How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead And Win
The book Extreme Ownership is an interesting guide book to leadership. Each chapter begins with a story of events experienced during war time in Iraq, followed by a principle that applies to the story, and finally an example of a real world business application relevant to the lesson is provided. A sandwich of knowledge is made in each chapter designed to provide you a detailed break down on how events that transpired under the ultimate pressure of war can apply with ease in the board room or business meeting.
My intent with this book study is to provide a paragraph on each chapter and what I felt I got out of it. Consider it a glimpse at my personal notes as I worked through the book.
The men of Task Unit Bruiser suffer an extreme set back in their operations after one of their SEALS engages an Iraqi soldier, an ally, and kills him. In the fog of war, they almost end the lives of several American war fighters due to miscommunication and confusion. The leadership of the Task Unit are brought to task by their superiors and that is the moment that the authors of this manual began developing the idea behind ‘Extreme Ownership’. The driving principle of this chapter is the buck stops here mentality. Success and failure will always begin and end with the leadership and while mistakes may be made, it is important to remember that we as leaders are responsible for every aspect of the mission.
No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders
An under performing team will only live up the expectations of the leader above them. A bad leader will often set low expectations, demoralize the group, or fail to inspire his subordinates. A poor attitude is infectious and failure can often be attributed to the leaders acceptance that failure is not only an option but inevitable. The reverse side to this coin is that a good leader can often inspire his troops to rally, encourage them to succeed, and work to set standards that lift their spirits and motivate them to succeed. A leader with a can do attitude will often find he can inspire his subordinates to levels of success that they did not expect or were not yet aware that they could achieve.
The mission cannot be accomplished if you do not believe in the mission. Build your faith and it will shine like a beacon. You must inspire confidence in the mission and the righteousness of your cause if you want to get the best performance from your subordinates. This means you need to be able to reasonably express the what, when, where, why, and how to your group and keep them feeling that they have a vested interest in winning. If they do not feel ownership, they will not live up to your expectations. Educate them to give them buy in.
Check the Ego
Sometimes words hurt. Don’t let it scare you. Be prepared to ask for help, offer help, and accept criticism. You cannot allow your own biases or fears to prevent the success of the mission. Be prepared to do what is right and not what protects you from scrutiny or criticism.
Cover and Move
Team work makes the dream work. You are only as strong as the sum of the parts. Sometimes problems happen and someone else has to step in to protect or cover. A unit should be able to work in a manner in which they are able to communicate and support so that all members of the group can succeed. We as leaders should be able to identify weaknesses in the organization, communicate enough to ask for help, and cover problems so that no part of the organization folds. Encourage strength through cooperation.
Baking a cake is simple. You mix ingredients, bake them, and a cake pops out. If someone tells you to ‘bake a cake’, it may seem simple but the reality is that you may not know what kind of cake or what to use to do it. Baking a cake becomes infinitely harder as we realize there are numerous ways to bake a cake and that we can have any number of cakes. Angel food, devils food, German chocolate, and so on. Simplicity means being apparent. You will find much more success if you hand a man a recipe, make a firm request for pineapple upside down cake, and then set concise expectations. Would you rather receive a note that says ‘bake me a cake’ or would you be confident in success if you were handed a recipe, instructions, and a timeline on when and where that cake should be delivered? Be simple but be verbose. Instructions don’t have to be easy but they should be verbose and descriptive with firmly set expectations.
Prioritize and Execute
What matters now? How do the sum of the parts add up to a completed mission? Have you ever heard the saying ‘How do you eat an elephant’? The answer is simple. ‘One bite at a time’. We must decide what matters now, how each priority supports the mission, and how they chain together. If your software cannot run without a server then focus on building the infrastructure first. Pick a vendor. Design a deployment plan. Integrate your solution. Then push your software out. You set goals, design a plan, implement it, and then work in an asynchronous manner as best as you can. Someone can be writing code while you wait on delivery of hardware and someone else can be writing the ansible play books using a virtual machine until you have the infrastructure in place. The most important thing is that you are setting simple and obvious goals with a clear goal post that demarcates success.
You cannot be everywhere at once. Leaders need to have faith in their subordinates and understand how to manage their team. A fire team usually consists of 6 men and that is the ideal number of people for a single leader to manage. If you are going to manage a team of people you need to be able to identify leaders, give them orders, and trust in them to accomplish the mission. You as a leader cannot and will not succeed if you attempt to micromanage the happenings of those working several layers down. You must be able to trust in your team to do what is needed to accomplish the mission.
Set expectations. In software development, we like ‘repeatable’ and ‘testable’. I expect my software to do the same thing every time I ask it to function in an expected manner. Planning means setting expectations and preparing for eventualities. We train to fight and we fight like we train. You should be able to feel confident that the team members you supervise will be able to do their day to day work to the expected level while also being ready to adapt and overcome if presented with a situation outside what is normal. We cannot predict every situation but what we can do is plan for both the normal as well as the abnormal in order to instill the confidence required to react when required.
Leading Up and Down the Chain of Command
Be prepared to instill the confidence necessary to get the support you need when it must come from beyond your reach. You will be expected to demonstrate leadership that travels in both directions and this means you must learn how to curry favor as well as garner the support you and your team need to survive. I felt this chapter boiled down to ‘play ball’. You need to do what is necessary to win and that often times means convincing someone with more clout to get in your corner and assist you in succeeding. Learn to communicate and work with others within your organization to bring to bear the full resources of those you work with.
Decisiveness amid Uncertainty
Aggression. Speed, surprise, and violence of action. You must be prepared to take action without hesitation or fear. You require confidence. Don’t let things ‘happen’ but instead you must be prepared to take responsibility and do what is necessary to protect the team as well as the sanctity of the mission. A recurring theme in the military is ‘Who dares, wins’. Don’t wait but instead, do. You are more likely to find success when you force the hand than when you wait for someone else to corner you or manipulate you.
Discipline Equals Freedom – The Dichotomy of Leadership
You get what you put in. You must communicate and only through communication can you inspire others to trust in you. Often times you will find leadership is unwilling to take a chance on you or our ideas because they feel they are in the dark. I have heard two schools of thought over my time in different organizations and it appears that Extreme Ownership implies that you should be vocal, explanatory, as well as thorough. They believe you can inspire confidence through communication. I agree but I have also spoken to leaders who have told me in no uncertain terms that sometimes it is best that the higher ups simply not be aware of the intricacies of the operation. We should be careful and cautious in what is shared. I think both are applicable. You can explain your thought process, you intentions, and your recipe for success without interjection of superfluous information. Don’t include in the brief what should be handled at the line level.
Extreme Ownership is an incredibly fascinating book that combines business with a riveting tale of war, loss, and lessons learned the hard way. I recommend this book to anyone looking for a crash course on how a leader should act. It is an inspiring story and provides the reader with a glimpse into a historical record of untold value in hard fought lessons and an education written in blood. It is well worth the weekend or two it will require to read the book.
My final takeaways -
You and you alone are responsible for the mission.
Explain what to do and then inspire them to understand why.
Don’t be afraid to cut the dead weight.
Simple. Not easy. Don’t make people guess or wonder.
Communicate and confirm. Don’t assume someone knows if you didn’t tell them.
Make a priority list. Execute the list. Reassess. Repeat.
Learn to command up the chain.
Don’t be afraid to take the hard job.
Help people feel they have a chance at winning.