Extreme Ownership Book Review
Want to win my copy of Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin? Shout me on social media & I’ll send it to you with a favourite passage marked for your enjoyment.
If you check out my bookshelf or Kindle listing, there are a ton of purchases about the Navy SEALs, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and special missions. My fascination with building and managing elite teams is something that I carried through business school and into work life, so when I saw a book about leadership by two US Navy SEAL officers…I Amazon Prime’d it in a hot second.
Written by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, who served in SEAL Task Unit Bruiser, the book blends together anecdotes from their active duty time with their post-retirement consulting work. Their company, Echelon Front, deploys them as leadership consultants to companies around the world and leverages their extensive management experience (managing individuals, teams, units, bureaucracy etc.). You may assume that a bunch of super strong warriors couldn’t possibly be management consultants…but that’s a stereotype that will kick you in the ass.
No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders
Taking what they learned form the battlefield and applying it to the business world is a genius move and offers very valuable parallels for their clients and readers alike. At the core of it is the principle of taking extreme ownership over everything you do. So when your team fails – you’ve failed. You’ve failed to communicate clearly, prepare, or support them because – as the saying goes – there are no bad teams, just bad leaders.
Too many staff meetings happen chock full of defensiveness and deflection, and this no-compromise attitude of taking responsibility really stuck with me. As evidenced by the client anecdotes they share, taking extreme ownership is the most effective (and efficient) way to cut through drama and work at building a solution. It’s also a really good way to step back and look at your plans to identify opportunities to fortify or clarify your execution. (Yes, even in marketing!)
Testing the Model
After their tours, Willink and Babin developed the Navy SEAL’s leadership training program to help formalize the management style they had battle-tested. When you think of the war machine and all its cogs, the importance of passing on this type of institutional knowledge becomes abundantly clear and frighteningly critical. The SEAL Teams are regarded as the most elite of elite, but that comes from serious amounts of practice and muscle memory (and not just physical muscle memory, but operational familiarity like having very clear roles and responsibilities or a central point of command). As the authors describe, the seals in the Task Unit were like a pro sports team with their individual abilities honed to perfection as well as their team dynamic to anticipate each other’s thoughts and moves.
The opportunity to refine this leadership program seems like it was the perfect beta test to forming their consultancy. Taking the mechanics of planning and decision-making out of the war and back stateside clearly holds significant value to the individuals they coach today. Plus, hearing about life and death decision-making is also a powerful way to realize that our first world problems pale in comparison when realizing that a miscommunication or inaccuracy in battle could send friendly fire (or a missile) your way.
Can’t Escape PowerPoint
One of the things that I found really interesting was Willink and Babin recalling the intense use of PowerPoint while at war. I mean, I thought I had to build a lot of ppt decks, but apparently the SEALs use them for just about everything, too. I wonder if they’re as A-type about the formatting as marketers are. I imagine that to feel like a major waste of time and source of annoyance (though I dread the thought of all those missions being briefed in Calibri).
What I appreciated most about the book was the outline of their war stories, supported by analysis of the leadership decisions (and occasional errors) that impacted how the missions worked. It was also really neat to hear a different perspective to stories and heroes I’ve read about in other books (such as Marc Lee, Ryan Job, Mike Monsoor, and Chris Kyle in American Sniper).
he strongest parts of each chapter are around their training, time in the Teams, and the SEAL leadership program, whereas the consultancy anecdotes tend to fall flat by comparison. It’s hard to convey the business use cases via anonymized anecdotes and companies, particularly when much of the book’s other content is so vivid and descriptive. I found myself skimming a lot of these “Application to Business” pages, as they felt tacked on at the end of each chapter and read duller rather than being an inspiring, concrete case study. How to fix this? Pretty hard without creating detailed personas or disclosing details. But the authors achieved that better with their security-cleared war stories.