Why extreme ownership is the answer
1: “Pushing open the heavy armored door of my vehicle, I stepped out onto the street. I had a gut feeling that something was wrong,” writes Jocko Willink in Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win, which he co-wrote with Leif Babin.
Jocko’s mind was racing. A veteran Navy SEAL, he had risen through the ranks to become commander of Task Force Bruiser. It was his unit’s first major operation in Ramadi, the deadly epicenter of the Iraqi insurgency. The situation was total chaos – “thick with confusion, inaccurate information, broken communications, and mayhem,” Jocko recounts.
“The enemy insurgent fighters called themselves mujahideen, Arabic for “those engaged in jihad,” Jocko writes. “They subscribed to a ruthless, militant version of Islam and they were cunning, barbaric, and lethal. For years, the Mala’ab had remained firmly in their hands. Now, the U.S. forces aimed to change that.”
Jocko’s Humvee rolled to a stop immediately behind an Abrams tank, its turret rotated and its huge main gun pointed at a building at point-blank range.
“What’s going on?” Jocko shouted at the Marine gunnery sergeant.
“Hot damn!” he shouted back. “There’s some muj in that building right there putting up a serious fight!”
The Marine gestured at the building. “They killed one of our Iraqi soldiers when we entered the building and wounded a few more. We’ve been hammering them, and I’m working to get some bombs dropped on ’em now.” He was coordinating an airstrike of U.S. aircraft to wipe out the mujahideen inside the building.
Jocko looked around. The building was riddled with bullet holes. “Now the Abrams tank had its huge main gun trained on the building, preparing to reduce it to rubble and kill everyone inside. And if that still didn’t do the job, bombs from the sky would be next,” recalls Jocko.
“But something didn’t add up,” he recalls. “We were extremely close to where one of our SEAL sniper teams was supposed to be. The sniper team had abandoned the location they had originally planned to use and were in the process of relocating to a new building when all the shooting started. In the mayhem, they hadn’t reported their exact location, but I knew it would be close to the point where I was standing,” Jocko writes.
“Hold what you got, Gunny, I’m going to check it out,” Jocko told the Marine commander. He nodded at the senior enlisted SEAL, who nodded back, and together they moved across the street toward the enemy-infested house. The door was slightly open. Jocko kicked it in.
Staring back at him was one of his SEAL platoon chiefs. In a flash, it all became clear. “It was a blue-on-blue,” Jocko said calmly to the SEAL leader.
2: What had happened?
In the early morning darkness, the SEAL sniper team had seen the silhouette of a man armed with an AK-47 enter the building where they were setting up. The area was crawling with enemy fighters. There were not supposed to be any friendlies in the vicinity. The SEALs had engaged the man with the AK-47, thinking they were under attack.
The only problem?
The silhouette was a “friendly,” an Iraqi soldier who was part of a team of who had strayed outside the boundaries. When gunfire erupted from the house, the Iraqi soldiers called in reinforcements, Jocko writes, “and U.S. Marines and Army troops responded with a vicious barrage of gunfire into the house they assumed was occupied by enemy fighters.” Meanwhile, inside the house, the SEALs were pinned down. They returned fire as best they could to prevent being overrun by what they thought were enemy fighters.
The Marine commander was minutes away from directing airstrikes at the house from which the SEALS were fighting for their lives.
“The rest of the mission was a success,” Jocko recalls. “But that didn’t matter. I felt sick. One of my men was wounded. An Iraqi soldier was dead and others were wounded. We did it to ourselves, and it happened under my command.”
Blue-on-blue, friendly fire, fratricide, “the worst thing that could happen,” Jocko explains. “To be killed or wounded by the enemy in battle was bad enough. But to be accidentally killed or wounded by friendly fire because someone had screwed up was the most horrible fate.”
Back at base, Jocko opened an email from his commanding officer. “SHUT DOWN. CONDUCT NO MORE OPERATIONS. INVESTIGATING OFFICER, COMMAND MASTER CHIEF, AND I ARE IN ROUTE.”
“All the good things I had done and the solid reputation I had worked hard to establish in my career as a SEAL were now meaningless,” he remembers. He wished he had died on the battlefield. “I felt I deserved it.”
Frustrated and disappointed, Jocko began gathering information and putting together his report. “I assembled the list of everything that everyone had done wrong. . . But something was missing. There was a problem, some piece I hadn’t identified, and it made me feel like the truth wasn’t coming out,” Jocko remembers. “Who was to blame?”
Then it hit him. Like a ton of bricks.
Jocko stood in front of his Commanding Officer, the Commanding Master Chief, the investigating officer, and his entire SEAL team.
“Whose fault was this?” Jocko asked. “After a few moments of silence, the SEAL who had mistakenly engaged the Iraqi solider spoke up: ‘It was my fault. I should have positively identified my target.’”
“No, Jocko responded. “It wasn’t your fault. Whose fault was it?”
“It was my fault,” said the radioman. “I should have passed our position over sooner.”
“Wrong,” Jocko responded. “It wasn’t your fault. Whose fault was it?” he asked again.
“It was my fault,” said another SEAL. “I should have controlled the Iraqis and made sure they stayed in their sector.”
“Negative,” Jocko barked. “There is only one person to blame for this: me. I am the commander. I am responsible for the entire operation. As the senior man, I am responsible for every action that takes place on the battlefield.”
“It was a heavy burden to bear,” Jocko recalls. “But it was absolutely true. I was the leader. I was in charge and I was responsible. Thus, I had to take ownership of everything that went wrong.”
Then, the team then debriefed the entire operation, piece by piece.
“While a blue-on-blue incident in an environment like Ramadi might be likely, if not expected, we vowed to never let it happen again,” Jocko writes. “We analyzed what had happened and implemented the lessons learned. We revised our standard operating procedures and planning methodology to better mitigate risk. As a result of this tragic incident, we undoubtedly saved lives going forward.”
3: Looking back years later, Jocko believes, “If I had tried to pass the blame on to others, I suspect I would have been fired—deservedly so.” Instead, “it is clear that, despite what happened, the full ownership I took of the situation actually increased the trust my commanding officer and master chief had in me.”
Reflection: What do I make of this event? Are there any situations where I need to take full ownership? What’s blocking me from doing so?
Action: Journal about my answers to the questions above.