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“Stand by … bust ’em!” (p. 45) This is how US Navy Seal teams begin each of their boat crew races – a part of US Navy Seal BUD/S training. These repetitive, grueling races consist of 7 men boat crews who paddle large, black rubber boats through the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean, attempting to follow complicated directions of the SEAL instructor despite physical exhaustion and sleep deprivation. Your business is a race as well. You are racing against competition from other agencies. You are in a battle against entropy and apathy. You are avoiding obstacles presented by market conditions and regulatory bodies.The way to win, in a Seal team race, or in business, is to demonstrate Extreme Ownership. This concept was developed by two Retired United States Navy Seals, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.They introduce this philosophy in their co-authored book, “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win.”

The Two Types of Leaders

One tenant of their philosophy is that there are only two types of leaders: effective and ineffective. An ineffective leader has a team that does not reach its goals. When problems arise, they often look for someone to blame, up and down the table of organization. An effective leader takes complete responsibility for their company’s performance. Any shortcomings or mistakes made by a team are the leader’s to own. There is no room to pass the buck.

  • If your Supervisor or Board is unhappy with performance, you should have asked more questions to ensure that your plan aligns with their expected outcomes.
  • If your team’s goals are not met, you didn’t clarify the expectations and hold them accountable. You failed to ensure that they understood the mission.
  • If the market conditions change, you should have considered that potential outcome and tried to develop a backup plan.

Willink describes how this played out. “As the commander, everything that happened on the battlefield was my responsibility. Everything. If a supporting unit didn’t do what we needed it to do, then I hadn’t given clear instructions. If one of my machine gunners engaged targets outside his field of fire, then I had not ensured he understood where his field of fire was. If the enemy surprised us and hit us where we hadn’t expected, then I hadn’t thought through all the possibilities. No matter what, I could never blame other people when a mission went wrong.” (p. 35.)

This level of accountability and ownership is rare in a victim mentality society where many point fingers elsewhere in blame. Sometimes, the finger is pointed for self-preservation. Often, it is done for legitimate, albeit shortsighted, reasons. But in life, and in business, we cannot avoid problems, challenging decisions, and roadblocks. We can, however, control our response, and that response is more important than whatever problem we are facing. A response that blames others; superiors, competitors, employees, only serves to muddy the issue, and continue the status quo. Further, it damages your agencies culture, by reinforcing a pass the buck attitude down the table of organization.

I’d like to emphasize a key component to Willink’s management philosophy – communication of strategy. Often, a manager may not buy into, or have full understanding, about why they have been directed to execute a certain plan. If they sell the plan to their staff as a strategy devised by “higher ups”, and do not represent extreme ownership of the plan, how can they expect their teams to buy into the plan, believe, and execute? If a manager is not clear on why they have been directed in a certain way, it is on them to ask questions of those directing them and understand. After they have bought in to the plan, they can adequately explain why. If they demonstrate to their own team that they understand and buy in, their team can then feel free to ask questions and better understand what is expected of them. Team members don’t need to agree with a strategy but they need to understand why upper management is asking them to execute it and buy into it.

Taking Extreme Ownership frees up your teams to operate effectively and accomplish the mission of the day, week, quarter, or year.


This is part 1 of 4 Blog series on Extreme Ownership

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