Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Book Notes: Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win

After reading rave reviews about the book Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win I decided to give it a go. 

This book deserves - no not deserves but - commands respect. It teaches various leadership principles and how to apply them in different situations. Authors Jocko Willink and Leif Babin - who were both U.S. Navy SEALs - teach us the leadership principles using real life examples from numerous combat operations executed in Iraq. 

This book is for everyone who is stepping into any sort of leadership position, in business or personal life or absolutely anything. 

Disclaimer: This post is by no means a summary of the book, I would encourage everyone to go ahead and grab the book and give it a go. I am sure you will learn a ton about leadership!

Book Notes

Extreme Ownership

When things go wrong - which they will - it is responsibility of the leader to take full and complete ownership. It's very easy to blame others for the failures, but it always results in suboptimal and dysfunctional teams. The buck stops at the leader, there is no one else to blame. 

This will ensure that the team is not busy playing "the blame game" and focuses their energy onto the things that matter and gets the job done. Once this principle gets embedded into your standard operating procedures, it becomes easier for the teams to talk more constructively about the failure, they will learn what did they do wrong and what should they do better in the future.

There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.

Leaders who want to achieve higher standards of performance for the team, must recognise - what really matters is "it's not what you preach, it's what you tolerate". 

If substandard performance is accepted and no on is held accountable - the poor performance becomes the new standard. Leaders must always keep learning and improving, they must also build this mind-set into the team.


In order for your team to accomplish a mission, the leader must truly believe it. If the leader doesn't believe in the mission, he or she will not be able to make the team believe in the mission. 

If the team doesn't believe in the mission then, the team is setup for failure. They will not take the risks required to overcome inevitable challenges necessary to execute the mission. 

Leave the Ego behind

Ego clouds and disrupts everything: the planning process, the ability to take good advice, and the ability to accept constructive criticism. The most difficult ego to deal with is your own! 

When personal agendas become more important than the team and the overarching missions success, performance suffers and failures is ensured. Admitting mistakes, taking ownership and developing a plan to overcome challenges are integral to any successful team and Ego is an enemy to all that.

Cover and Move: Teamwork

All elements within the greater team are crucial and must work together to accomplish the mission. Teams should mutually support one another for that singular purpose. Departments and groups within the team must break down silos. If the teams starts operating independently or work against each other, the results can be catastrophic.  

The leaders should continually keep perspective on strategic mission and remind the team that they are part of the greater team and the strategic missions is paramount. When different teams use the language "us versus them" it's a giant red flag. The leader must guide the team to overcome this mentality and work together, mutually supporting one another. 

Simple - KISS - Keep It Simple Stupid

The plan has to be simple. It should be simple enough so that each and every team member understands the plan and has complete clarity on it. This is essential because, when things go wrong and they always do go wrong, complexity compounds issues that can spiral out of control into a complete failure. 

It is critical that leaders enable the team members to ask questions about things that they do not understand about the plan or their responsibilities. Leaders must encourage this communication and take the time to explain, so that every team member fully and completely understands the plan. Without this failure is almost always guaranteed. 

Prioritise and Execute 

At times there are many important problems to tackle simultaneously. Even the most competent of leaders can be overwhelmed, if they try to tackle all of them simultaneously. Instead, leaders must determine the highest priority task and execute. When overwhelmed, fall back upon this principle: Prioritise and Execute. 

It is crucial for leaders to step back and maintain the strategic picture. This is essential to help them correctly prioritise. These are the steps to do it effectively

  • Evaluate the highest priority problem
  • Clearly state the highest priority effort for the team.
  • Seek inputs from key leaders and build a solution 
  • Execute the solution, focus all resources towards this priority task.
  • Move to the next problem. 
  • Repeat.
  • When priorities change, make sure to pass the information up and down the chain.
  • Keep an eye on other problems that are building up.
Decentralised Command

Humans are generally not capable of managing more than six to ten people, particularly when things go sideways and inevitable contingencies arise. Teams must be broken down into manageable smaller groups with a clearly designated leader. Subordinate leaders must be empowered to make the decision on key tasks necessary to accomplish that mission in most effective and efficient manner possible. 

This doesn't mean that the subordinate leaders or the team members operate on their own, this will result in chaos. Instead, they must fully understand what is within their decision-making authority i.e. the left and right limits of their responsibility. They must also communicate with senior leaders to recommend decisions outside their authority and pass critical information up the chain so the senior leadership can make informed strategic decisions. Subordinate leaders are expected to plan and execute rather than ask "What do you want me to do?" To get to that stage, each team member must clearly understand the strategic mission. 


A broad and ambiguous mission results in lack of focus, ineffective execution and mission creep. To prevent this the mission must be carefully refined and simplified so that it is explicitly clear. Mission must explain the overall purpose and desired "end state".

Leaders must delegate the planning process down the chain as much as possible to key subordinate leaders. Team participation even from most junior personnel is critical in developing bold, innovative solutions to problem sets. Giving the frontline teams ownership of even small piece of the plan gives them buy-in, helps them understand the reasons behind the plan and creates the belief in the mission. This translates into far more effective implementation and execution. 

Leading Up and Down the Chain of Command

A good leader is immersed in the planning and execution of tasks, projects and operations to move the team towards a strategic goal. Such leaders possess insight into the bigger picture and why some tasks need to be done. This information does not automatically translate to subordinates. It is paramount that senior leaders explain to the subordinate leaders and the team how their role contributes to the big picture success. This understanding helps the team members prioritise their efforts in rapidly changing, dynamic environment. This is called leading down the chain of command. 

If your boss ins't making a decision in a timely manner, don't blame the boss. First, take extreme ownership and introspect what you can do to better convey the critical information for decision to be made? Leading up the chain of command requires tactful engagement with immediate boss to obtain the decisions and support necessary to enable your team to accomplish the goal. To do this, leader must push situation awareness up the chain of command.

Decisiveness amid Uncertainty

The leaders cannot be paralysed by fear. That results in inaction. It is critical for a leader to act decisively amid uncertainty. To make the best decision they can based on only the immediate information available. Leaders must be comfortable in chaos and act decisively. Waiting for 100% information before making a decision is catastrophic. 

Discipline Equals Freedom - The Dichotomy of Leadership

Leadership requires finding the equilibrium in the dichotomy of many seemingly contradictory qualities. 
  • A leader must lead but also be ready to follow.
  • A leader must be aggressive but not overbearing. 
  • A leader must be brave but not foolhardy
  • A leader must have a competitive spirit but also be gracious loser
  • A leader must be attentive to details, but not obsessed by them
  • A leader must be strong but likewise have endurance, not only physically but mentally.
  • A leader must be humble but not passive; quiet but not silent. 
  • A leader must be close to subordinates but not too close. Leaders must never get so close that the team forgets who is in charge.
  • A leader must exercise Extreme Ownership and decentralised chain of command by giving control to subordinate leaders.
  • A leader has nothing to prove but everything to prove!

I learned a great deal from this book, it has a world of experience to offer. I hope, you are inspired enough to pick this book up and give it a go!

Have some Fun!