How U.S Navy Seals Lead and Win
Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
⅗ book. The principles that Jocko gives us are great and I feel like my perspective on leadership has changed because of this book. But, the authoring of the book isn’t great. The book is laid out in three sections, each with several chapters. Each chapter has three parts: a description of something that happened in Iraq, the call out of the core principle of the story and an application of that principle to a real business scenario (Jocko and Leif, former Navy Seals, now run a consulting company called Echelon Front).
The storytelling of parts of the book were the parts I skipped over the most. They got repetitive. The same adjectives were used over and over and over. Deadly. Badass. Murderous. My aphantasia plays a role but I had a lot of trouble imagining the pictures Jcoko and Leif tried to paint.
I think there’s little value in me telling the stories in the book or how the various principles were applied to business. Instead I’ll name the principles and give a short description of each. The TLDR of the book is that leaders must own everything in their world. There is no blame to pass around.
- All success and failure in any organization rests on the leader. There is no one else to blame. Leaders must take ownership of mistakes and develop and plan to win. If someone on the team isn’t performing up to standard, the leader must train them. If they cannot be trained the leader must keep the mission above all else and remove the underperforming individual.
- There are no bad teams, only bad leaders. If the leader accepts substandard performance this will become the culture of the entire team/organization. It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate. Everyone wants to win, it’s up to the leader to act as the forcing function for everyone in his organization. Those being lead need motivation and direction and it’s up to leader to provide these services. Leaders are always looking to improve and never satisfied with the status quo.
- Leaders must believe in the mission. When leaders doubt, the rest of the organization doubts. Without belief the leader (and organization) won’t take the risks necessary to overcome the inevitable challenges. Without belief, the “frontline troops” (the people at the bottom of the organization) cannot be convinced that their job is important. Leaders must also understand their mission and take time to explain it to those they lead. Belief and understanding go hand in hand. Leaders must ask their own leaders (senior managers must ask their executive team) for explanations of things they do not understand.
- Leaders must check their ego. Ego clouds judgement. Ego puts personal accomplishment over the mission. Ego prevents leaders from accepting mistakes.
- Teamwork. If the mission fails, the whole team failed even if one division of the team did their job successfully. Blame divides the team and cohesion is important for success. Teams must be able to trust one another.
- Simplicity. Complexity is the enemy of success. Complex plans are harder to execute. Complex plans leave less room for improvisation when things don’t go as expected. Complexity leads to butterfly effects where one thing going a little wrong causes something else to go really wrong. Complexity leads to confusion. Complexity is hard to communicate.
- Prioritize and execute. Do one thing at a time and do it well. Pick the most important and most urgent problem and solve it. Then move on to the next one. Trying to accomplish many things at once will lead to all of them failing. Leaders must “stay off the firing line” and maintain strategic vision to know what is worth prioritizing.
- Decentralize command. Train those you lead to make their own decisions and be leaders themselves. This lets you maintain a higher level picture and operate more strategically. Sub-leaders must understand not just what they are doing but why they are doing it. Knowing why lets decision be made more effectively. If a sub-leader does not understand why, they must ask their leader for explanations.
- Plan. To accomplish a mission it must be understood. There must be clear measures of whether the mission was accomplished or not. There must be clear directives for how to accomplish the mission. Planning must be delegated down the organization in order to create more innovative solutions and get buy in from junior members. Once decided on, the entire organization must be made aware of the plan. Everyone must be allowed to question the plan and ask for clarification. After a plan has been executed, it should be analyzed for weaknesses and failures so that future plans don’t make the same mistakes. Post-mortems are critical.
- Leading up and down the chain of command. Ownership must be given to those below you. When those above don’t understand your circumstances, it’s up to you, the subordinate leader, to help them understand. Leaders own everything in their world.
- Decisiveness and uncertainty. Leaders can never have perfect information. Waiting for perfect information leads to inaction. Most decisions are reversible and consequences of bad decisions are almost never catastrophic. Make decisions.
- Discipline equals freedom. This is counter intuitive. Discipline with your exercise routine gives you more freedom to play with your children. Discipline with your finances lets you travel more freely. Day to day discipline gives more freedom.
“Every leader must walk a fine line. That’s what makes leadership so challenging. Just as discipline and freedom are opposing forces that must be balanced, leadership requires finding the equilibrium in the dichotomy of many seemingly contradictory qualities, between one extreme and another. The simple recognition of this is one of the most powerful tools a leader has. With this in mind, a leader can more easily balance the opposing forces and lead with maximum effectiveness.
A leader must lead but also be ready to follow. Sometimes, another member of the team— perhaps a subordinate or direct report— might be in a better position to develop a plan, make a decision, or lead through a specific situation. Perhaps the junior person has greater expertise in a particular area or more experience. Perhaps he or she simply thought of a better way to accomplish the mission. Good leaders must welcome this, putting aside ego and personal agendas to ensure that the team has the greatest chance of accomplishing its strategic goals. A true leader is not intimidated when others step up and take charge. Leaders that lack confidence in themselves fear being outshined by someone else. If the team is successful, then recognition will come for those in charge, but a leader should not seek that recognition. A leader must be confident enough to follow someone else when the situation calls for it.
A leader must be aggressive but not overbearing. SEALs are known for their eagerness to take on tough challenges and accomplish some of the most difficult missions. Some may even accuse me of hyperaggression. But I did my utmost to ensure that everyone below me in the chain of command felt comfortable approaching me with concerns, ideas, thoughts, and even disagreements. If they felt something was wrong or thought there was a better way to execute, I encouraged them, regardless of rank, to come to me with questions and present an opposing view. I listened to them, discussed new options, and came to a conclusion with them, often adapting some part or perhaps even all of their idea if it made sense. If it didn’t make sense, we discussed why and we each walked away with a better understanding of what we were trying to do. That being said, my subordinates also knew that if they wanted to complain about the hard work and relentless push to accomplish the mission I expected of them, they best take those thoughts elsewhere.
A leader must be calm but not robotic. It is normal— and necessary— to show emotion. The team must understand that their leader cares about them and their well-being. But, a leader must control his or her emotions. If not, how can they expect to control anything else? Leaders who lose their temper also lose respect. But, at the same time, to never show any sense of anger, sadness, or frustration would make that leader appear void of any emotion at all— a robot. People do not follow robots. Of course, a leader must be confident but never cocky. Confidence is contagious, a great attribute for a leader and a team. But when it goes too far, overconfidence causes complacency and arrogance, which ultimately set the team up for failure.
A leader must be brave but not foolhardy. He or she must be willing to accept risk and act courageously, but must never be reckless. It is a leader’s job to always mitigate as much as possible those risks that can be controlled to accomplish the mission without sacrificing the team or excessively expending critical resources. Leaders must have a competitive spirit but also be gracious losers. They must drive competition and push themselves and their teams to perform at the highest level. But they must never put their own drive for personal success ahead of overall mission success for the greater team. Leaders must act with professionalism and recognize others for their contributions.
A leader must be attentive to details but not obsessed by them. A good leader does not get bogged down in the minutia of a tactical problem at the expense of strategic success. He or she must monitor and check the team’s progress in the most critical tasks. But that leader cannot get sucked into the details and lose track of the bigger picture.
A leader must be strong but likewise have endurance, not only physically but mentally. He or she must maintain the ability to perform at the highest level and sustain that level for the long term. Leaders must recognize limitations and know to pace themselves and their teams so that they can maintain a solid performance indefinitely.
Leaders must be humble but not passive; quiet but not silent. They must possess humility and the ability to control their ego and listen to others. They must admit mistakes and failures, take ownership of them, and figure out a way to prevent them from happening again. But a leader must be able to speak up when it matters. They must be able to stand up for the team and respectfully push back against a decision, order, or direction that could negatively impact overall mission success.
A leader must be close with subordinates but not too close. The best leaders understand the motivations of their team members and know their people— their lives and their families. But a leader must never grow so close to subordinates that one member of the team becomes more important than another, or more important than the mission itself. Leaders must never get so close that the team forgets who is in charge.
A leader must exercise Extreme Ownership. Simultaneously, that leader must employ Decentralized Command by giving control to subordinate leaders.
Finally, a leader has nothing to prove but everything to prove. By virtue of rank and position, the team understands that the leader is in charge. A good leader does not gloat or revel in his or her position. To take charge of minute details just to demonstrate and reinforce to the team a leader’s authority is the mark of poor, inexperienced leadership lacking in confidence. Since the team understands that the leader is de facto in charge, in that respect, a leader has nothing to prove. But in another respect, a leader has everything to prove: every member of the team must develop the trust and confidence that their leader will exercise good judgment, remain calm, and make the right decisions when it matters most. Leaders must earn that respect and prove themselves worthy, demonstrating through action that they will take care of the team and look out for their long-term interests and well-being. In that respect, a leader has everything to prove every day.
Beyond this, there are countless other leadership dichotomies that must be carefully balanced. Generally, when a leader struggles, the root cause behind the problem is that the leader has leaned too far in one direction and steered off course. Awareness of the dichotomies in leadership allows this discovery, and thereby enables the correction.”