence information which proved to be wrong, so intelligence is not always correct either).

Chapter 12: The Dichotomy of Leadership

The characteristics of a good leader are:

  • Confident but not arrogant;
  • Brave but not daredevil;
  • Strive to win but gracious in loss
  • Detail oriented but not obsessive;
  • A leader but also a follower when needed;
  • Quiet but not always silent;
  • Logical but not without emotions;
  • Close with the soldiers, but nobody is more important than another or of the team as a whole;
  • Not so chummy they forget who’s the leader;
  • Takes Extreme Ownership, and exercises Decentralized Command;
  • Has nothing to prove and everything to prove at the same time

extreme ownership book cover

Real Life Applications

  • Get an Extreme Ownership Mindset

Start getting an Extreme Ownership Mindset.
It will make you not just more effective, but also more positive and optimistic about life.
And it will improve your social skills as well because you won’t have that annoying, friendship-destroying temptation of blaming and finger-pointing.

  • Own Up Mistakes

Not many people are able to owning up to mistakes to themselves and people around. Once you will start doing so you will immediately become a higher quality person and get much more respect for it. Both from others and from yourself.

  • Take Responsibility for Up & Down The Chain

The concepts of Extreme Ownership and responsibility for up and down the chain of command took a new light for me thanks to Jocko Willink & Leif Babin.

  • Take Blame and Give Credit

“Take the blame and give credit” really hit me hard as I read Extreme Ownership while I was at a company doing the exact opposite. Taking the blame and giving credit is what all-around high-quality men do.

  • Believe in the mission or change mindset

The concept that you should change your mindset to align with your mission is an extremely powerful one. It was only briefly touched in the book, but this is huge for you: you can align your mindset to fit your goals!

Overall, fantastic book, combining an entertaining read with terrific concepts to make you an even more amazing human being.

Criticism

Performance -or doing your best- matters more than the final result

I disagree the only measure of success is the final, binary result of victory or failure.

Authors such as John Maxwell and Ryan Holiday see it the same way.
And Ray Dalio built a multibillion dollar empire by NOT judging based on the final result, but based on the quality of the decision-making.
Dalio calls it “judging the swing, rather than the shot”.

The final result should not be your (sole) yardstick because it’s not always in your full control.
When you judge the final result alone, you allow anything and everything outside your control to determine your self-esteem and confidence. By definition, that’s giving power away to what you can’t control, which is disempowering.
Read here instead of how to build an antifragile ego.

“Following Orders” & Mindless Militarism

This is personal and some might disagree.

I am not a big fan of any mindset that assumes rightefulness based on a flag or country of belonging.
And calling the other group the “bad guys” simply based on what, in the end, is little more than tribalism.

To me, that mindset falls victim for dark psychology by the elites to enlist and brainwash young men to go fight for far darker motives.

The military ethos is replete with manipulative appeals to higher ideals which, at the core, have this exchange: we give you good feelins including “honor” and a sense of belonging, and you give your limbs or life.

And that’s the definition of a sucker’s trade.

It’s Low-Power Leadership That Executes the Mission. High-Power Leadership Chooses the Mission

The “real” leadership chooses the mission.

They choose:

  • Whether or not to even enter a mission
  • Which mission to pursue
  • Which goals to achieve

The lower-level leaders execute the plan.

They call it “extreme ownership”, but they might as well call it “extreme following”.

And the executors follow the plan and call it “taking extreme ownership”.
But taking extreme ownership of what, exactly? Of invading another country for oil?

That’s the real question that the “extreme executioners” never ask.
To me extreme ownership means asking oneself why and who you are fighting for.
And to refuse to fight for what’s not worth fighting for.

Also read:

I’ll leave you with a sobering thought: we’ve already heard in the past the “I was just following orders” mantra, haven’t’ we?
I bet those guys were also taking great ownership of their tasks…

Dark Psychology: 7 Ways to Manipulate People

Truth Goes Lost With “Extreme Onwership”

The first victim of war is truth, someone said.

I wonder if that includes the military personnel books that follow every war as certainly as death and taxes do.

In my opinion, not only it includes the above said books, but it also includes the mindset of Extreme Onwership.

What do I mean by that?

Well, think about it:

Imagine you have an “extreme ownership” leader beneath you.
You want to find out what happened to learn from the mistakes and, potentially, distribute punishment or rewards as needed.
And instead of an account of what actually happened, said leader tells you “it’s all my fault”.

What are you going to do with that?
It’s useless to you.
And it’s also not very useful for the organization as a whole.
And that includes the mission.

The mission suffers with an extreme ownership mentality because it cannot effectively learn from mistakes.

The mindset of “extreme ownership” should at the very least not be so extreme in its application. And it should be suspended any time that a more objective observation of reality is needed.

For example, if I were a general asking Jocko “what happened” and he’d say “it’s all my fault”, I’d tell him “that’s cool of you to say that, but now let’s see what actually happened”.

Enlightened General: let’s review what happened to learn more and prevent similar mistakes in the future
Jocko: it’s all my fault
Enlightened General: that’s cool of you to say that. But we need to learn what actually happened and who did what. So let’s review the facts now.

I’m exaggerating here, of course.
I’m sure Jocko is a smart guy who knows how to draw his lessons learned. Still, the point stands: an exaggerated “extreme ownership” mindset can stand in the way of rational and effective analysis.

“Owning it” is a virtue-signaling, self-serving power move (& nothing wrong with that)

Owning your mistake was presented here as a mindset of enlightened leadership.

Yet, when Jocko took the full blame of the mission, it was also a virtue-signaling power move.
Not virtue-signaling in a bad way, mind you.
But it was, in many ways, a self-serving strategy to look leader-like. Once you own it in front of everyone, you empower your superiors to take action against you. But as they feel good about your submissivness to their power and admire your non-defensive approach, they’re more likely to congratulate you and let you off the hook.

It’s a great technique.
Yet, I’m doubtful when it’s framed as enlightened leadership only, when it’s also good for the leader himself.

No actual science of leadership

When it comes to actual leadership, there is little science of leadership.
And personally, I’m not convinced that simply having been in a conflict necessarily makes anyone a better leader or a bigger expert on leadership.

Review

“Extreme Ownership” has become a new label for an old approach to leadership.

And, overall, it’s a powerful mindset.

Personally, I see the merit in this approach, but also some important limitations.
The TPM community discussed it at length, and John made some great points to defend the Extreme Ownership approach:

However, I have to admit that I’m biased in reviewing this book.

As I also explain in their other book “The Dichotomy of Leadership” I’m not a big fan of former military personnel profiting from wars and invasions.

This is very much a personal point based on values and beliefs, but by no means unique.
And neither is it alien to the military itself.
As a matter of fact, some Navy SEALs feel the same way:

Apart from that, the mindsets in Extreme Ownership are potentially useful, but there is no real new ground broken when it comes to leadership.

Get the book on Amazon.

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