These highlights are from the Kindle version of Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink. You can find more book highlights here.
During our training cycle, in the precious few hours we didn’t have a scheduled training evolution, we were in the gym physically pushing ourselves through punishing, high-intensity workouts. If there was no gym at our training location, we’d be out on the road for a hard run, in the parking lot dragging or flipping heavy tires, or on the mats in fierce grappling and jiu-jitsu contests—whatever we could do to stay strong and conditioned. Each man was expected to maintain that high level of physical conditioning so that he could pull his weight and never falter on an operation. We had to be ready to carry a wounded comrade in full, heavy combat gear to safety across rugged terrain. As a critical part of our culture, we constantly challenged each other to tests of physical strength.
In the SEAL Teams, the bond of our brotherhood is our strongest weapon. If you take that away from us, we lose our most important quality as a team.
If the Iraqis never reached a level of skill at which they could defend their country from terrorist insurgents, then who would defend it? The answer was all too clear: us, the U.S. military. We would be stuck here securing their country for them for generations.
Virtually every time an American outpost in Ramadi was handed over to the control of Iraqi soldiers, insurgents attacked and overran their position, killing dozens of Iraqi troops and sometimes the U.S. Marine or Army advisors assigned to them. The Iraqi soldiers were no match for the insurgents.
In order to convince and inspire others to follow and accomplish a mission, a leader must be a true believer in the mission. Even when others doubt and question the amount of risk, asking, “Is it worth it?” the leader must believe in the greater cause. If a leader does not believe, he or she will not take the risks required to overcome the inevitable challenges necessary to win. And they will not be able to convince others—especially the frontline troops who must execute the mission—to do so. Leaders must always operate with the understanding that they are part of something greater than themselves and their own personal interests. They must impart this understanding to their teams down to the tactical-level operators on the ground.
When leaders receive an order that they themselves question and do not understand, they must ask the question: why? Why are we being asked to do this? Those leaders must take a step back, deconstruct the situation, analyze the strategic picture, and then come to a conclusion. If they cannot determine a satisfactory answer themselves, they must ask questions up the chain of command until they understand why. If frontline leaders and troops understand why, they can move forward, fully believing in what they are doing.
Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed the city as the capital of their caliphate.
Every bad guy killed meant more U.S. Soldiers, Marines, and SEALs survived another day; they were one day closer to returning home safely to their families. Every enemy fighter killed also meant another Iraqi soldier, policemen, or government official survived, and more Iraqi civilians lived in a little less fear of al Qaeda in Iraq and their insurgent allies. We fought an evil enemy, perhaps as evil as any the U.S. military had faced in its long history. These violent jihadis used torture, rape, and murder as weapons to ruthlessly terrorize, intimidate, and rule over the civilian populace who lived in abject fear. The American public and much of the Western World lived in willful naïveté of the barbaric, unspeakable tactics these jihadis employed. It was subhuman savagery.
Ego clouds and disrupts everything: the planning process, the ability to take good advice, and the ability to accept constructive criticism. It can even stifle someone’s sense of self-preservation. Often, the most difficult ego to deal with is your own.
“This isn’t his fault, it’s yours. You are in charge, so the fact that he didn’t follow procedure is your fault. And you have to believe that, because it’s true. When you talk to him, you need to start the conversation like this: ‘Our team made a mistake and it’s my fault. It’s my fault because I obviously wasn’t as clear as I should have been in explaining why we have these procedures in place and how not following them can cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. You are an extremely skilled and knowledgeable superintendent. You know more about this business than I ever will. It was up to me to make sure you know the parameters we have to work within and why some decisions have got to be run through me. Now, I need to fix this so it doesn’t happen again.’”
“If you approached it as he did something wrong, and he needs to fix something, and he is at fault, it becomes a clash of egos and you two will be at odds. That’s human nature. But, if you put your own ego in check, meaning you take the blame, that will allow him to actually see the problem without his vision clouded by ego. Then you both can make sure that your team’s standard operating procedures—when to communicate, what is and isn’t within his decision-making authority—are clearly understood.”
As SEALs, we often protected the troops in the streets with our snipers and machine gunners in a type of operation we called “sniper overwatch.” By taking the high ground in buildings and positioning SEAL snipers where they could best observe and engage enemy fighters maneuvering to attack, we could eliminate threats and disrupt insurgent attacks before they could fully materialize.
“The enemy is out there,” I said, pointing out the window to the world beyond. “The enemy is all the other competing companies in your industry that are vying for your customers. The enemy is not in here, inside the walls of this corporation. The departments within and the subsidiary companies that all fall under the same leadership structure—you are all on the same team. You have to overcome the ‘us versus them’ mentality and work together, mutually supporting one another.”
But building the combat outpost in enemy territory was only the beginning. There was more to be done. One of the primary objectives in placing this combat outpost in the heart of enemy territory was to show the local populace that we, the coalition of American and Iraqi soldiers, were here to stay and that we did not fear the al Qaeda insurgents who had controlled most of Ramadi unchecked for years. This could not be accomplished by sitting and hiding inside heavily reinforced bases. The troops had to go out and into the neighborhoods surrounding the COP. They had to conduct a type of operation so straightforward its name requires almost no explanation: a presence patrol. It required a group of soldiers to push into enemy-held areas to establish their presence among the populace.
As a leader, it doesn’t matter how well you feel you have presented the information or communicated an order, plan, tactic, or strategy. If your team doesn’t get it, you have not kept things simple and you have failed. You must brief to ensure the lowest common denominator on the team understands.
Your plan is so complex that there is no way that they can mindfully move in the direction that would increase their bonus. Even when they use operant conditioning on rats, the rats have to understand what they are being punished or rewarded for. If there is not a strong enough correlation between the behavior and the reward or the punishment, then behavior will never be modified. If the rats don’t know why they received a sugar pellet or why they were just given an electric shock, they will not change.”
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. Once the wheels were in motion and the full resources of the team were engaged in that highest priority effort, I could then determine the next priority, focus the team’s effort there, and then move on to the next priority. I could not allow myself to be overwhelmed. I had to relax, look around, and make a call. That was what Prioritize and Execute was all about.
Even the most competent of leaders can be overwhelmed if they try to tackle multiple problems or a number of tasks simultaneously. The team will likely fail at each of those tasks. Instead, leaders must determine the highest priority task and execute. When overwhelmed, fall back upon this principle: Prioritize and Execute.
“Decisively engaged,” I continued, “is a term used to describe a battle in which a unit locked in a tough combat situation cannot maneuver or extricate themselves. In other words, they cannot retreat. They must win. With all your new initiatives, I would say you have a hell of a lot of battles going on,” I observed.
Prioritize your problems and take care of them one at a time, the highest priority first. Don’t try to do everything at once or you won’t be successful.” I explained how a leader who tries to take on too many problems simultaneously will likely fail at them all.
This skill of Decentralized Command had not been magically bestowed upon Task Unit Bruiser. It had come only through difficult preparation and training, driven home during the months of effort before we deployed to Iraq. We learned our greatest lessons in this during MOUT (military operations, urban terrain) training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. There, under intense pressure and extremely challenging scenarios, we learned how to employ this tenet effectively in even the most chaotic scenarios.
In a striking realization that military units throughout history have come to understand by experience, it became clear that no person had the cognitive capacity, the physical presence, or the knowledge of everything happening across a complex battlefield to effectively lead in such a manner. Instead, my leaders learned they must rely on their subordinate leaders to take charge of their smaller teams within the team and allow them to execute based on a good understanding of the broader mission (known as Commander’s Intent), and standard operating procedures. That was effective Decentralized Command.
Human beings are generally not capable of managing more than six to ten people, particularly when things go sideways and inevitable contingencies arise. No one senior leader can be expected to manage dozens of individuals, much less hundreds. Teams must be broken down into manageable elements of four to five operators, with a clearly designated leader. Those leaders must understand the overall mission, and the ultimate goal of that mission—the Commander’s Intent.
SEAL leaders on the battlefield are expected to figure out what needs to be done and do it—to tell higher authority what they plan to do, rather than ask, “What do you want me to do?” Junior leaders must be proactive rather than reactive.
When SEAL task units train in assaults—in what we call close-quarters battle, or CQB—we practice this in a “kill house.” A kill house is a multiroom facility with ballistic walls, which SEALs, other military, and police units use to rehearse their CQB skills. For young SEAL officers learning the ropes of leadership, running through the kill house with the platoon provides a great training opportunity to determine how much they should be involved and where to position themselves.
“The SEAL Teams and the U.S. military, much like militaries throughout history, are based around building blocks of four-to-six-man teams with a leader. We call them ‘fire teams.’ That is the ideal number for a leader to lead. Beyond that, any leader can lose control as soon as even minimal pressure is applied to the team when inevitable challenges arise.”
Trust is not blindly given. It must be built over time. Situations will sometimes require that the boss walk away from a problem and let junior leaders solve it, even if the boss knows he might solve it more efficiently. It is more important that the junior leaders are allowed to make decisions—and backed up even if they don’t make them correctly. Open conversations build trust. Overcoming stress and challenging environments builds trust. Working through emergencies and seeing how people react builds trust.
Following a successful brief, all members participating in an operation will understand the strategic mission, the Commander’s Intent, the specific mission of the team, and their individual roles within that mission. They will understand contingencies—likely challenges that might arise and how to respond. The test for a successful brief is simple: Do the team and the supporting elements understand it?
The best SEAL units, after each combat operation, conduct what we called a “post-operational debrief.” No matter how exhausted from an operation or how busy planning for the next mission, time is made for this debrief because lives and future mission success depend on it. A post-operational debrief examines all phases of an operation from planning through execution, in a concise format. It addresses the following for the combat mission just completed: What went right? What went wrong? How can we adapt our tactics to make us even more effective and increase our advantage over the enemy? Such self-examination allows SEAL units to reevaluate, enhance, and refine what worked and what didn’t so that they can constantly improve. It is critical for the success of any team in any business to do the same and implement those changes into their future plans so that they don’t repeat the same mistakes.
As leaders, we must not get dragged into the details but instead remain focused on the bigger picture.
While Jocko pushed us to focus on Commander’s Intent and the broader plan, he encouraged us to let the junior leaders in the platoon sort out and plan the details. “As a leader, if you are down in the weeds planning the details with your guys,” said Jocko, “you will have the same perspective as them, which adds little value. But if you let them plan the details, it allows them to own their piece of the plan. And it allows you to stand back and see everything with a different perspective, which adds tremendous value. You can then see the plan from a greater distance, a higher altitude, and you will see more. As a result, you will catch mistakes and discover aspects of the plan that need to be tightened up, which enables you to look like a tactical genius, just because you have a broader view.”
Some of the politicians and most senior military brass in Washington felt that killing bad guys only created more enemies. But they didn’t have a clue. Our lethal operations were crucial to securing the populace. Each enemy fighter killed meant more U.S. Soldiers and Marines came home alive; it meant more Iraqi soldiers and police lived to fight another day; and it meant more of Ramadi’s civilian populace could live in a little less fear. No longer could the enemy ruthlessly torture, rape, and murder innocent civilians. Once the local people no longer feared the insurgents, they were willing to join with U.S. and Iraqi forces to defeat them.
Leaders must routinely communicate with their team members to help them understand their role in the overall mission. Frontline leaders and troops can then connect the dots between what they do every day—the day-to-day operations—and how that impacts the company’s strategic goals. This understanding helps the team members prioritize their efforts in a rapidly changing, dynamic environment. That is leading down the chain of command.
As a leader employing Extreme Ownership, if your team isn’t doing what you need them to do, you first have to look at yourself. Rather than blame them for not seeing the strategic picture, you must figure out a way to better communicate it to them in terms that are simple, clear, and concise, so that they understand. This is what leading down the chain of command is all about.
If your boss isn’t making a decision in a timely manner or providing necessary support for you and your team, don’t blame the boss. First, blame yourself. Examine what you can do to better convey the critical information for decisions to be made and support allocated.
As a leader, if you don’t understand why decisions are being made, requests denied, or support allocated elsewhere, you must ask those questions up the chain. Then, once understood, you can pass that understanding down to your team. Leaders in any chain of command will not always agree. But at the end of the day, once the debate on a particular course of action is over and the boss has made a decision—even if that decision is one you argued against—you must execute the plan as if it were your own.
Don’t ask your leader what you should do, tell them what you are going to do.
“So if they have questions, it’s my fault that they didn’t get the information they need?” asked the field manager. This completely contradicted his way of thinking and everything he had experienced in his leadership upbringing. 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.
Chris Kyle was Charlie Platoon’s point man and lead sniper—the most experienced sniper in the platoon and one of the best in the SEAL Teams. He had been nicknamed “The Legend” in jest on a previous deployment to Iraq. But as a driver of our sniper operations in Ramadi, he was racking up confirmed kills on enemy fighters at a rate that promised to surpass the most successful snipers in U.S. military history.
This was Ramadi. Amid the urban sprawl of trash-covered streets and alleyways were huge bomb craters and walls pockmarked by bullets and spray-painted with Arabic jihadist graffiti, which our interpreters translated for us, such as: “We will fight until we reach either of the two heavens: victory or martyrdom.” We were here to ensure it was the latter.
Here there were no streets signs or address numbers. This was Ramadi. Amid the urban sprawl of trash-covered streets and alleyways were huge bomb craters and walls pockmarked by bullets and spray-painted with Arabic jihadist graffiti, which our interpreters translated for us, such as: “We will fight until we reach either of the two heavens: victory or martyrdom.” We were here to ensure it was the latter.
In the SEAL Teams, we taught our leaders to act decisively amid chaos. Jocko had taught me that, as a leader, my default setting should be aggressive—proactive rather than reactive. This was critical to the success of any team. Instead of letting the situation dictate our decisions, we must dictate the situation. But for many leaders, this mind-set was not intuitive. Many operated with a “wait and see” approach. But experience had taught me that the picture could never be complete. There was always some element of risk. There was no 100-percent right solution.
“Are there any other options?” Jocko inquired. “Well, I could fire one of them. But which one?” Darla asked. “What if I fire the wrong one? I just don’t think I know enough to make a decision.” “I think you might,” Jocko said. Darla knew enough to determine how the scenario was likely to play out, and thus she knew enough to make a decision. “There is another option,” said Jocko. “What’s that?” Darla said incredulously. “You could fire them both,” said Jocko.
“As a leader, you want to be seen—you need to be seen—as decisive, and willing to make tough choices. The outcome may be uncertain, but you have enough understanding and information to make a decision.”
“These guys are cancers. Their destructive attitudes will metastasize within the team and spread to others. The quicker you cut them out, the less damage they will do, the less negativity they will spread, and, most important, the fewer people they will pull away with them.”
The moment the alarm goes off is the first test; it sets the tone for the rest of the day. The test is not a complex one: when the alarm goes off, do you get up out of bed, or do you lie there in comfort and fall back to sleep? If you have the discipline to get out of bed, you win—you pass the test. If you are mentally weak for that moment and you let that weakness keep you in bed, you fail. Though it seems small, that weakness translates to more significant decisions. But if you exercise discipline, that too translates to more substantial elements of your life.
Nothing is easy. The temptation to take the easy road is always there. It is as easy as staying in bed in the morning and sleeping in. But discipline is paramount to ultimate success and victory for any leader and any team.
Although discipline demands control and asceticism, it actually results in freedom. When you have the discipline to get up early, you are rewarded with more free time. When you have the discipline to keep your helmet and body armor on in the field, you become accustomed to it and can move freely in it. The more discipline you have to work out, train your body physically and become stronger, the lighter your gear feels and the easier you can move around in it.
The balance between discipline and freedom must be found and carefully maintained. In that, lies the dichotomy: discipline—strict order, regimen, and control—might appear to be the opposite of total freedom—the power to act, speak, or think without any restrictions. But, in fact, discipline is the pathway to freedom.
A leader must be close with subordinates but not too close. The best leaders understand the motivations of their team members and know their people—their lives and their families. But a leader must never grow so close to subordinates that one member of the team becomes more important than another, or more important than the mission itself. Leaders must never get so close that the team forgets who is in charge.
A leader must exercise Extreme Ownership. Simultaneously, that leader must employ Decentralized Command by giving control to subordinate leaders.
Being a leader is never easy,” I said. “Imagine the U.S. Navy Sailors in World War II whose ships had been severely damaged. With their ship taking on water and in danger of sinking, those sailors sometimes had to secure the hatch to a flooded compartment when men who were their friends were still in those compartments, in order to save the ship. That’s an unbelievably hard decision. But they knew if they did not make that call, they risked everyone else. They needed discipline to make the toughest decision in order to save the ship and save all the other men aboard. There is a lesson in that for your situation here with Mike. You require discipline to shut this hatch, to shut down the electrical division, in order to ensure the safety of your company—and all the other employees here.”