Who’s to blame when things go wrong?
1: “Some may wonder how Navy SEAL combat leadership principles translate outside the military realm to leading any team in any capacity,” Jocko Willink and Leif Babin write in their terrific book Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win.
“But combat is reflective of life, only amplified and intensified,” they write. “The leadership and teamwork concepts contained in this book are not abstract theories, but practical and applicable.”
The key message?
“Leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame,” Jocko and Leif write.
2: The VP’s plan looked good on paper.
The prior year, the board of directors had approved his plan to decrease production costs. Unfortunately, the results weren’t good. At the past several quarter’s board meetings, the VP had provided the reasons about why so little of his plan had been implemented. Board members were losing patience and Jocko had been hired to provide guidance and coaching for the VP.
Jocko’s initial assessment of the VP was positive. He was smart and knowledgeable about the business. Together, they reviewed the current situation and the problems encountered in the execution.
“He explained the consolidation of manufacturing plants had failed because his distribution managers feared that increasing the distance between the plants and distribution centers would prevent face-to-face interaction with the manufacturing team and reduce their ability to tweak order specifics,” Jocko recalls.
There was pushback on plans to streamline the manufacturing process. There was opposition to implementing the new compensation plan because of concerns that skilled workers would quit. The VP also shared challenges about delays with technology and difficult market conditions.
“Those all may be factors,” Jocko said. “But there is one most important reason why this plan has failed.”
“What reason is that?” the VP inquired with interest.
Jocko paused for a moment to see if the VP was ready for what he was going to say. “You. You are the reason.”
The VP became defensive. “How am I supposed to execute it? I’m not out there in the field with them. I can’t make them listen to me.”
Jocko paused again. “To implement real change, to drive people to accomplish something truly complex or difficult or dangerous—you can’t make people do those things. You have to lead them.”
“I did lead them,” the VP protested. “They just didn’t execute.”
“When I was in charge of a SEAL platoon or a SEAL task unit conducting combat operations, do you think every operation I led was a success?” Jocko asked.
The VP shook his head. “No.”
“Absolutely not,” Jocko agreed. And, “as the commander, everything that happened on the battlefield was my responsibility. Everything.”
“In your mind you are doing everything right. So when things go wrong, instead of looking at yourself, you blame others,” Jocko stated. “But no one is infallible. With Extreme Ownership, you must remove individual ego and personal agenda. It’s all about the mission. How can you best get your team to most effectively execute the plan in order to accomplish the mission? That is the question you have to ask yourself. That is what Extreme Ownership is all about.”
3: Extreme ownership is the principle that makes great leaders great and great teams great.
“The best-performing SEAL units had leaders who accepted responsibility for everything. Every mistake, every failure or shortfall—those leaders would own it,” Jocko states. “During the debrief after a training mission, those good SEAL leaders took ownership of failures, sought guidance on how to improve, and figured out a way to overcome challenges on the next iteration.”
These leaders would say: “My subordinate leaders made bad calls; I must not have explained the overall intent well enough.”
Or, “The assault force didn’t execute the way I envisioned; I need to make sure they better understand my intent and rehearse more thoroughly.”
The VP listened intently to Jocko’s message. “They must have respected that,” he acknowledged.
“Exactly. They see Extreme Ownership in their leaders, and as a result, they emulate Extreme Ownership throughout the chain of command down to their most junior personnel. “As a group they try to figure out how to fix their problems – instead of trying to figure out who or what to blame.”
At the next board meeting, the VP took responsibility for the failure to meet the manufacturing plan and provided a solid no-nonsense list of action items to address the situation.
The list started with what he was going to do differently.
Reflection: Consider a current situation at work where things are not going well. Or, think back on a past event where myself or my team failed to meet a key objective. How might I apply the lessons of Extreme Ownership?
Action: Journal about my answers to the questions above.