Only Two Types of Leaders: Effective and Ineffective

1: In the spring of 2006, when Navy SEAL Task Unit Bruiser arrived in Ramadi, it was the deadly epicenter of the Iraqi insurgency.  A U.S. leaked intelligence report said the city was “all but lost.” 

“Virtually no one thought it possible that U.S. forces could turn the situation around there and win,” write Jocko Willink and Leif Babin in Extreme Ownership.

But win is what happened.  Enemy attacks plummeted from thirty to fifty a day throughout much of 2006 to an average of one per week in early 2007, and then one per month.  The city was stabilized and the area secured.
Jocko oversaw Task Unit Bruiser’s contribution to the Ready First Brigade’s efforts.  His SEAL platoons fought shoulder to shoulder with U.S. Army Soldiers and Marines to remove insurgents from enemy-held parts of the city.  Bruiser SEALs spearheaded many operations in the most deadly and contested neighborhoods. 

“We secured buildings, took the high ground, and then provided cover as Soldiers and Marines moved into contested areas,” Jocko writes.  The mission was accomplished “through much blood, sweat, and toil…  The violent insurgency was routed from the city, tribal sheikhs in Ramadi joined with U.S. forces, and the Anbar Awakening was born.”  

2: How did this happen?  According to Jocko and Leif, the answer is leadership.

Extreme Ownership “is about leadership.  It was written for leaders of teams large and small, for men and women, for any person who aspires to better themselves,” Leif and Jocko write.  “Though it contains exciting accounts of SEAL combat operations, this book is not a war memoir.  It is instead a collection of lessons learned from our experiences to help other leaders achieve victory.”

It starts with a team.  “Without a team—a group of individuals working to accomplish a mission—there can be no leadership,” they write.

“For all the definitions, descriptions, and characterizations of leaders, there are only two that matter: effective and ineffective,” write Jocko and Leif.  “Effective leaders lead successful teams that accomplish their mission and win. Ineffective leaders do not.

The only relevant measure for a leader is whether the team succeeds or fails.

3: To be successful, Jocko and Leif outline three key lessons: high standards, small victories, and dealing with failure.  
Leaders “must recognize that when it comes to standards, as a leader, it’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate.  When setting expectations, no matter what has been said or written, if substandard performance is accepted and no one is held accountable—if there are no consequences—that poor performance becomes the new standard. Therefore, leaders must enforce standards.

Next, success is the result of a series of small victories.  To succeed, leaders “focus their efforts not on the days to come or the far-distant finish line they couldn’t yet see, but instead on a physical goal immediately in front of them—the beach marker, landmark, or road sign a hundred yards ahead,” Leif and Jocko write.  “If we could execute with a monumental effort just to reach an immediate goal that everyone could see, we could then continue to the next visually attainable goal and then the next.”

Lastly, leaders must deal with failure and loss.  “Every leader and every team at some point or time will fail and must confront that failure.  That too is a big part of this book,” the authors reflect.  “Tragically, Task Unit Bruiser paid a tremendous cost for the success of these operations: eight SEALs were wounded and three of the best SEAL warriors imaginable gave their lives.” 

Yesterday’s post [hyperlink] detailed the arduous training SEAL candidates undergo and the high standards for SEAL leaders.  Jocko and Leif refer to this responsibility as “burden of leadership.”  

The expectations in training are so high because “as combat leaders, the pressure on them would be immense, beyond their imagination,” Leif writes.  “Death lurked around the corner at any moment.  Every decision I made carried potentially mortal consequences.”

The authors write about the immense tragedy of the three SEALS in Task Unit Bruiser who sacrificed their lives for their country: Marc Lee who was shot during a furious firefight; Mike Monsoor, who jumped on a grenade to save the lives of three teammates, and Ryan Job, who was shot in the face by an enemy sniper.  

As SEAL leaders, this “crushing burden” is the price of leadership. 

More tomorrow.


Reflection:  What stands out here?  What lessons will I take from Extreme Ownership?  What must I do or change to become a better leader? 

Action:  Do it.  Today.

What is the ultimate leadership trait?

1: Yesterday, we analyzed a “blue-on-blue” or friendly fire incident that happened in 2006 in Ramadi, the deadly epicenter of the Iraqi insurgency, involving Navy SEAL Task Force Bruiser and its commander Jocko Willink.

Today, we look at the principle Jocko demonstrated in the wake of what had happened.

Extreme Ownership.

This principle is the title of the book Jocko wrote with fellow SEAL Leif Babin.  It is also “the fundamental core of what constitutes an effective leader in the SEAL Teams or in any leadership endeavor,” he believes.  “The leader is truly and ultimately responsible for everything.  That is Extreme Ownership.

“On any team, in any organization, all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader,” Jocko writes.  “The leader must own everything in his or her world. There is no one else to blame. The leader must acknowledge mistakes and admit failures, take ownership of them, and develop a plan to win.”

2: But what about when a subordinate messes up?  Aren’t they to blame for their mistakes?

“When subordinates aren’t doing what they should, leaders that exercise Extreme Ownership cannot blame the subordinates,” Jocko writes.  “They must first look in the mirror at themselves. The leader bears full responsibility for explaining the strategic mission, developing the tactics, and securing the training and resources to enable the team to properly and successfully execute.”

Extreme ownership requires action.  “If underperformers cannot improve, the leader must make the tough call to terminate them and hire others who can get the job done.  It is all on the leader.”

The key to being successful?  Embracing reality.

“Extreme Ownership requires leaders to look at an organization’s problems through the objective lens of reality, without emotional attachments to agendas or plans,” Jocko observes.  “It mandates that a leader set ego aside, accept responsibility for failures, attack weaknesses, and consistently work to build a better and more effective team.”

Extreme ownership is what makes great leaders great.  “Not just of those things for which they were responsible, but for everything that impacted their mission,” Jocko writes.  “These leaders cast no blame. They made no excuses. Instead of complaining about challenges or setbacks, they developed solutions and solved problems.” 

3: The final attribute of extreme ownership?  Keeping their egos in check.  “Their own egos took a back seat to the mission and their troops. These leaders truly led,” Jocko explains.  “They’re also humble—able to keep their egos from damaging relationships and adversely impacting the mission and the team.”

The extreme ownership philosophy applies to life both on and off the battlefield.

“Once people stop making excuses, stop blaming others, and take ownership of everything in their lives, they are compelled to take action to solve their problems,” Jocko writes.  “They are better leaders, better followers, more dependable and actively contributing team members, and more skilled in aggressively driving toward mission accomplishment.”

More tomorrow.


Reflection:  What stands out to me about extreme ownership?  How can I use this principle in my career and in my life?

Action:  Do it.

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.

Denial Leads to Slow Death

We don’t stay the same.

People and organizations are either getting better or getting worse.  

“We tend to think of an organization as a machine-like object,” Robert E. Quinn writes in his terrific book The Deep Change Field Guide.  “Yet it is often more fruitful to think of an organization as a living system that has a trajectory: it is either gaining energy or losing energy.”

The second law of thermodynamics tells us that unless work is done to the contrary, a system tends to close down and move toward entropy or a loss of energy.

What do we call the work done to gain energy and reverse the natural tendency toward entropy?


Unless there is leadership, Robert tells us, an organization will veer toward slow death.

Symptoms of slow death include: lack of constructive conflict, people taking care of themselves rather than the organization, being too busy to do the important work, inter-group conflict, wild and uncoordinated changes, and the loss of faith in leaders.

In organizations experiencing slow death, the work feels meaningless and hopeless.  People feel disengaged and disempowered.  Self-interest and lack of excellence are so prevalent that we come to expect and accept them.  

Worse, we develop rationalizations for why we can’t do the right thing. 

“When someone suggests that we play a role in creating a problem and might need to change,” Robert writes: “We often respond… by practicing denial.  Denial… often leads to slow death of organizations and individuals.”

Robert believes slow death is becoming more prevalent because of the increasing pace of change: “Today, in a world of constant change, we see slow death more often…  Having to face the endless challenges of organizational life can corrode our motivation and initiative.”

There is a better way.  More tomorrow.


Reflection:  Are there symptoms of slow death in my organization?

Action:  Discuss the idea of slow death with a colleague.

Chief Happiness Officer?

Each week we are doing a deep dive into a different topic and this week we’ve been looking at some of the key takeaways from Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage.  We’ll wrap it up this week by looking at the implications of boosting happiness on workplace culture.
Question:  Is it surprising that leaders who cultivate happiness in the workplace also drive overall productivity and success?  
Shawn shares the research of psychologist Marcial Losada around high and low performance teams.  Catch this: successful teams have a ratio of 3-to-1 positive to negative interactions, comments, experiences, or expressions.  Performance suffers when the ratio dips below that point and improves significantly when it is higher.  In fact, teams produce their very best work when the ratio gets above 6-to-1. 
At servant leadership organizations like PCI, leadership is a mindset, not a job title, i.e. we are all expected to show up as leaders every single day.    
As leaders, we can can make it a point to have more positive interactions.  Research shows when we appreciate and recognize our colleagues by giving them authentic, positive feedback and encouragement, we impact the overall performance of our team.  
And it all starts with the person in the mirror.  By being intentional about giving ourselves small bursts of positivity  – making it a point to connect with someone, crack a joke, or just take a deep breath – we improve our overall well-being as well as the workplace environment around us.  
Turns out this approach works at home, too.  
Reflection:  What actions have I taken in the past to increase my overall well-being and happiness?
Action: Intentionally recognize or appreciate someone I work with today.