Extreme Ownership, How SEALS Lead And Win, Part 1…

I’ve been listening to Extreme Ownership on Audible, and I’m about halfway through but wanted to write up the important parts thus far for me.

Getting Started

Yep, it’s a Navy Seal management book. So you’re either excited about that, or really leery. I was both, but since I enjoy a good war movie, and love management books, seemed like a good fit.

Not wrong. So far it’s probably 70% stories of specific actions and situations in Iraq that the two authors were part of. After their tours there, it sounds like they were key to improvements in the SEALs’ (Seals’? Seal’s?) training and leadership programs, and then established private consulting, hence the management book. It’s been a #1 bestseller, so the mix must be working.

The other 30% is applying the lesson from the war story to the boardroom. Classic structure, and a little forced.

First off, I’m enjoying the in-situation stories a lot. As usual, they’re the most interesting part of any management book. We like anecdotes, we like true stories. Look at The Hard Thing About Hard Things – the stories are what we repeat, not the re-usable application with a bow on it.

Learning about how they planned, how they prioritized, and how they made decisions when it went sideways feels more valuable than the rest.

I have, however, taken away already two major approaches that are informing a lot of my thought lately (from the 5-6 chapters I’ve listened to):

Extreme Ownership

The namesake.  This is a good one, and needs to be in the heart of every CEO, and every leader.

It doesn’t matter whether it was your fault, it doesn’t matter if it was something out of your control.  Accept first that there are no excuses (wait…), and own everything that you’re supposed to.  Take complete ownership for accomplishing what you’re expected to, and when if something doesn’t work out, claim complete responsibility, and explain what went wrong.  This is a powerful chapter, because it’s the hardest one.  There ARE real reasons, outside our control, why things fuck up.  The SEALs know that, but they also have complete responsibility for planning and executing in a way that eliminates the possibility of failure or casualty.

I continued: “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, then I hadn’t give 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 though all the possibilities. No matter what, I could never blame other people when a mission went wrong.”

If something caught you by surprise, surprises happen but you should have been prepared for surprise.  If someone screwed up, you probably should have trained or communicated better with them.  If a relationship is growing toxic, it’s on you to fix it.

AND, the subtle sidecar of this is… OWN it.  If it goes sideways you don’t blame and cover.  You go to your bosses, and explain and claim ownership.  The failure occurred because I need to do a better job of training new X in our communication practices.  This makes people sweat, but it earns respect, and trust, and is a declaration that you know what’s wrong, how to fix it, and aren’t afraid of responsibility.

This is DIRECTLY applicable to my life in tech exec roles.  If a developer on our team isn’t doing well, it’s  my fault, directly.  Either our hiring is the problem, our onboarding is the problem, our training is the problem, or our coaching and feedback is the problem.  It’s not his fucking fault he’s sitting there being shitty.  It’s my fault, this situation is my construct entirely.

I’ve started using it, and the conversations have been fantastic.  And never has it been used against me.  Go read the chapter.

The second concept I’m already using is to Prioritize And Execute, coming next…


Jeff Magnusson

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