Book Notes – Extreme Ownership – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

This is one of my informal book summaries. Every book that I read is turned into notes. I like to reflect on those notes every so often depending on what is going on in the world and what other articles I’m writing. I wanted to share them with you so that you might get some value out of it as well.

  • Part 1: Winning the war within
    • Chapter 1 – Extreme Ownership
      • Take complete ownership of anything that goes wrong. Even if it means getting fired.
      • The leader must own everything in his or her world.
      • All responsibility for success and failure must be owned by the leader.
      • The best leaders must acknowledge mistakes and admit failures, take ownership of them, and develop a plan to win.
      • The best leaders don’t just take responsibility for their job, they take ownership for everything that impacts their mission.
      • The best leaders do not take the accolades for success. They give the accolades to their suboordinates and junior leaders.
      • The best leaders take detailed notes for how to improve.
      • The leader’s attitude has more impact on the accomplishments of the team than anything else.
      • Remember the story about the VP of manufacturing whose team was failing. He needed to take responsibility for the failures.
    • Chapter 2 – No bad teams, only bad leaders.
      • Think about the story of SEAL training and boat crews 2 and 6 swapping leaders.
      • Leadership is the single greatest factor in any teams performance.
      • Yell less and encourage more.
      • There are no bad team members, only bad leaders.
      • There are no bad units, only bad officers.
      • It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate.
      • If sub-standard performance is accepted, then it becomes standard.
      • Tasks must be repeated until the highest level is achieved.
      • Most people want to be part of a winning team, they simply don’t know how.
      • Every team must have junior leaders that can step up and take the role of leader if their bosses are absent.
      • Think about the story of the CTO who wouldn’t accept ownership. The CEO was allowing sub-standard performance from his CTO and his CTO wouldn’t accept ownership.
        • The CTO was let go. They hired a new CTO that took ownership.
        • They were back on a path to success and growth.
    • Chapter 3 – Believe
      • Remember the story about how horrible the Iraqi soldiers were. But they had to be included in every mission. The enemies needed to be brought down to a level that the Iraqi soldiers could handle their own security, otherwise the US forces would have to stay there for generations.
        • The US soldiers needed to understand WHY the Iraqi soldiers had to be included (so that the missions would be allowed by headquarters). They had to believe in the mission.
      • The leader must believe in the mission before his suboordinates and junior leaders can believe it in.
      • Without believing in the mission, the mission will fail.
      • 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 the mission.
        • If the leader doesn’t believe in the mission, they cannot convince others to believe in the mission.
      • When a leader’s confidence breaks, everyone that is following him can see this, and will begin to question the mission.
      • Every leader must be able to detach themselves from the immediate tactical mission and understand how it fits into strategic goals.
      • The leader must ask the question why? Why are we being asked to do this? If they don’t understand, then they must ask questions to the people that are higher on the chain to understand why.
      • In any organization, goals must always be in alignment.
      • Don’t be scared to ask questions that you think will make you look stupid.
      • Think about the story of the company who cut the sales staff’s compensation. The CEO had a plan to week out the lower producing sales staff so that they could lower overhead and production costs to lower the price of the product. This would help them capture more of the market and have their top producing sales staff pick up more accounts.
      • Leadership isn’t one person leading a team. It’s a team of leaders up and down the chain that are working together to lead.
        • If you are on your own, you won’t be able to handle it.
      • Leadership takes courage to ask questions that make you feel stupid.
    • Chapter 4 – Check the ego
      • Think about the story where the better unit and Iragi soldiers came to the base. The platoon commander was worried that the new unit would outperform them and take their missions.
        • He still needed to put his ego in check and help the new unit to be the best that they can be.
        • The new unit also had issues checking their egos. They thought they were better than everybody else. They talked down to people, and didn’t follow dress code.
        • The colonel had to kick out the great new unit because they wouldn’t check their egos and be part of the team. No matter how good they could have been
      • Principle: ego clouds and disrupts everything.
        • It can even stifle someone’s sense of self preservation.
        • Everyone has an ego. It drives the most successful people in life, but when it clouds our judgement then ego becomes destructive.
        • Many issues in a team can be directly attributed to ego.
      • Remember the story of the middle manager and the drilling superintendent. The Drilling superintendent had more experience and didn’t run stuff through the manager. The manager needed to check his ego to explain why the drilling superintendent needed to communicate with him.
        • It’s about the mission and how best to accomplish it.
  • Part 2: The laws of combat
    • Chapter 5 – Cover and move
      • Remember the story where the two squads (OP1 and OP2) were needing to get back to the base. Instead of working together to get back to the base, the two separate squads were only focused on themselves. If they used each other then they would have had a safer return.
      • Principle: cover and move. The most fundamental tactic. It means teamwork. All elements within the greater team are crucial and must work together to accomplish the mission, supporting each other. The team must understand who depends on them.
      • When smaller teams within the team start to get focused on the task at hand, they can get caught up in forgetting about all of the support that they have around them.
      • It falls on leaders to continually keep perspective on the greater mission, and remind the team that what they are doing is for the greater good.
      • Every team within the larger team gets to share in the success
      • You have to get rid of the “Us vs Them” mentality
      • Remember the story about the corporation that had subsidiaries. The subsidiaries had to work together, but they didn’t take care of each other. It was “Us vs Them.” Once they started working together, they radically improved their company.
    • Chapter 6 – Simple
      • Remember the story where the new leader wanted to take a big mission deep into enemy territory. Jocko talked him into keeping the mission shorter and more simple, knowing that he was going to run into enemy troops. The new leader’s team ended up needing to have support sent to help them. If he would have gone on a more complex mission, it could have been catastrophic.
      • The communication between the seal leaders and the base were kept short and to the point. This helped everyone to understand where to go and what they needed to have with them to help.
      • You must brief so that the lowest common denominator can understand. Make sure that people can ask questions when they don’t understand what the key parts of the mission are.
      • Application to business: the company that created a crazy difficult to understand bonus plan for the assembly line. None of the assembly technicians understood the bonus plan.
      • After they changed the bonus plan to something that was simple to understand, production increased immediately.
    • Chapter 7 – Prioritize and Execute
      • Remember the story where the platoon was trapped in a building with an IED outside the only door. They breached a separate wall and went out onto a neighboring roof. Once on the roof, someone fell to the ground, and they had the IED ready to detonate. They had to prioritize and execute to make it out safely.
      • Relax, look around, make a call.
      • Nobody can tackle multiple problems simultaneously. Prioritize and execute to work your way through the list.
      • If your team understands where the priorities are, then they can execute without specific direction from you.
      • A leader must do the following
        • Evaluate the highest priority problem
        • Lay out in simple, clear, and concise terms the highest priority effort for your team
        • Develop and determine the solution
        • Seek input from key leaders, and from the team where possible
        • Direct the execution focusing all efforts and resources to this priority task
        • Move on to the next priority problem
        • Repeat
      • Don’t let the focus on one priority cause target fixation
      • Application to business: the pharmaceutical company that had too many projects going on and started to lose money. They had to focus on one thing to get it going. They focused on the sales staff and their daily activities. This created a snowball effect. They were able to execute the priorities in the order of importance.
    • Chapter 8 – Decentralized command
      • By having faith and trust in junior front line leaders, you can let them make decisions that you know will help the team fulfill their mission.
      • You must explain to the front line leaders what the objective of the mission is, then trust them to carry it out in the best way possible.
      • This is only able to be carried out if you have trained your leaders well.
      • The leaders must know that they are empowered to make decisions and that their leaders will back them up.
      • No person has the cognitive capacity or the knowledge to manage each person in their unit. 
      • Leaders must be able to trust their suboordinate leaders to take charge of the smaller teams within the team and allow them to execute based on a good understanding of the broader mission and standard operating procedures.
      • Instead of a junior leader asking if they can do something, they should just be telling you what they are going to do.
      • You must trust your junior leaders to make adjustments.
      • Principle: Human beings are generally not capable of managing more than 6-10 people, particularly when things go sideways. No one leader can be expected to manage dozens of individuals. Teams must be broken down to teams of 4-6 with one designated leader. These leaders should be trusted to make decisions on key tasks without oversight. 
        • This doesn’t mean that junior leaders operate on their own program. They must understand what is within their responsibility. They must be able to communicate directly with higher leadership. 
        • Junior leaders must have implicit trust that their senior leaders will back their decisions.
      • Application to business: The nationwide company that had multiple branches. Some branches had 20 and some had 3. All sizes only had one manager. They needed to adjust their teams to groups of 4-6 to be more successful. 
  • Part 3: Sustaining Victory
    • Chapter 9 – Plan
      • Remember the story of the Iraqi hostage that needed to be rescued. The SEAL team was given intel right after they had departed for the mission that there was known IEDs and bunkered machine guns. They went anyway. They had already planned for this possibility.
      • Never take anything for granted, prepare for likely contingencies, and maximizing the chance of mission success while minimizing the risk.
      • It is essential to develop a standardized planning process.
      • Principle: What’s the mission?
        • Planning begins with mission analysis. Leaders must identify clear directives for the team. 
        • A broad and ambiguous mission results in lack of focus, inefficient completion, and mission creep. To prevent this, the mission must be clearly defined and simplified so that it is explicitly clear to achieve the greater strategic mission.
        • The plan must describe the overall purpose of the mission. The front line troops must understand the intent of the mission, and where it fits into the big picture.
        • The commander’s intent is the most important part of the brief.
        • While the senior leader needs to be present during the planning, they must not get bogged down in the details. They must stand back and keep the bigger picture in focus.
      • The best teams take time for analysis after a mission is over. This is to discuss lessons learned and how to better plan the next mission.
      • A leader’s checklist for planning should include the following:
        • Analyze the mission. 
        • Understand higher headquarters mission.
        • Identify and state your own commander’s intent.
        • Identify personnel, assets, time, and resources available.
        • Decentralize the planning process. Empower junior leaders to analyze possible courses of action.
        • Determine a specific course of action.
        • Lean towards selecting the most simple course of action.
        • Empower key leaders to develop the plan for the selected course of action.
        • Plan for likely contingencies through each phase and mitigate risk where possible. 
        • Delegate portions of the plan to key junior leaders.
        • Stand back and be the tactical genius.
        • Continually check and question the plan against emerging information.
        • Brief the plan to all participants and supporting assets. Emphasize commander’s intent. Ask questions and engage in discussion and interaction with the team to insure they understand.
        • Conduct post operational debrief after execution. Take note of lessons learned and implement them in future planning.
      • Application to business:
        • The only thing that matters in a good brief is if the front line people understand what they need to know.
          • Brief to the lowest common denominator.
        • As a leader, if you are down in the weeds trying to plan with the front line crew then you will not see the entire plan.
        • You need to let the front lines create their own plan after you give them the broader view.
    • Chapter 10 – Leading up and down the chain of command
      • You must understand the strategic impact of what you are doing and why. This information must be explained to your junior leaders.
      • It is difficult for people who are entrenched in the minutia of what they are doing to understand the bigger picture, but it is crucial to the success and wellbeing of your suboordinates to have them understand the big picture.
      • This can be achieved by letting the junior leaders and front line troops be involved in the planning.
      • It is important to have strategic briefs for your junior leaders to give them context of the full mission.
      • This requires regularly stepping out of the office and having face to face communications with your suboordinates.
      • If your bosses are asking many questions before you are allowed to do anything, then you aren’t doing a good enough job explaining your plans to them.
      • You need to lead your bosses by doing better yourself.
      • Your bosses need to understand what you are doing and why.
      • Your boss will grow more comfortable with you and establish trust in you when you show you are capable.
      • Have the humility to understand and accept when your boss has criticism or does something that you don’t agree with.
      • Take responsibility for leading everyone in your world. Your superiors and suboordinates alike.
      • Don’t ask your leader what you should do, tell them what you are going to do.
      • If someone isn’t doing what you want or need them to do, look in the mirror and determine what you can do to better enable this.
    • Chapter 11 – Decisiveness amid uncertainty
      • You must know the impact of your decision. Whether they can be reversed or altered.
      • Remember the story with Chris Kyle and the blurry outline in the building across the street. They could not shoot the outline without knowing who it was. They had to send someone into the building to find out whether it was friendly or enemy.
        • They were actually looking at the wrong building. The guy with the scoped weapon was a US soldier. 
      • Principle: nothing can truly capture the pressure from uncertainty, chaos, and the element of the unknown until you are in the middle of the mission.
        • The answers are almost never immediately obvious.
      • There is no 100% right solution. Leaders must be comfortable with this, and make decisions promptly. Then, as things unfold, change path if needed.
      • Waiting for the 100% right and certain solution will take too long, and you can miss your opportunity.
      • As a leader, your default setting should be aggressive and proactive. Not reactive.
      • The picture can never be complete. 
      • Application to business: Remember the story of the 2 senior engineers who couldn’t work together and were undermining each other at every turn. They wanted each other fired. The best course of action ended up being to fire them both. They were a cancer to the company.
    • Chapter 12 – Discipline = Freedom, the Dichotomy of leadership
      • Remember the story of enhancing the evidence collection in Baghdad. When they first started, they were all over the place. Some rooms were being checked multiple times, some were being missed completely. It took them 45 minutes to clear a house.
        • This was fixed by creating a simple plan to give everyone a task, break down and label every room, and standardize their evidence collection and marking. This cut the time down to 20 minutes and they were able to keep everything organized.
      • Discipline starts every day when the first alarm clock goes off every morning.
        • Have 3 alarms set. One battery powered. One electric. One wind up.
        • This is the first test. It sets the tone for the rest of the day.
        • If you have the discipline to get out of bed, you win.
        • If you are mentally weak for that moment and you let the weakness keep you in bed, you fail.
        • If you want extra time, you have to make extra time. You do this by getting up early.
      • The more disciplined you are, the more freedom you have to practice decentralized command.
      • Principle: every leader must walk a fine line. Just as discipline and freedom are opposing forces that must be balanced, leadership requires finding the equilibrium in the dichotomy of many seemingly contradictory qualities between one extreme and another.
      • A leader must lead, but also must be ready to follow. Sometimes someone else might be in a better situation to lead in that mission. Good leaders must welcome this.
      • A leader must be aggressive, but not overbearing.
      • A leader must be calm, but not robotic. It is normal and necessary to show emotion.
      • A leader must be brave, but not foolhardy.
      • Leaders must have a competitive spirit, but also be gracious losers.
      • Leaders must act with professionalism, and recognize others for their contributions.
      • A leader must be strong, and have endurance. You must perform at the highest level and maintain that level for the long term.
      • Leaders must be humble, but not passive. Quiet, but not silent.
      • A leader must be close with the troops, but never look at one member of the team as more important than another.
        • A leader must never let their suboordinates forget that they are in charge.
      • A leader must develop the trust and confidence from their team that they will make the right decisions when it matters most.
      • A leader must be attentive to details, but not obsessed by them.
      • Application to business: The electrical division of the construction company was losing money. The CEO was really close with the electrical manager. He didn’t want to shut it down. The CEO had to decide to shut the electrical division down to keep the rest of the company profitable.
Preston

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