Effective Leadership Through Extreme Ownership
Use military leadership strategies to develop effective, accountable leaders in your organization.
At Conductor, I manage our customer success teams. Nobody dies if I make the wrong decision. When I consider risks, they’re usually financial, not life-threatening. The missions I plan aim to achieve outcomes like increasing a customer’s organic traffic, not rescuing hostages from enemy territory in a foreign country.
I am not a field general, but the best lessons I have learned about leadership came from two Navy SEALs who fought and led soldiers in Iraq.
That’s because the principles of good leadership are universally applicable, from battlefields to board rooms.
What is Extreme Ownership?
Extreme Ownership is the practice of owning everything in your world, to an extreme degree. It means you are responsible for not just those tasks which you directly control, but for all those that affect whether or not your mission is successful.
This philosophy was formalized by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin in their book Extreme Ownership (opens in a new tab). Jocko and Leif served as Navy SEAL officers in Ramadi during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Upon returning from Iraq, they found themselves privately consulting with businesses in the private sector. They soon learned that their philosophy was broadly applicable to leaders of all kinds, and formed a consulting firm, Echelon Front (opens in a new tab).
There are twelve leadership principles covered in Extreme Ownership. They’re all incredibly valuable, but here are the three that have most influenced the way I lead my team:
1. No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders
This was one of my favorite stories from the book, focusing on two boat crews in Navy SEAL training (BUDS). There are two teams at the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to winning and losing the boat races and the drill instructors make one simple change: the leader. I won’t spoil the ending but you probably know where this is going. I love this story because it created a deeply motivating insecurity in me. Could another leader take over my team with the exact same resources and do a better job? When I think of underperforming teams, I remember this maxim.
2. Check the Ego
The ego can motivate and it can also destroy. It pushes us to want to perform at a high level but far too often it destroys collaboration because “personal agendas become more important than the team and the overarching mission’s success.” This simple lesson was a huge help in silencing my initial defensive reactions when I receive criticism. It also put me in a position to better understand when others are letting ego cloud their judgment, and how to navigate those scenarios. This is the kind of work that is never fully finished, and I have to keep putting in the work to keep my ego in check for the good of the entire team.
3. Prioritize and Execute
As a leader in a rapidly growing tech business, I am never lacking in things to do. Even as I’m writing this, a dozen other tasks are calling my name. That level of constant demands on your time and attention can be overwhelming and lead to paralysis. But it’s key to find or develop effective tactics for dealing with a mountain of competing priorities, which this chapter does. One of the tactics from Extreme Ownership that I have found especially helpful when I’m overwhelmed is the following mantra: “Relax. Look around. Make a call.”
Why is Extreme Ownership Effective?
The essential principles of Extreme Ownership should be the bedrock philosophy of all leaders. Obviously there are all kinds of effective leadership tactics that different leaders can and will employ, but Extreme Ownership provides an excellent base for many different tactical approaches:
1. Extreme Ownership makes blaming others unacceptable
When things go wrong in a team environment, there are a lot of people you can point to and blame. Sales didn’t properly set expectations, my client wasn’t bought in, the product isn’t good enough, etc. Those all may be valid contributors to a failure but Extreme Ownership means you own everything in your world. When something goes wrong: own it, figure out what happened, and build the solution.
2. Extreme Ownership inspires creativity
One of the most dangerous aspects of assigning blame is that it brings the problem-solving conversation to a dead stop. When you take Extreme Ownership, you know that success in the mission is all that matters. You must find a way despite all obstacles.
3. Extreme Ownership is empowering
It might seem like constantly owning more than your “fair share” of blame could feel defeating or even depressing. But I have found the opposite to be true. Acknowledgement and acceptance of a failure can help you truly understand what happened. Accepting that honest reality is the first step toward figuring out a solution. Those around you hear: I own the responsibility for what happened, I know why and how it happened, and I have a plan to fix it. Failure is okay so long as you learn from it.
How Can I Implement Extreme Ownership?
Extreme Ownership is maximally effective when the whole team has adopted it. For our Customer Success team, it created a shared language and also set clear expectations for how we would govern ourselves. Furthermore, as a leader, you are responsible for developing the skills of the people who report to you, and that means helping them learn the way of Extreme Ownership.
I originally came across Extreme Ownership via podcast (opens in a new tab) and then read the book. I wanted to get my management team on board, so I pitched the idea of attending a conference run by Jocko and Leif to our VP of People. The VP informed me that we didn’t have it in the budget (read: I failed to convince him of the value) and that I would have to find other means to share this knowledge.
No budget? Good (opens in a new tab). That meant I got to learn how to build my own leadership training curriculum.
Here is how I implemented Extreme Ownership, starting with my management team:
1. Learn the Content.
I closely read each chapter of Extreme Ownership to get a feel for the content, highlighting and making notes of key concepts.
2. Build Study Guides.
I then went back and re-read each chapter while building study guides (available for download below). There were three goals in mind for the study guides:
- Verify that the person had read the chapter by asking basic questions about the content.
- Guide their understanding based on what I felt was most important for them to know about the principles. This meant a lot of “why” questions.
- Get them to apply the principle to their roles, the business as a whole, and their personal life.
3. Meet and Discuss.
Roughly every two weeks, we met and discussed the specific principle for that week. You should be leading the discussion, but remember that it is meant to be an open conversation that is, of course, guided by questions from the week’s learning. Two important logistical things:
- Make sure the answers are actually written out. Part of successful implementation means knowing that they know. Conversations would clearly struggle when one member had not “done the homework.”
- Have them train their teams. After we were about halfway through and they were bought in, we decided that we should roll out the training to the members of their teams. These people are individual contributors but we could see that there would be benefits of shared language and also it would cultivate young leaders because we want leadership at every level.
On my team, implementing Extreme Ownership has created “leadership at every level” and I am confident that it has helped them both in their careers and in life. I’m not an expert in Extreme Ownership. I’m certainly not a perfect leader. I still fail, but when I do, Extreme Ownership is the framework and philosophy that gets me back on track.