Book Review: Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink

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If you’re looking for ways to become a better leader, you might want to check out Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink. The book explores how Navy SEALs handle high-stakes situations and how their leadership strategies can be adapted to the business world.

Even if you’re not a military buff, the book’s principles can still help you improve your leadership skills, regardless of your industry or team. The author shares strategies like “cover and move” and “prioritize and execute” to help you lead and succeed in difficult circumstances.

In this review, we’ll cover everything you can learn from the book. Let’s dive in!

Key Insights

Lesson 1: To lead a team successfully, you must take responsibility for each and every failure.

Jocko Willink’s experiences as a SEAL task unit commander in Ramadi, Iraq taught him a valuable lesson in leadership: extreme ownership. The concept of extreme ownership means taking full responsibility for all actions and outcomes, whether they are positive or negative.

In one particularly harrowing incident, Willink’s unit came under heavy fire, initially believing the attackers to be mujahedeen. It later became clear that it was another SEAL unit. Tragically, a soldier died in the friendly fire incident. As the chief of the operation, Willink knew that he was ultimately responsible for what had happened. By accepting responsibility, he not only saved his job, but also earned the respect of his superiors who recognized that true leaders take responsibility for their mistakes.

This lesson is also demonstrated during worst-case scenario training for SEAL teams. Leaders who blame external factors or their subordinates for poor performance are not as effective as those who take responsibility for their mistakes and seek to improve. By creating a culture of extreme ownership, SEAL teams are better equipped to problem-solve and adapt to challenges.

Leaders who refuse to take responsibility can have negative effects on their team. When a leader blames others for their mistakes, their subordinates are more likely to adopt this attitude, leading to a lack of accountability and initiative. In contrast, when leaders take full responsibility for their actions, their subordinates are more likely to do the same, creating a culture of accountability and initiative throughout the chain of command.

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Lesson 2: In order to successfully accomplish your mission, it is important to understand its significance.

When Jocko Willink found out that his SEAL team would be working with the newly formed Iraqi army, he wasn’t thrilled. He had concerns about the Iraqis’ readiness and reliability as allies. However, he didn’t immediately voice his opposition. Instead, he kept his thoughts to himself and sought to understand the reasoning behind the decision before making any judgments.

Through his inquiry, Willink discovered that incorporating the Iraqi army into Navy SEAL operations was part of a broader strategy to eventually withdraw US forces from Iraq. Armed with this knowledge, he was able to get behind the mission and encourage his team to do the same.

Had Willink openly questioned the mission from the outset, he may have encountered resistance from his team. If he had later tried to convince them, they may still have harbored doubts, which could have jeopardized the mission’s success. By fully embracing the mission and communicating his conviction to his team, Willink was able to inspire them to fully commit to the task at hand.

Leaders in any context must support their teams’ goals wholeheartedly, whether they lead a military unit or a corporate team. When given an order that seems questionable, it’s essential to consider how it aligns with the broader objectives of the organization. Leaders must remember that they are part of something larger than themselves or their teams, and as such, they have a responsibility to seek answers from those higher up in the chain of command when they have questions.

Asking superiors why a decision was made may be challenging, but it’s a critical part of fulfilling one’s duties as a leader. By seeking to understand the reasoning behind a decision, leaders can inspire their teams to believe in the mission and fully commit to its success.

Lesson 3: Instead of seeing your allies as rivals, it’s important to view them as a support network.

Leif Babin’s experience in Ramadi, Iraq, teaches us a powerful lesson about leadership and teamwork. As he and his team walked through the city, they were vulnerable to attacks, and the only way out was to work together. Babin, however, made a critical error by not seeking help from nearby SEAL teams, putting his own team at unnecessary risk.

This mistake highlights the importance of the “cover and move” tactic, which involves teams supporting each other to achieve a common goal. In both business and combat, leaders must not only focus on their own team’s problems but also consider how other teams can provide strategic support.

As a business consultant, Babin observed that different groups within the same company were often at odds with each other, blaming and competing instead of collaborating. This behavior violated the “cover and move” principle and hindered the company’s progress. Babin reminds us that internal competition only weakens the organization and that the true competition lies outside the company, with rival businesses vying for the same customers.

To achieve success, leaders must encourage teamwork and collaboration, creating a culture of support within the organization. The success of one team should be the success of the entire organization. Rather than working in silos, teams should be encouraged to work together to achieve common goals, recognizing that they are all on the same team.

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Lesson 4: Stay focused under pressure by setting clear priorities.

As midnight approached in Ramadi, chaos reigned supreme. The team had just escaped from one building and was now on the rooftop of the next. However, one of the SEALs had fallen through a tarp, leaving them vulnerable in enemy territory without backup.

To make matters worse, they had a wounded comrade, and an enemy bomb was blocking their exit. It was a tense situation, and the team needed a leader who could stay calm and focused. Enter Jocko Willink and his principle of “prioritize and execute.”

Babin remembered this principle from his SEAL training and knew that it was essential in times of crisis. He took a deep breath and assessed the situation, reminding himself to “relax, look around, and make a call.” He quickly identified his top priorities: ensuring the team’s security, reaching the wounded soldier, and taking a headcount of all team members. With these priorities in mind, he clearly communicated his plan to his team and got input from key leaders.

In a business context, the “prioritize and execute” approach is just as useful. When faced with a difficult situation, it can be tempting to try to solve every problem at once. However, this is a recipe for disaster. Instead, take a page out of Babin’s book and identify the top priority. Once you know what needs to be done, communicate it clearly to your team and focus your efforts on executing your plan. And if priorities change, be sure to let your team know.

Lesson 5: Identifying and mitigating risks in advance are critical steps in planning for success.

Picture this: You’re a SEAL commander leading a mission to rescue an Iraqi hostage from Al-Qaeda. Your intel reveals that the hostage is surrounded by explosives and guarded by machine guns in bunkers. That’s a high-risk scenario, but you’ve prepared for it. You’ve included this possibility in your plans and trained your team accordingly.

Now, some leaders might have called off the mission, postponed it, or changed the plan altogether. But not you. You know that in war, there are no guarantees, and risks are always present. Instead, you take measures to mitigate those risks, and you proceed with the operation as planned.

When you share this story with your SEAL recruits, you ask them if they would have done the same. And the answer is always a resounding “Yes!” That’s the mark of true leadership.

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to recognize, evaluate, and reduce risks in any situation. You need to develop thorough contingency plans and prepare your team for the unexpected. That way, you increase your chances of success, even in the face of danger.

Of course, not all risks can be controlled or reduced. But a good leader knows which ones can and focuses on those. By doing so, you inspire confidence in your team, and they know that no matter what happens, you’ve got their back.

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Lesson 6: Avoid feeling resentful when your superiors interfere by ensuring that they are well-informed.

In the world of leadership, communication is key. This lesson was well-learned by Babin, a SEAL unit commander in Iraq, thanks to the guidance of his superior, Willink. In the midst of frustrating emails and what Babin deemed as “stupid” questions, Willink calmly explained the importance of providing detailed operation plans to their superiors. This lesson had a lasting impact on Babin and can be applied to any leadership position.

One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is failing to communicate effectively with their supervisors. It’s easy to blame others when things go wrong, but a true leader takes responsibility for their role in the communication process. Leaders must provide their superiors with the information they need to make informed decisions and provide support. This not only ensures that the leader’s needs are met but also strengthens the relationship between the leader and their superior.

A good leader understands that effective communication is a two-way street. They not only provide information but also seek to understand the needs and goals of their superiors. By building strong relationships with those higher up the chain of command, a leader can better guide and support their team towards success.

This lesson applies not only in the military but in any business or organizational setting. Leaders must recognize the importance of maintaining good relationships with their superiors and actively work to build them. By taking ownership of their communication, leaders can effectively lead and influence those around them, from subordinates to superiors.

Praise

1. Real-life stories that illustrate the principles of leadership.

One of the most effective ways to learn is through stories. “Extreme Ownership” is full of real-life stories that illustrate the principles of leadership. These stories are not just about the military or business world, but also about personal life experiences. By reading and understanding these stories, one can gain a deeper understanding of how leadership can make a difference in any situation.

2. The principles of leadership can be applied in any area of life.

The book’s teachings on leadership are not limited to any specific field or industry. The principles taught in the book can be applied in any area of life, whether it’s personal or professional. The authors emphasize that leadership is not just about telling people what to do, but also about taking responsibility for one’s actions and decisions.

3. The book challenges the reader to take ownership of their actions.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the book is that of taking ownership of one’s actions. The authors emphasize that leaders must take full responsibility for their actions, even when things go wrong. By taking ownership of our actions, we can learn from our mistakes and make better decisions in the future.

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Criticism

1. The concepts are not particularly groundbreaking.

As the authors themselves admit in the afterword, there is nothing particularly new about the principles of leadership that they espouse in “Extreme Ownership.” While the stories they tell are compelling and inspiring, the underlying concepts are not particularly groundbreaking. If you’re well-versed in the world of leadership and management, you may find that much of what’s in this book is old hat.

2. The business examples feel contrived.

One of the main selling points of “Extreme Ownership” is its use of real-life stories from the authors’ experiences in the military and in business. However, some readers may find that the business examples feel contrived and simplistic, lacking the depth and complexity of real-world scenarios. While the anecdotes are engaging and well-told, they may not offer much in the way of practical advice for those looking to apply the concepts to their own work.

3. The authors’ approach to truth-telling may be problematic.

One issue that some readers may have with “Extreme Ownership” is the authors’ approach to truth-telling. While they emphasize the importance of taking ownership of one’s mistakes and being truthful with oneself and others, they also seem to advocate for a certain degree of social cowardice when it comes to confronting entities that hold power. This could be seen as a problematic stance, particularly in today’s political climate where truth-telling and courage are more important than ever.

Conclusion

“Extreme Ownership” is not just a book for military veterans and historians; it’s a guidebook for success in all ventures of life. The authors, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, have distilled their hard-earned principles of leadership into a set of simple and broad concepts that can be applied to any situation, from military operations to corporate boardrooms to personal relationships.

The book is easy to read and understand, and the anecdotes provide concrete examples of how the principles can be put into practice. Whether you’re a military recruit, a corporate executive, a parent, or a sole proprietor, there is something to be gained from the lessons of “Extreme Ownership.”

If you’re feeling stuck in a rut or lacking self-discipline, this book is an excellent starting point. Once you understand the concept of Extreme Ownership, you will never be done with it, as it has the power to change your life for the better.

About The Author

While serving as Navy SEAL officers during the Battle of Ramadi, in Iraq, the authors led one of the most decorated special-operations units of the Iraq War. 

Jocko Willink and Leif Babin now run a leadership consultancy that teaches business leaders how to build high-performance teams.

Buy The Book: Extreme Ownership

If you want to buy the book Extreme Ownership, you can get it from the following links:

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