Extreme Ownership is a mind-set, an attitude. If leaders exhibit Extreme Ownership and develop a culture of Extreme Ownership within their teams and organizations, the rest falls into place. Soon, a leader no longer needs to be involved in the minor details of decisions but can look up and out to focus on the strategic mission as the team handles the tactical battles. The goal of all leaders should be to work themselves out of a job. This means leaders must be heavily engaged in training and mentoring their junior leaders to prepare them to step up and assume greater responsibilities. When mentored and coached properly, the junior leader can eventually replace the senior leader, allowing the senior leader to move on to the next level of leadership.

TAKING EXTREME OWNERSHIP

“You know whose fault this is? You know who gets all the blame for this?” The entire group sat there in silence, including the CO, the CMC, and the investigating officer. No doubt they were wondering whom I would hold responsible. Finally, I took a deep breath and said, “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. There is no one to blame but me. And I will tell you this right now: I will make sure that nothing like this ever happens to us again.” It was a heavy burden to bear. 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. Despite the tremendous blow to my reputation and to my ego, it was the right thing to do—the only thing to do. I apologized to the wounded SEAL, explaining that it was my fault he was wounded and that we were all lucky he wasn’t dead. We then proceeded to go through the entire operation, piece by piece, identifying everything that happened and what we could do going forward to prevent it from happening again. Looking back, 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. If I had tried to pass the blame on to others, I suspect I would have been fired—deservedly so. The SEALs in the troop, who did not expect me to take the blame, respected the fact that I had taken full responsibility for everything that had happened. They knew it was a dynamic situation caused by a multitude of factors, but I owned them all.

On any team, in any organization, all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader. 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. The best leaders don’t just take responsibility for their job. They take Extreme Ownership of everything that impacts their mission. This fundamental core concept enables SEAL leaders to lead high-performing teams in extraordinary circumstances and win. But Extreme Ownership isn’t a principle whose application is limited to the battlefield. This concept is the number-one characteristic of any high-performance winning team, in any military unit, organization, sports team or business team in any industry.

When subordinates aren’t doing what they should, leaders that exercise Extreme Ownership cannot blame the subordinates. 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.

If an individual on the team is not performing at the level required for the team to succeed, the leader must train and mentor that underperformer. But if the underperformer continually fails to meet standards, then a leader who exercises Extreme Ownership must be loyal to the team and the mission above any individual. 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.

As individuals, we often attribute the success of others to luck or circumstances and make excuses for our own failures and the failures of our team. We blame our own poor performance on bad luck, circumstances beyond our control, or poorly performing subordinates—anyone but ourselves. Total responsibility for failure is a difficult thing to accept, and taking ownership when things go wrong requires extraordinary humility and courage. But doing just that is an absolute necessity to learning, growing as a leader, and improving a team’s performance.

Extreme Ownership requires leaders to look at an organization’s problems through the objective lens of reality, without emotional attachments to agendas or plans. It mandates that a leader set ego aside, accept responsibility for failures, attack weaknesses, and consistently work to a build a better and more effective team. Such a leader, however, does not take credit for his or her team’s successes but bestows that honor upon his subordinate leaders and team members. When a leader sets such an example and expects this from junior leaders within the team, the mind-set develops into the team’s culture at every level. With Extreme Ownership, junior leaders take charge of their smaller teams and their piece of the mission. Efficiency and effectiveness increase exponentially and a high-performance, winning team is the result.

The vice president’s plan looked good on paper. The board of directors had approved the plan the previous year and thought it could decrease production costs. But it wasn’t working. And the board wanted to find out why. Who was at fault? Who was to blame? I was brought on by the company to help provide leadership guidance and executive coaching to the company’s vice president of manufacturing (VP). Although technically sound and experienced in his particular industry, the VP hadn’t met the manufacturing goals set forth by the company’s board of directors. His plan included the following: consolidate manufacturing plants to eliminate redundancy, increase worker productivity through an incentivized bonus program, and streamline the manufacturing process. The problem arose in the plan’s execution. At each quarterly board meeting, the VP delivered a myriad of excuses as to why so little of his plan had been executed. After a year, the board wondered if he could effectively lead this change. With little progress to show, the VP’s job was now at risk. I arrived on scene two weeks before the next board meeting. After spending several hours with the CEO to get some color on the situation, I was introduced to the VP of manufacturing. My initial assessment was positive. The VP was extremely smart and incredibly knowledgeable about the business. But would he be open to coaching? “So, you’re here to help me, right?” the VP inquired. Knowing that, due to ego, some people bristle at the idea of criticism and coaching no matter how constructive, I chose to take a more indirect approach. “Maybe not so much here to help you, but here to help the situation,” I answered, effectively lowering the VP’s defenses. In the weeks leading up to the board meeting, I researched and examined the details of why the VP’s plan had failed and what had gone wrong, and I spoke to the VP about the problems encountered in the plan’s execution. He explained that the consolidation of manufacturing plants had failed because his distribution managers feared that increasing the distance between plants and distribution centers would prevent face-to-face interaction with the manufacturing team and reduce their ability to tweak order specifics. They surmised it would also inhibit their ability to handle rush-order deliveries. The VP dismissed his distribution managers’ concerns as unfounded. In the event the need arose to adjust orders or customize, a teleconference or videoconference would more than suffice. The VP also explained why the incentivized bonus structure hadn’t been put in place. Each time his plant managers and other key leaders were presented with the rollout plan, they pushed back with concerns: the employees wouldn’t make enough money; they would leave for jobs with higher base salaries that didn’t require minimum standards; recruiters would capitalize on the change and pull skilled workers away. When the VP pushed the manufacturing managers harder, they teamed up with the sales managers. The two groups opposed the VP’s plan, claiming it was the company’s reputation for skilled manufacturing that kept business coming in, and such a change would put the business at risk. Finally, when it came to the VP’s plan to streamline the manufacturing process, the pushback was universal and straight from the classic mantra of antichange: “We have always done it this way;” and “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” “What does the board think of these reasons?” I asked, as we discussed the upcoming annual board meeting. “They listen, but I don’t think they really understand them. And they have been hearing the same reasons for a while now, so I think they are getting frustrated. I don’t know if they believe them anymore. They sound like…” “Excuses?” I finished the sentence for the VP, knowing the word itself was a big blow to his ego. “Yes. Yes, they sound like excuses. But these are real and legitimate,” insisted the VP. “Could there be other reasons your plan wasn’t successfully executed?” I asked. “Absolutely,” the VP answered. “The market has been tough. New technology advancements have taken some time to work through. Everyone got focused on some products that never really amounted to much. So, yes, there are a host of other reasons.” “Those all may be factors. But there is one most important reason why this plan has failed,” I said. “What reason is that?” the VP inquired with interest. I paused for a moment to see if the VP was ready for what I had to tell him. The impact would be uncomfortable, but there was no way around it. I stated it plainly, “You. You are the reason.” The VP was surprised, then defensive. “Me?” he protested. “I came up with the plan! I have delivered it over and over. It’s not my fault they aren’t executing it!” I listened patiently. “The plant managers, the distribution and sales teams don’t fully support the plan,” he continued. “So how am I supposed to execute it? I’m not out there in the field with them. I can’t make them listen to me.” The VP’s statements gradually became less emphatic. He soon realized what he was saying: he was making excuses. I explained that the direct responsibility of a leader included getting people to listen, support, and execute plans. To drive the point home, I told him, “You can’t make people listen to you. You can’t make them execute. That might be a temporary solution for a simple task. But to implement real change, to drive people to accomplish something truly complex or difficult or dangerous—you can’t make people do those things. You have to lead them.” “I did lead them,” the VP protested. “They just didn’t execute.” But he hadn’t led them, at least not effectively. The measure of this was clear: he had been unsuccessful in implementing his plan. “When I was in charge of a SEAL platoon or a SEAL task unit conducting combat operations, do you think every operation I led was a success?” I asked. He shook his head. “No.” “Absolutely not,” I agreed. “Sure, I led many operations that went well and accomplished the mission. But not always. I have been in charge of operations that went horribly wrong for a number of reasons: bad intelligence, bad decisions by subordinate leadership, mistakes by shooters, coordinating units not following the plan. The list goes on. Combat is a dangerous, complex, dynamic situation, where all kinds of things can go sideways in a hurry, with life and death consequences. There is no way to control every decision, every person, every occurrence that happens out there. It is just impossible. But let me tell you something: when things went wrong, you know who I blamed?” I asked, pausing slightly for this to sink in. “Me,” I said. “I blamed me.” 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 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.” The VP contemplated this. After a thoughtful silence, he responded, “I always thought I was a good leader. I’ve always been in leadership positions.” “That might be one of the issues: in your mind you are doing everything right. So when things go wrong, instead of looking at yourself, you blame others. But no one is infallible. With Extreme Ownership, you must remove individual ego and personal agenda. It’s all about the mission. How can you best get your team to most effectively execute the plan in order to accomplish the mission?” I continued. “That is the question you have to ask yourself. That is what Extreme Ownership is all about.” The VP nodded, beginning to grasp the concept and see its effectiveness. “Do you think that every one of your employees is blatantly disobedient?” I said. “No,” the VP said. “If so, they would need to be fired. But that doesn’t seem to be the situation here,” I continued. “Your people don’t need to be fired. They need to be led.” “So what am I doing wrong as a leader?” asked the VP. “How can I lead them?” “It all starts right here with you,” I said. “You must assume total ownership of the failure to implement your new plan. You are to blame. And that is exactly what you need to tell the board.” “Tell the board that? Are you serious?” the VP asked in disbelief. “I don’t mind taking a little blame, but this is not all my fault.” Though beginning to see the light, he still resisted the idea of taking total responsibility. “In order to execute this plan, in order to truly become an effective leader, you have to realize and accept total responsibility,” I said. “You have to own it.” The VP was not yet convinced. “If one of your manufacturing managers came to you and said, ‘My team is failing,’ what would your response be? Would you blame their team?” I asked. “No,” the VP admitted. I explained that as the officer in charge of training for the West Coast SEAL Teams, we put SEAL units through highly demanding scenarios to get them ready for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. When SEAL leaders were placed in worst-case-scenario training situations, it was almost always the leaders’ attitudes that determined whether their SEAL units would ultimately succeed or fail. We knew how hard the training missions were because we had designed them. In virtually every case, the SEAL troops and platoons that didn’t perform well had leaders who blamed everyone and everything else—their troops, their subordinate leaders, or the scenario. They blamed the SEAL training instructor staff; they blamed inadequate equipment or the experience level of their men. They refused to accept responsibility. Poor performance and mission failure were the result. The best-performing SEAL units had leaders who accepted responsibility for everything. Every mistake, every failure or shortfall—those leaders would own it. During the debrief after a training mission, those good SEAL leaders took ownership of failures, sought guidance on how to improve, and figured out a way to overcome challenges on the next iteration. The best leaders checked their egos, accepted blame, sought out constructive criticism, and took detailed notes for improvement. They exhibited Extreme Ownership, and as a result, their SEAL platoons and task units dominated. When a bad SEAL leader walked into a debrief and blamed everyone else, that attitude was picked up by subordinates and team members, who then followed suit. They all blamed everyone else, and inevitably the team was ineffective and unable to properly execute a plan. Continuing, I told the VP, “In those situations, you ended up with a unit that never felt they were to blame for anything. All they did was make excuses and ultimately never made the adjustments necessary to fix problems. Now, compare that to the commander who came in and took the blame. He said, ‘My subordinate leaders made bad calls; I must not have explained the overall intent well enough.’ Or, ‘The assault force didn’t execute the way I envisioned; I need to make sure they better understand my intent and rehearse more thoroughly.’ The good leaders took ownership of the mistakes and shortfalls. That’s the key difference. And how do you think their SEAL platoons and task units reacted to this type of leadership?” “They must have respected that,” the VP acknowledged. “Exactly. They see Extreme Ownership in their leaders, and, as a result, they emulate Extreme Ownership throughout the chain of command down to the most junior personnel. As a group they try to figure out how to fix their problems—instead of trying to figure out who or what to blame. For those on the outside looking in, like our training group—or the board in your case—the difference is obvious.” “And that is how I appear to the board right now—blaming everyone and everything else,” the VP recognized. “There is only one way to fix it,” I told him. For the next several days, I helped the VP prepare for the board meeting. At times, he slipped back into defensiveness, not wanting to accept blame. He felt in many ways that his knowledge exceeded that of many members of the board—and he was probably right. But that didn’t change the fact that he was the leader of a team that was failing its mission. As we rehearsed the VP’s portion of the board presentation, I was unconvinced that he truly accepted total responsibility for his team’s failures. I told him that bluntly. “I’m saying exactly what you told me to say,” the VP retorted. “The reason that this mission was unsuccessful was my failure as a leader to force execution.” “That’s the problem,” I said. “You are saying it, but I’m not convinced you believe it. Look at your career. You have accomplished amazing things. But you certainly aren’t perfect. None of us are perfect. You are still learning and growing. We all are. And this is a lesson for you: if you reengage on this task, if you do a stern self-assessment of how you lead and what you can do better, the outcome will be different. But it starts here. It starts at the board meeting when you go in, put your ego aside, and take ownership for the company’s failure here. The board members will be impressed with what they see and hear, because most people are unable to do this. They will respect your Extreme Ownership. Take personal responsibility for the failures. You will come out the other side stronger than ever before,” I concluded. At the board meeting, the VP did just that. He took the blame for the failure to meet the manufacturing objectives and gave a solid no-nonsense list of corrective measures that he would implement to ensure execution. The list started with what he was going to do differently, not about what other people needed to do. Now, the VP was on his way to Extreme Ownership.

NO BAD TEAMS, ONLY BAD LEADERS

  • The most fundamental and important truths at the heart of Extreme Ownership: there are no bad teams, only bad leaders. How is it possible that switching a single individual—only the leader—had completely turned around the performance of an entire group? The answer: leadership is the single greatest factor in any team’s performance. Whether a team succeeds or fails is all up to the leader. The leader’s attitude sets the tone for the entire team. The leader drives performance—or doesn’t. And this applies not just to the most senior leader of an overall team, but to the junior leaders of teams within the team.

  • I reflected back to my own experience as a boat crew leader in BUD/S through the tribulations of Hell Week, where I had failed and should have done better and where I had succeeded. My boat crew at times had struggled to perform, until I figured out that I had to put myself in the most difficult position at the front of the boat and lead. That required driving the boat crew members hard, harder than they thought they could go. I discovered that it was far more effective to 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. 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. When pieced together, it meant our performance over time increased substantially and eventually we crossed the finish line at the head of the pack. Looking back, I could have yelled a lot less and encouraged more. As a boat crew leader, I protected my boat crew from the instructor staff as much as I could. It was “us versus them,” as I saw it. In protecting my boat crew, I actually sheltered a couple of perpetual underperformers who dragged the rest of the boat crew down. When Hell Week was over, talking to some of the other members of our boat crew, we realized we had carried along these mentally weak performers. They almost certainly would not have met the standards otherwise. That loyalty was misguided. If we wouldn’t want to serve alongside our boat crew’s weakest performers once we were all assigned to SEAL platoons in various SEAL Teams, we had no right to force other SEALs to do so. The instructors were tasked with weeding out those without the determination and will to meet the high standards of performance. We had hindered that. Ultimately, how my boat crew performed was entirely on me. The concept that there were no bad teams, only bad leaders was a difficult one to accept but nevertheless a crucial concept that leaders must fully understand and implement to enable them to most effectively lead a high-performance team. Leaders must accept total responsibility, own problems that inhibit performance, and develop solutions to those problems. A team could only deliver exceptional performance if a leader ensured the team worked together toward a focused goal and enforced high standards of performance, working to continuously improve. With a culture of Extreme Ownership within the team, every member of the team could contribute to this effort and ensure the highest levels of performance.

  • When leaders who epitomize Extreme Ownership drive their teams to achieve a higher standard of performance, they 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. Consequences for failing need not be immediately severe, but leaders must ensure that tasks are repeated until the higher expected standard is achieved. Leaders must push the standards in a way that encourages and enables the team to utilize Extreme Ownership. The leader must pull the different elements within the team together to support one another, with all focused exclusively on how to best accomplish the mission. One lesson from the BUD/S boat crew leader example above is that most people, like Boat Crew VI, want to be part of a winning team. Yet, they often don’t know how, or simply need motivation and encouragement. Teams need a forcing function to get the different members working together to accomplish the mission and that is what leadership is all about. Once a culture of Extreme Ownership is built into the team at every level, the entire team performs well, and performance continues to improve, even when a strong leader is temporarily removed from the team. On the battlefield, preparation for potential casualties plays a critical role in a team’s success, if a key leader should go down. But life can throw any number of circumstances in the way of any business or team, and every team must have junior leaders ready to step up and temporarily take on the roles and responsibilities of their immediate bosses to carry on the team’s mission and get the job done if and when the need arises.

  • Leaders should never be satisfied. They must always strive to improve, and they must build that mind-set into the team. They must face the facts through a realistic, brutally honest assessment of themselves and their team’s performance. Identifying weaknesses, good leaders seek to strengthen them and come up with a plan to overcome challenges. The best teams anywhere, like the SEAL Teams, are constantly looking to improve, add capability, and push the standards higher. It starts with the individual and spreads to each of the team members until this becomes the culture, the new standard. The recognition that there are no bad teams, only bad leaders facilitates Extreme Ownership and enables leaders to build high-performance teams that dominate on any battlefield, literal or figurative.

  • “I love this concept of Extreme Ownership,” the CEO said. “We could really use some at my company. We have a fairly solid team, but I have some key leaders that lack Extreme Ownership. I’d like to bring you in to work with us.” The CEO and founder of a financial services company had observed a presentation I gave to a group of senior corporate executives. Intrigued by the concept of Extreme Ownership, he had approached me afterward to engage in conversation. “Happy to help,” I replied. To better understand the dynamics of his team and the particular challenges of his company and industry, I spent some time with the CEO in discussions via phone, visited his company offices, and met with his leadership team. I then conducted a leadership program for the company’s department heads and key leaders. The CEO opened the program and introduced me to those in the room, explaining why he had invested in this training. “We aren’t winning,” the CEO stated plainly. A new product rollout the company had recently launched had not gone well, and the company’s books were in the red. Now the company stood at a pivotal junction. “We need to take on these concepts like Extreme Ownership, which Leif is going to talk to you about today, so that we can get back on track and win.” The CEO then left the room all to me, his senior managers, and department heads. After presenting some background on my combat experience and how the principle of Extreme Ownership was critical to the success of any team, I engaged the department heads and managers in discussion. “How can you apply Extreme Ownership to your teams to succeed and help your company win?” I asked. One of the company’s key department leaders, the chief technology officer (CTO), who built the company’s signature products, exhibited a defensive demeanor. He was not a fan of Extreme Ownership. I quickly recognized why. Since the new product line had been his baby, taking ownership of the disastrous rollout was humbling and difficult. The CTO was full of excuses for why his team had failed and for the resulting damage to the company’s bottom line. He shamelessly blamed the failed new-product rollout on a challenging market, an industry in flux, inexperienced personnel within his team, poor communication with the sales force, and lackluster customer service. He also blamed the company’s senior executive team. The CTO refused to take ownership of mistakes or acknowledge that his team could perform better, though the CEO had made it clear they must all improve or the company might fold. I told the BUD/S boat crew leader story to the group, how Boat Crew VI turned their performance around under new leadership, and I outlined the concept that there are no bad teams, only bad leaders. “During my own training and performance in BUD/S as a boat crew leader,” I told them, “I can remember many times when my boat crew struggled. It was easy to make excuses for our team’s performance and why it wasn’t what it should have been. But I learned that good leaders don’t make excuses. Instead, they figure out a way to get it done and win.” “What was the difference between the two leaders in the boat crew leader example?” asked one of the managers, in charge of a critical team within the company. “When Boat Crew Six was failing under their original leader,” I answered, “that leader didn’t seem to think it was possible for them to perform any better, and he certainly didn’t think they could win. This negative attitude infected his entire boat crew. As is common in teams that are struggling, the original leader of Boat Crew Six almost certainly justified his team’s poor performance with any number of excuses. In his mind, the other boat crews were outperforming his own only because those leaders had been lucky enough to be assigned better crews. His attitude reflected victimization: life dealt him and his boat crew members a disadvantage, which justified poor performance. As a result, his attitude prevented his team from looking inwardly at themselves and where they could improve. Finally, the leader and each member of Boat Crew Six focused not on the mission but on themselves, their own exhaustion, misery, and individual pain and suffering. Though the instructors demanded that they do better, Boat Crew Six had become comfortable with substandard performance. Working under poor leadership and an unending cycle of blame, the team constantly failed. No one took ownership, assumed responsibility, or adopted a winning attitude.” “What did the new boat crew leader do differently?” asked another of the department heads. “When the leader of Boat Crew Two took charge of Boat Crew Six, he exhibited Extreme Ownership to the fullest,” I explained. “He faced the facts: he recognized and accepted that Boat Crew Six’s performance was terrible, that they were losing and had to get better. He didn’t blame anyone, nor did he make excuses to justify poor performance. He didn’t wait for others to solve his boat crew’s problems. His realistic assessment, acknowledgment of failure, and ownership of the problem were key to developing a plan to improve performance and ultimately win. Most important of all, he believed winning was possible. In a boat crew where winning seemed so far beyond reach, the belief that the team actually could improve and win was essential.” I continued: “The new leader of Boat Crew Six focused his team on the mission. Rather than tolerate their bickering and infighting, he pulled the team together and focused their collective efforts on the single specific goal of winning the race. He established a new and higher standard of performance and accepted nothing less from the men in his boat crew.” “Why do you think Boat Crew Two, which had lost its strong leader, continued to perform well, even with the far less capable leader from Boat Crew Six?” asked another department leader. “Extreme Ownership—good leadership—is contagious,” I answered. “Boat Crew Two’s original leader had instilled a culture of Extreme Ownership, of winning and how to win, in every individual. Boat Crew Two had developed into a solid team of high-performing individuals. Each member demanded the highest performance from the others. Repetitive exceptional performance became a habit. Each individual knew what they needed to do to win and did it. They no longer needed explicit direction from a leader. As a result, Boat Crew Two continued to outperform virtually every other boat crew and vied with Boat Crew Six for first place in nearly every race.” I detailed how the original leader of Boat Crew VI joined Boat Crew II thinking life would be easy for him. Instead, he had to seriously step up his game to keep up with such a high-performance team. For him, the greatest lesson of that day was learned: he witnessed a complete turnaround in the performance of his former team as he watched a new leader demonstrate that what seemed impossible was achievable through good leadership. Though he had failed to lead effectively to that point, the original leader of Boat Crew VI learned and implemented that humbling lesson. Ultimately, he graduated from BUD/S training and had a successful career in the SEAL Teams. “In summary,” I told them, “whether or not your team succeeds or fails is all on you. Extreme Ownership is a concept to help you make the right decisions as a key leader so that you can win.” The chief technology officer bristled. “We are making the right decisions,” he said. He was serious. Surprised at his statement, I responded, “You’ve all admitted that as a company you aren’t winning.” “We may not be winning,” said the CTO resolutely, “but we’re making the right decisions.” “If you aren’t winning,” I responded, “then you aren’t making the right decisions.” The CTO was so sure he was right, so content to make excuses and shift blame for his own mistakes and failures, that he made ludicrous claims to avoid taking any ownership or responsibility. Just like the original boat crew leader in Boat Crew VI, this CTO exhibited the opposite of Extreme Ownership. He took no meaningful action to improve his performance or push his team to improve. Worse, he refused to admit that his own performance was subpar and that he and his team could do better. His CEO had stated plainly that the company’s performance must improve substantially. But the CTO was stuck in a cycle of blaming others and refused to take ownership or responsibility. He had become what a good friend from my own BUD/S class and SEAL qualification training dubbed the “Tortured Genius.” By this, he did not mean the artist or musician who suffers from mental health issues, but in the context of ownership. No matter how obvious his or her failing, or how valid the criticism, a Tortured Genius, in this sense, accepts zero responsibility for mistakes, makes excuses, and blames everyone else for their failings (and those of their team). In their mind, the rest of the world just can’t see or appreciate the genius in what they are doing. An individual with a Tortured Genius mind-set can have catastrophic impact on a team’s performance. After lengthy discussion with the department heads and managers, many of them came to understand and appreciate Extreme Ownership. But not the CTO. After the workshop concluded, I met with the company’s CEO to debrief. “How did things go?” he asked. “The workshop went well. Most of your department heads and key leaders took on board this concept of Extreme Ownership,” I replied. “You have one major issue, though.” “Let me guess,” replied the CEO. “My chief technology officer.” “Affirmative,” I responded. “He resisted the concept of Extreme Ownership at every turn.” I had seen this before, both in the SEAL Teams and with other client companies. In any group, there was always a small number of people who wanted to shirk responsibility. But this CTO was a particularly serious case. “Your CTO might be one of the worst ‘Tortured Geniuses’ I have seen,” I said. The CEO acknowledged that his CTO was a problem, that he was difficult to work with and other department leaders in the company had major issues with him. But the CEO felt that because the CTO’s experience level and knowledge were critical to the company, he couldn’t possibly fire him. It also seemed the CTO felt he was above reproach. “I can’t tell you to fire anyone,” I responded. “Those are decisions only you can make. But what I can tell you is this: when it comes to performance standards, It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate. You have to drive your CTO to exercise Extreme Ownership—to acknowledge mistakes, stop blaming others, and lead his team to success. If you allow the status quo to persist, you can’t expect to improve performance, and you can’t expect to win.” A week later, I followed up with a phone call to the CEO to see how his team was doing. “Some folks are really embracing this concept of Extreme Ownership,” he said enthusiastically. “But the chief technology officer continues to be a problem.” The CEO related how, upon my departure, the CTO had barged into his office and warned that the concept of Extreme Ownership had “negative repercussions.” This was laughable. “There are no negative repercussions to Extreme Ownership,” I said. “There are only two types of leaders: effective and ineffective. Effective leaders that lead successful, high-performance teams exhibit Extreme Ownership. Anything else is simply ineffective. Anything else is bad leadership.” The CTO’s performance and the performance of his team illustrated this in Technicolor. His abrasiveness affected his entire team and other departments in the company that had difficulty working with him. The CEO understood. His company wasn’t winning, and he cared too much about the company he had built and the livelihood of his other employees to allow the company to fail. They must do better. He let the CTO go. A new CTO came on board with a different attitude—a mind-set of Extreme Ownership. With this change in the leadership of the company’s technology team, other departments began to work together with success, and that teamwork played a key role as the company rebounded. Once failing and struggling to survive, the company was now back on a path toward profitability and growth. Their success illustrated once again that leadership is the most important thing on any battlefield; it is the single greatest factor in whether a team succeeds or fails. A leader must find a way to become effective and drive high performance within his or her team in order to win. Whether in SEAL training, in combat on distant battlefields, in business, or in life: there are no bad teams, only bad leaders

BELIEVE IN THE MISSION

  • In order to convince and inspire others to follow and accomplish a mission, a leader must be a true believer in the mission. Even when others doubt and question the amount of risk, asking, “Is it worth it?” the leader must believe in the greater cause. If a leader does not believe, he or she will not take the risks required to overcome the inevitable challenges necessary to win. And they will not be able to convince others—especially the frontline troops who must execute the mission—to do so. Leaders must always operate with the understanding that they are part of something greater than themselves and their own personal interests. They must impart this understanding to their teams down to the tactical-level operators on the ground. Far more important than training or equipment, a resolute belief in the mission is critical for any team or organization to win and achieve big results. In many cases, the leader must align his thoughts and vision to that of the mission. Once a leader believes in the mission, that belief shines through to those below and above in the chain of command. Actions and words reflect belief with a clear confidence and self-assuredness that is not possible when belief is in doubt.

  • The challenge comes when that alignment isn’t explicitly clear. When a leader’s confidence breaks, those who are supposed to follow him or her see this and begin to question their own belief in the mission. Every leader must be able to detach from the immediate tactical mission and understand how it fits into strategic goals. When leaders receive an order that they themselves question and do not understand, they must ask the question: why? Why are we being asked to do this? Those leaders must take a step back, deconstruct the situation, analyze the strategic picture, and then come to a conclusion. If they cannot determine a satisfactory answer themselves, they must ask questions up the chain of command until they understand why. If frontline leaders and troops understand why, they can move forward, fully believing in what they are doing.

  • It is likewise incumbent on senior leaders to take the time to explain and answer the questions of their junior leaders so that they too can understand why and believe. Whether in the ranks of military units or companies and corporations, the frontline troops never have as clear an understanding of the strategic picture as senior leaders might anticipate. It is critical that those senior leaders impart a general understanding of that strategic knowledge—the why—to their troops. In any organization, goals must always be in alignment. If goals aren’t aligned at some level, this issue must be addressed and rectified. In business just as in the military, no senior executive team would knowingly choose a course of action or issue an order that would purposely result in failure. But a subordinate may not understand a certain strategy and thus not believe in it. Junior leaders must ask questions and also provide feedback up the chain so that senior leaders can fully understand the ramifications of how strategic plans affect execution on the ground.

  • Belief in the mission ties in with the fourth Law of Combat: Decentralized Command. The leader must explain not just what to do, but why. It is the responsibility of the subordinate leader to reach out and ask if they do not understand. Only when leaders at all levels understand and believe in the mission can they pass that understanding and belief to their teams so that they can persevere through challenges, execute and win.

  • “This new compensation plan is terrible,” said one of the midlevel managers. “It will drive our best salespeople away.” The rest of the class agreed. Toward the end of a short leadership-development program for the company’s midlevel managers, my discussions with the class had revealed a major issue that created stress and fragmentation among the ranks of the company. Corporate leadership had recently announced a new compensation structure for their sales force. The new plan substantially reduced compensation, especially for low-producing salespeople. “What’s the issue?” I asked the group. “It’s hard enough to keep salespeople here; this doesn’t help!” one manager responded. “They don’t get how hard it is in this market,” said another, referring to corporate senior leadership. “This new compensation plan will push people to our competitors.” “Some of my folks have already heard rumors about it; they don’t like it at all. And I can’t convince them otherwise. I don’t believe in it myself!” another responded. I asked them all a simple question: “Why?” “Why what?” one of the managers responded. “Why is your leadership making this change?” I asked. “Hell if I know!” one manager stated emphatically, which brought laughs from the group. I smiled and nodded. Then I asked again: “OK, but why do you think they are implementing this plan? Do you think they want to push your best salespeople out the door? Do they want those salespeople to go to your competitors? Do you think they actually want the company to lose money and fail?” The room was quiet. The managers—most of whom respected their bosses and maintained good relationships with the company’s corporate leadership—knew their leaders were smart, experienced, and committed to the success of the company. The problem was that no one could understand why this new plan had been implemented. “Has anyone asked?” I questioned them. The room fell silent. Finally the class clown blurted out, “I’m not asking. I like my job!” Laughter erupted from the room. I smiled and let them settle down. “Understandable,” I replied. “So the CEO, is she unreasonable? Would she actually fire someone for asking the question?” The group of managers mumbled, “No.” “What is it then?” I asked. Finally, one of the more senior managers spoke up with a serious answer: “I’d feel pretty stupid asking. Our CEO is smart and has a lot of experience. She gets this business.” “OK,” I shot back. “So you’re all just scared to look stupid?” Heads nodded in a universal yes. I nodded as well, now more fully understanding the issue. No one wants to look stupid, especially in front of the boss. “Let me ask you this,” I continued. “When you can’t explain the reason behind this new compensation plan to your sales force, how does that make you look?” “Stupid and scared,” the class clown responded. “Exactly!” I shot back, in jest. But I knew a simple, easy way to solve the problem had been uncovered. That afternoon I swung by the CEO’s office. She was meeting with the company’s president of sales. “How is the workshop going?” the CEO inquired. “It’s going pretty well,” I said. “You have a solid crew of managers.” “Absolutely. They are a great group,” replied the CEO. “How is your relationship with them?” I asked. “Oh, I think it is very strong with most of them. Some of the newer ones I don’t know all that well yet, but as a whole, I have a good relationship with our managers,” the CEO answered. “Do they ever confront you on anything or ask questions?” I asked. The CEO thought for a few seconds. “Not really,” she acknowledged. “I think they get the business, and I think they know what we are trying to do. So there really isn’t much that they would need to confront me on. I’ve been in this game a long time. I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t know what I was doing. They know that and I think they respect that. Experience counts for a lot in this business. But I think if they had an issue, they would certainly bring it up to me.” A common misperception among military leaders or corporate senior executives, this was an example of a boss who didn’t fully comprehend the weight of her position. In her mind, she was fairly laid back, open to questions, comments, and suggestions from people. She talked about maintaining an “open-door policy.” But in the minds of her sales managers, she was still The Boss: experienced, smart, and most important, powerful. That position demanded a high level of reverence—so high, in fact, that for an employee to question her ideas seemed disrespectful. None of them were comfortable questioning her, even though none of the midlevel managers actually worried about losing their jobs because they asked a question. But they were certainly worried about looking bad in front of The Boss. “I’m not sure they are as comfortable confronting you or opening up to you as you think,” I stated bluntly. “Really?” The CEO asked with a slightly puzzled face. “Let me give you an example that came up today,” I replied. “The new sales compensation plan.” “What about it? Don’t they like it?” the CEO asked with surprise. “It’s not that they don’t like it,” I answered. “I don’t think they get it.” “Don’t get it? The plan isn’t really that complex. In fact, it is simple,” said the CEO, preparing to give me the quick explanation. “It’s not that they don’t get what the plan is,” I said. “You’re right: it is simple. It reduces overall compensation for sales staff, especially for the low producers.” “Exactly. What’s the issue with that?” the CEO said. She was right. Even I, without experience in this particular field, had no trouble understanding the basic concept of the new compensation plan. “The issue is not that they don’t understand the plan, but that they don’t understand why the plan is being implemented. They don’t believe in it. They think this plan will drive away good salespeople, who will look for and possibly find better compensation plans at your competitors,” I explained. The CEO now got a little defensive. “Then they clearly don’t understand what I am doing with the business,” she stated. “When we cut compensation, especially on the low-producing salespeople, that savings reduces cost. When I reduce cost for salespeople, it reduces our overhead. With overhead reduced, I can lower the price of our products. That will allow our bigger producers to bring in even more business. Sure, the new compensation plan is punitive toward our bottom people, but those bottom people really don’t move the needle in our business. If some of them leave, it won’t impact our business. In fact, it will allow some of our better producers to expand into those accounts and increase sales. So there is opportunity for our sales force to do even better.” “That makes a lot of sense,” I replied. “It absolutely does,” said the CEO. She explained how she had made this move before in a tough market. “It almost always helps. It might reduce the overall size of our sales force, but it will increase our volume in the long run. A smaller, more effective sales force also reduces overhead: lower health care costs, fewer desks, fewer computers to buy, greater efficiency. It is a win-win.” “That sounds brilliant. There is only one problem with it,” I said. “What’s that?” the CEO asked, incredulous. “Your midlevel managers don’t understand those points—they don’t understand why—and so they don’t believe in the strategy. If they don’t believe, neither will your sales force. If this plan rolls out and those executing it don’t believe in it, your plan is far more likely to fail.” “So what can I do to make them believe?” asked the CEO. “It’s easy,” I explained. “Just tell them why.” The CEO finally understood what she needed to do. For my training with the midlevel managers the next day, the CEO made an appearance and kicked things off with a short presentation. “Good morning, everyone,” she began. “Jocko pointed out to me that you all had some issues with the new compensation plan. What don’t you like?” After a few moments of silence, one of the more senior managers finally mustered the courage to speak up. “Cutting into our sales team’s take-home pay hurts,” said the manager. “It may drive some of them elsewhere, and that could hurt us in the long run.” The CEO smiled. She explained the details of the strategy behind the plan: the increased volume, the reduced overhead, the greater capture of existing accounts when handled by higher producing salespeople. The managers quickly saw the connection and understood the benefits of the plan. “Does anyone have any questions?” the CEO finished. No one spoke up. “Seriously. Does anyone have any questions? Don’t be afraid to ask. I obviously didn’t make this clear to you. And unfortunately, none of you asked!” she jabbed. “No, I think we get it now,” one of the managers replied. “Do you think you can explain it to your sales force in a manner that they will understand?” asked the CEO. “I do,” a manager answered. “But I still think some of the low producers will be upset.” “I’m sure some of them will be,” the CEO replied. “As I said, that is part of the strategy here. The ones I want you to focus on here are the big producers and those that you think have the potential to become big producers. I have done this before; we will get results. Anyone else have anything?” The room, now loosened up by the straight-shooting conversation with the CEO, relaxed and broke into some small talk before the CEO went on her way. The class continued. “What do you think?” I asked the class. “That is exactly what we needed,” said one manager. “Now I get it,” remarked another. “I wish we would have known that all along,” a third manager stated. “Let me ask you another question: Who is to blame for the CEO not explaining this to you in more detail?” I asked. The managers in the room remained silent. They knew the answer and nodded as they acknowledged a topic that I had covered in detail earlier. “That’s right,” I said, “you! That is what Extreme Ownership is all about. If you don’t understand or believe in the decisions coming down from your leadership, it is up to you to ask questions until you understand how and why those decisions are being made. Not knowing the why prohibits you from believing in the mission. When you are in a leadership position, that is a recipe for failure, and it is unacceptable. As a leader, you must believe.” “But the boss should have explained this to us, right?” one manager asked. “Absolutely. I explained that to her, and, sure enough, she came down here and did just that. But she’s not a mind reader. The CEO can’t predict what you won’t get or understand. She’s not perfect; none of us are. Things are going to slip through the cracks from time to time. It happens. I made all kinds of mistakes when I led SEALs. Often, my subordinate leadership would pick up the slack for me. And they wouldn’t hold it against me, nor did I think they were infringing on my ‘leadership turf.’ On the contrary, I would thank them for covering for me. Leadership isn’t one person leading a team. It is a group of leaders working together, up and down the chain of command, to lead. If you are on your own, I don’t care how good you are, you won’t be able to handle it.” “So we let the boss down when we didn’t ask questions and communicate with her,” said one of the quieter managers in the back of the room. “Yes, you did,” I confirmed. “People talk about leadership requiring courage. This is exactly one of those situations. It takes courage to go to the CEO’s office, knock on her door, and explain that you don’t understand the strategy behind her decisions. You might feel stupid. But you will feel far worse trying to explain to your team a mission or strategy that you don’t understand or believe in yourself. And, as you pointed out, you are letting the boss down because she will never know that her guidance is not being promulgated properly through the ranks. If you don’t ask questions so you can understand and believe in the mission, you are failing as a leader and you are failing your team. So, if you ever get a task or guidance or a mission that you don’t believe in, don’t just sit back and accept it. Ask questions until you understand why so you can believe in what you are doing and you can pass that information down the chain to your team with confidence, so they can get out and execute the mission. That is leadership.”

EGO CLOUDS AND DISRUPTS EVERYTHING

  • Ego clouds and disrupts everything: the planning process, the ability to take good advice, and the ability to accept constructive criticism. It can even stifle someone’s sense of self-preservation. Often, the most difficult ego to deal with is your own. Everyone has an ego. Ego drives the most successful people in life—in the SEAL Teams, in the military, in the business world. They want to win, to be the best. That is good. But when ego clouds our judgment and prevents us from seeing the world as it is, then ego becomes destructive. When personal agendas become more important than the team and the overarching mission’s success, performance suffers and failure ensues. Many of the disruptive issues that arise within any team can be attributed directly to a problem with ego.

  • Implementing Extreme Ownership requires checking your ego and operating with a high degree of humility. Admitting mistakes, taking ownership, and developing a plan to overcome challenges are integral to any successful team. Ego can prevent a leader from conducting an honest, realistic assessment of his or her own performance and the performance of the team. In the SEAL Teams, we strive to be confident, but not cocky. We take tremendous pride in the history and legacy of our organization. We are confident in our skills and are eager to take on challenging missions that others cannot or aren’t willing to execute. But we can’t ever think we are too good to fail or that our enemies are not capable, deadly, and eager to exploit our weaknesses. We must never get complacent. This is where controlling the ego is most important.

  • “I’ve got an immediate fire that’s causing us a big issue, and I need some help with this,” said the voice mail. “Please give me a call as soon as you can.” The voice mail was from Gary, a midlevel manager in the operations department of a corporation with which Jocko and I had worked through our company, Echelon Front. We had developed a twelve-month leadership program for the corporation. Every few weeks, we traveled to their corporate headquarters for training with a class of a dozen midlevel managers from various departments. In addition to the classroom sessions, we provided coaching and mentorship to help our course participants apply what they learned in class to their everyday leadership challenges. Jocko and I had spoken to Gary by phone several times over the past few months and helped him solve some minor leadership dilemmas and build a more effective team. He was a hard worker, dedicated to his job and his team, and he was eager to learn. It was rewarding to watch him grow as a leader over the months of our course. As a result, he had much greater confidence in himself to make the decisions that would help his team more effectively execute their mission. Now he had a major issue—a serious leadership challenge that was pressing. I was eager to help. I quickly gave him a call to find out what had happened and what I could do. “How you doing, Gary?” I asked when he picked up the phone. “Not too good,” Gary responded. “We just had a major issue on one of our critical projects.” “What happened?” I asked. I couldn’t hope to match Gary’s expertise in this industry. But I could help him solve his leadership challenges, improve communication, and run a more effective team. “Our drilling superintendent made a call on his own to swap out a critical piece of equipment,” said Gary. “He totally violated our standard operating procedures. I have told him before how I wanted this done, and he completely blew me off!” Gary was angry. Obviously, Gary’s ego had been bruised by the fact that the drilling superintendent hadn’t cleared the decision through him. “This was something he knew he should have run through me,” Gary continued, “and he blatantly did not. He made the wrong call, and that set our completion date back several days, costing our company serious capital.” In this industry, each day lost on the project could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Tell me about your superintendent,” I said. “Why do you think he would do that?” “No idea,” said Gary. “He knows he has to run that call through me. But he’s been in this business way longer than I have, and he’s got a ton of experience. Sometimes he looks at me, and his face says What the hell do you know? I’m sure he thinks he knows better than me.” “Perhaps he was just pushing the envelope to see what he could get away with,” I replied. “Which can escalate if you let it go.” “That’s part of the problem. I’m worried about how he will respond to my critique,” said Gary. “With his years of knowledge and experience, he is a critical member of this team. We can’t afford to lose him. If I call him out, he is going to blow up at me and the friction between us is likely to get even worse than it already is. And you know the climate in this industry. With his experience, he can find another job tomorrow if he wants to.” “That means you will have to check your ego in order to have a constructive discussion with him and get this under control,” I responded. “Let’s think through this,” I continued. “Do you think he deliberately tried to shut down drilling operations and cost the company money?” “No,” admitted Gary. “I’m sure he thought he was doing what was best for the immediate situation as it presented itself.” “At the tactical level, on the front lines where the guys in the field execute the mission,” I said, “it is critical that the troops grasp how what they do connects to the bigger picture. Your superintendent may not have really understood how his failure to follow procedure and get approval for these changes would result in hundreds of thousands of dollars lost. Do you think that is possible?” “Definitely. He has exceptional hands-on knowledge of drilling, but he doesn’t really deal with the big picture,” Gary replied. His anger subsided and his bruised ego diminished as he realized the superintendent had probably not been willfully insubordinate. He now began to understand the reasons the superintendent made the decisions he did. “As a leader, it is up to you to explain the bigger picture to him—and to all your front line leaders. That is a critical component of leadership,” I replied. But Gary was still concerned about how to deal with his drilling superintendent—and the superintendent’s ego. “How can I communicate this to him without ruffling his feathers and getting him all pissed off at me?” asked Gary. “If I confront him about this, our communication will get even worse than it already is.” “That is another critical component of leadership,” I quickly replied. “Dealing with people’s egos. And you can do so by using one of the main principles we have taught you during our course: Extreme Ownership.” Gary responded, “Ownership of what? He’s the one that screwed this up, not me.” It was clear Gary’s ego was getting in the way of the solution to this problem. “Ownership of everything!” I answered. “This isn’t his fault, it’s yours. You are in charge, so the fact that he didn’t follow procedure is your fault. And you have to believe that, because it’s true. When you talk to him, you need to start the conversation like this: ‘Our team made a mistake and it’s my fault. It’s my fault because I obviously wasn’t as clear as I should have been in explaining why we have these procedures in place and how not following them can cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. You are an extremely skilled and knowledgeable superintendent. You know more about this business than I ever will. It was up to me to make sure you know the parameters we have to work within and why some decisions have got to be run through me. Now, I need to fix this so it doesn’t happen again.’” “Do you think that will work?” asked Gary, sounding unconvinced. “I’m confident it will,” I replied. “If you approached it as he did something wrong, and he needs to fix something, and he is at fault, it becomes a clash of egos and you two will be at odds. That’s human nature. But, if you put your own ego in check, meaning you take the blame, that will allow him to actually see the problem without his vision clouded by ego. Then you both can make sure that your team’s standard operating procedures—when to communicate, what is and isn’t within his decision-making authority—are clearly understood.” “I wouldn’t have thought to take that tact,” Gary admitted. “It’s counterintuitive,” I said. “It’s natural for anyone in a leadership position to blame subordinate leaders and direct reports when something goes wrong. Our egos don’t like to take blame. But it’s on us as leaders to see where we failed to communicate effectively and help our troops clearly understand what their roles and responsibilities are and how their actions impact the bigger strategic picture. “Remember, it’s not about you,” I continued. “It’s not about the drilling superintendent. It’s about the mission and how best to accomplish it. With that attitude exemplified in you and your key leaders, your team will dominate.”

COVER AND MOVE

  • Cover and Move: it is the most fundamental tactic, perhaps the only tactic. Put simply, Cover and Move means teamwork. All elements within the greater team are crucial and must work together to accomplish the mission, mutually supporting one another for that singular purpose. Departments and groups within the team must break down silos, depend on each other and understand who depends on them. If they forsake this principle and operate independently or work against each other, the results can be catastrophic to the overall team’s performance.

  • Within any team, there are divisions that arise. Often, when smaller teams within the team get so focused on their immediate tasks, they forget about what others are doing or how they depend on other teams. They may start to compete with one another, and when there are obstacles, animosity and blame develops. This creates friction that inhibits the overall team’s performance. It falls on leaders to continually keep perspective on the strategic mission and remind the team that they are part of the greater team and the strategic mission is paramount.

  • Each member of the team is critical to success, though the main effort and supporting efforts must be clearly identified. If the overall team fails, everyone fails, even if a specific member or an element within the team did their job successfully. Pointing fingers and placing blame on others contributes to further dissension between teams and individuals. These individuals and teams must instead find a way to work together, communicate with each other, and mutually support one another. The focus must always be on how to best accomplish the mission.

  • Alternatively, when the team succeeds, everyone within and supporting that team succeeds. Every individual and every team within the larger team gets to share in the success. Accomplishing the strategic mission is the highest priority. Team members, departments, and supporting assets must always Cover and Move—help each other, work together, and support each other to win. This principle is integral for any team to achieve victory.

  • “Those guys are horrible,” said the production manager. He described a subsidiary company, owned by their parent corporation, on which his team depended to transport their product. “They can’t get their jobs completed on schedule. And that prevents us from doing our jobs.” Clearly, there were major issues between his field leaders—the frontline troops of his team—and those of the subsidiary company. Jocko and I stood before the class of a dozen midlevel managers seated at tables forming a U-shape in a conference room of the company’s corporate headquarters. In the second session of a twelve-month leadership-training program, our presentation and discussion centered on the Laws of Combat. We solicited from each of the class participants specific leadership challenges that they currently faced. Jocko and I set about to help them solve these challenges through the application of the SEAL combat leadership principles they had just learned. The production manager explained that his team struggled to minimize downtime in their production—the times when they had to cease making product. These disruptions occurred for a variety of reasons, but they stopped product from moving to market, and every hour and day of downtime cost the company huge revenues and substantially impacted the bottom line. With his crew just getting up and running, there had been a steep learning curve. The production manager’s team maintained an average downtime that was much worse than the industry standard. Such a glaring discrepancy was a major detriment to the company’s profits. As a result, the production manager was under scrutiny and intense pressure to reduce downtime. The subsidiary company on which his production team depended became the major scapegoat to blame. “We spend a lot of our time waiting on them [the subsidiary company], and that causes big problems and delays for us,” said the production manager. “Those delays are impacting production and costing our company serious revenue.” “How can you help this subsidiary company?” I asked the production manager. “I can’t!” he replied. “They don’t work for me. We don’t work for the same bosses. They are a different company.” While he was right that they were a different company, both companies fell under the leadership of the same parent corporation. “Besides,” he added with indifference, “they aren’t my problem. I’ve got my own team to worry about.” “It sounds like they are your problem,” I responded. “In that sense,” he agreed, “I guess they are.” “What’s worse,” continued the production manager, now on a roll of bashing the subsidiary company, “because corporate owns them, we are forced to use their services.” “What you just called the worst part should be the best part,” Jocko responded. “You are both owned by the same corporation, so you both have the same mission. And that is what this is about—the overall mission, the overall team. Not just your team, but the whole team; the entire corporation—all departments within your company, all subsidiary companies under the corporation, outside contractors, the whole enterprise. You must work together and support each other as one team.” “The enemy is out there,” I said, pointing out the window to the world beyond. “The enemy is all the other competing companies in your industry that are vying for your customers. The enemy is not in here, inside the walls of this corporation. The departments within and the subsidiary companies that all fall under the same leadership structure—you are all on the same team. You have to overcome the ‘us versus them’ mentality and work together, mutually supporting one another.” Just as I had on the battlefield in Ramadi years before, the production manager was now so focused on his own department and its immediate tasks that he couldn’t see how his mission aligned with the rest of the corporation and supporting assets, all striving to accomplish the same strategic mission. As I had done after some constructive guidance from my chief, the production manager must now be willing to take a step back and see how his production team’s mission fit into the overall plan. “It’s about the bigger, strategic mission,” I said. “How can you help this subsidiary company do their job more effectively so they can help you accomplish your mission and you can all win?” The production manager pondered this. He was still skeptical. “Engage with them,” directed Jocko. “Build a personal relationship with them. Explain to them what you need from them and why, and ask them what you can do to help them get you what you need. Make them a part of your team, not an excuse for your team. Remember the stories Leif and I have told about relying on other units to support us? Those Army and Marine Corps units we worked with were not under our control. We had different bosses. But we depended on them and they depended on us. So we formed relationships with them and worked together to accomplish the overall mission of securing Ramadi. That’s Cover and Move. You need to do the same thing here: work together to win.” The production manager was a driven leader who wanted his team to perform at the highest level. Now, he began to understand true teamwork. The proverbial lightbulb went off in his head, and his attitude completely changed: if he wasn’t working together with this subsidiary company, then he was failing his team. Over the next weeks and months, the production manager made every effort to positively engage with the subsidiary company, to communicate with them, and establish a better working relationship. He came to more fully understand the myriad challenges that impacted their timelines and caused delays and what he could do on his end to help mitigate those issues. It wasn’t that they were “horrible,” as he had initially surmised. They were operating with limited resources and limited manpower. Once he accepted that they weren’t out to sabotage his team, he realized that there were steps that he and his team could take to help the subsidiary company become more efficient and fill in gaps that had caused their delays. Instead of working as two separate entities against each other, they began to work together. With this shift in mind-set, the production manager’s encouragement enabled his field leaders to see the subsidiary company employees in a different light: not as adversaries but as critical resources part of the same greater team. Most important, the production team began to work with the subsidiary company’s field team. Within a few months, the production team’s field leaders encouraged key personnel from the subsidiary company to sit in on their coordination meetings. Very soon, the “us versus them” mentality had all but disappeared. They had broken through the silos and no longer worked against each other. The production team’s downtime radically improved to industry leading levels. They now worked together as one team—Cover and Move

SIMPLIFY

  • Combat, like anything in life, has inherent layers of complexities. Simplifying as much as possible is crucial to success. When plans and orders are too complicated, people may not understand them. And when things go wrong, and they inevitably do go wrong, complexity compounds issues that can spiral out of control into total disaster. Plans and orders must be communicated in a manner that is simple, clear, and concise. Everyone that is part of the mission must know and understand his or her role in the mission and what to do in the event of likely contingencies. As a leader, it doesn’t matter how well you feel you have presented the information or communicated an order, plan, tactic, or strategy. If your team doesn’t get it, you have not kept things simple and you have failed. You must brief to ensure the lowest common denominator on the team understands.

  • It is critical, as well, that the operating relationship facilitate the ability of the frontline troops to ask questions that clarify when they do not understand the mission or key tasks to be performed. Leaders must encourage this communication and take the time to explain so that every member of the team understands.

  • Simple: this principle isn’t limited to the battlefield. In the business world, and in life, there are inherent complexities. It is critical to keep plans and communication simple. Following this rule is crucial to the success of any team in any combat, business or life.

  • “I don’t have any idea what this means,” the employee said as he held up a piece of paper that was supposed to explain his monthly bonus. “Point eight-four,” he continued. “I have no idea what that number means. What I do know is that my bonus for this month was $423.97. But I have no idea why. Last month I made $279 bucks. Don’t know why. I did the same amount of work; produced about the same amount of units. But for some reason, I got shortchanged last month. What the hell?” “Are they trying to get you to focus on one aspect of your job?” I inquired. “Honestly, I have no idea,” he replied. “I mean, I’m happy for the bonus, but I don’t know what they want me to focus on.” I spoke to several other assembly technicians in this division on a visit to the manufacturing plant of a client company. Over and over again, I heard similar answers. People weren’t sure what they should be focused on. They had no idea how their bonuses were calculated or why they were being rewarded or penalized in pay each month. The next day I met with the chief engineer and plant manager. They were both extremely smart and passionate about the company and took a lot of pride in their products. They also recognized that there was a disconnect. “We definitely are not maximizing our efficiency with our production staff,” said the plant manager, her frustration evident. “No doubt about it,” explained the chief engineer. “We have a relatively small line of products here. There are some nuances, but they are all similar to produce. We thought we could ramp up production when we created the bonus plan, but it hasn’t really worked.” “Yeah,” added the plant manager, “there is real opportunity to make significant money through the bonus plan, but the employees on the line don’t seem to adapt and focus to take advantage of it.” “Explain to me how the bonus system works,” I said. “OK. It’s a little tricky,” warned the plant manager. “That’s fine, I’m sure it can’t be too hard,” I replied, knowing that excessive complexity was one of the major problems of any SEAL unit (or any military unit) on the battlefield. It was essential to keep things simple so that everyone on the team understood. “Honestly, it is pretty complex,” the plant manager answered, “as there are a lot of different aspects that we needed to work in to ensure that the different facets of production were accounted for.” “Well maybe you could just give me the basics then,” I requested. The plant manager began: “OK. So it all starts off with a base level of productivity. Now, as you know, we have six different units that we assemble here, each with varying levels of complexity. So what we did was give them a weight. Our most commonly produced model sets the standard with a weight of 1.0. Our most complex model is weighted 1.75 and the simplest model is a .50, with the other models weighted somewhere in between based on the level of difficulty in assembly.” “Of course, those are what we call the ‘base weights,’” added the chief engineer. “Depending on the orders we get for various models, we sometimes need to increase production of certain models, so we have a variable weight curve, which means the weight can be adjusted up or down depending on the specific demand at anytime.” “This is where we had to get crafty: we then take the total weighted number of units produced and we have a tiered efficiency metric,” the plant manager said, clearly proud of the complex system they had developed. She explained in intricate detail how the variable tier system worked, stratified based on the number of people that made bonus in each tier every month. “That way, a certain level of competitiveness is inspired and we prevent ourselves from paying out too many bonuses, which we feel would decrease their impact,” concluded the plant manager. But it didn’t end there. She went into greater detail on how the efficiency metric was then compared to the employee’s previous six-month tiered breakout and how an employee who maintained the top 25 percent stratification could receive an additional percentage on their bonus. On top of that, they factored in the quality of the product. The chief engineer and the plant manager outlined a list of common faults, breaking these out as either “hold faults,” which could be corrected, or “fatal faults,” which rendered a unit unusable. For each fault and type of fault registered, a graduated weight system multiplied by a certain factor reduced an employee’s potential bonus. A similar multiple added to the bonus for employees who had no registered faults in the units they produced. While the senior management expressed pride in the bonus system they had created, it was staggeringly complex. I was quiet for a few moments. Then, I asked, “That’s it?” “Well,” answered the plant manager, “there are several other little nuanced factors that we do calculate for—” “Really?” I questioned, surprised that they didn’t catch my sarcasm. “I’m kidding. That is crazy.” “Crazy? What’s crazy?” she asked defensively. They were so close to the bonus plan, so emotional and passionate about it, that they didn’t recognize the vast complexity of it. They didn’t see their own “fatal fault” in the confusing and elaborate scheme they had created, one that no one in the team understood. “That is an extremely complex plan, too complex. I think you really need to simplify,” I said. “Well, it is a complex environment. Perhaps if we drew it out for you, you would understand it,” the chief engineer responded. “It doesn’t matter if I understand it,” I responded. “What matters is that they understand it—your production team. And not in some theoretical way. They need to understand it to a point that they don’t need to be thinking about it to understand it. It needs to be on the top of their minds all the time.” “But we have to make sure we incentivize them in the right direction,” said the chief engineer. “Exactly,” echoed the plant manager. “We have got to take the variables into account so that they are constantly pushed or pulled the right way.” They had each very clearly put extensive time and effort into the bonus plan and now tried desperately to defend their efforts despite its glaring overly complex deficiency. “How well is this bonus plan working to incentivize them now?” I asked. “You just told me they aren’t taking advantage of it, so they aren’t being effectively incentivized to do anything differently or to move in any direction. Your plan is so complex that there is no way that they can mindfully move in the direction that would increase their bonus. Even when they use operant conditioning on rats, the rats have to understand what they are being punished or rewarded for. If there is not a strong enough correlation between the behavior and the reward or the punishment, then behavior will never be modified. If the rats don’t know why they received a sugar pellet or why they were just given an electric shock, they will not change.” “So our people are rats?” the chief engineer said jokingly. I laughed—it was funny—but then I replied, “No, not at all. But all animals, including humans, need to see the connection between action and consequence in order to learn or react appropriately. The way you have this set up, they can’t see that connection.” “Well, they could see it if they looked and took the time to figure it out,” replied the production manager. “It certainly is possible that they could. But they don’t. People generally take the path of least resistance. It is just in our nature. Let me ask you this: What kind of quantifiable lift have you gotten out of this incentive plan?” I asked. “You know, honestly we haven’t seen any real, meaningful pickup,” the production manager admitted. “Definitely not as much as we thought we would.” “This actually isn’t surprising to me,” I said. “Your plan violates one of the most important principles we adhered to in combat: simplicity. When young SEAL leaders in training look at targets for training missions, they often try to develop a course of action that accounts for every single possibility they can think of. That results in a plan that is extraordinarily complex and very difficult to follow. While the troops might understand their individual pieces of the plan, they have a hard time following all the intricacies of the grand scheme. Perhaps they can even get away with that a few times if everything goes smoothly, but remember: the enemy gets a vote.” “The enemy gets a vote?” the plant manager repeated, questioning what that meant. “Yes. Regardless of how you think an operation is going to unfold,” I answered, “the enemy gets their say as well—and they are going to do something to disrupt it. When something goes wrong—and it eventually does—complex plans add to confusion, which can compound into disaster. Almost no mission ever goes according to plan. There are simply too many variables to deal with. This is where simplicity is key. If the plan is simple enough, everyone understands it, which means each person can rapidly adjust and modify what he or she is doing. If the plan is too complex, the team can’t make rapid adjustments to it, because there is no baseline understanding of it.” “That makes sense,” the chief engineer said. “We followed that rule with everything we did,” I continued. “Our standard operating procedures were always kept as simple as possible. Our communication plans were simple. The way we talked on the radio was as simple and direct as possible. The way we organized our gear, even the way we got a head count to ensure we had all of our people was broken down into the simplest possible method so we could do it quickly, accurately, and easily at any time. With all this simplicity embedded in the way we worked, our troops clearly understood what they were doing and how that tied in to the mission. That core understanding allowed us to adapt quickly without stumbling over ourselves.” “I can see how that would be a huge advantage,” said the plant manager. “OK then,” I concluded. “We have nothing to lose. The best way to make your bonus plan work is to go back to the drawing board and try to figure out a new model for compensation, with two or three—no more than four—areas to measure and grade upon.” The chief engineer and the plant manager accepted the mission I laid out for them and headed back to their office to get to work. The next day, I walked into the office. They had the plan written up on their dry-erase board. It had only two parts: (1) weighted units; (2) quality. “That’s it?” I inquired, this time without sarcasm. “That’s it,” the plant manager replied. “Very simple. You produce as many units as you can. We will still adjust the weights of the units based on demand, but we will set the weights on Monday and let them stay there until Friday. That still gives us time the next week to make adjustments and change weights if demand spikes on a certain unit. And we are going to post the weights of each unit out there on the bulletin board so that every employee on the line sees it, knows it, and is thinking about it. The quality piece we will measure each month. Anyone with a quality score of ninety-five percent or higher will receive a fifteen percent increase in their bonus.” “I like it,” I replied. This plan was much easier to communicate and much easier to understand. “When you need to adjust it, you will be able to do so with ease.” That afternoon, I watched as the chief engineer and the plant manager discussed the plan with the team leads and the afternoon shift. The response was great. The employees now had a good understanding of what it was they needed to do to earn their bones. As a result, the bonus now truly incentivized behavior and could thereby make the company more productive. In the coming weeks, the plant manager and chief engineer reported an almost immediate increase in productivity. More employees focused their energy on what product would make them more money, which was of course aligned with the goals of the company. There were secondary effects as well. As the higher-producing employees strove harder to increase their bonuses, the lower-producing workers were left with less orders to fulfill. Within a month, the company let go the four employees with the lowest bonus scores, who had long been the weakest performers and had dragged the entire team down. Now, the company no longer needed them, as the rest of the crew had drastically increased their efficiency. The most impressive thing about this improvement in performance was that it did not come from a major process change or an advance in technology. Instead, it came through a leadership principle that has been around for ages: Simple.

PRIORITIZE AND EXECUTE

  • To implement Prioritize and Execute in any business, team, or organization, a leader must:
    • evaluate the highest priority problem.
    • lay out in simple, clear, and concise terms the highest priority effort for your team.
    • develop and determine a solution, seek input from key leaders and from the team where possible.
    • direct the execution of that solution, focusing all efforts and resources toward this priority task.
    • move on to the next highest priority problem. Repeat.
    • when priorities shift within the team, pass situational awareness both up and down the chain.
    • don’t let the focus on one priority cause target fixation. Maintain the ability to see other problems developing and rapidly shift as needed.
  • There was only one major problem: the company was losing money. Through years as a profitable player in the pharmaceutical industry, the company experienced several phases of expansion. All seemed well, but recently revenues had taken a slight downward trend. At first, that trend could be blamed on “market conditions” or “seasonal discrepancies,” but when the downward trend continued, it was clear that the lower revenues had metastasized from temporary setback to the new reality. The CEO of this pharmaceutical company brought me in for leadership training and consultation. The CEO and his executives prepared a “State of the Company” brief that detailed the company’s strategic vision in order to improve performance. The brief included multiple sections, each with a number of tasks and projects embedded within. He sat me down and ran through the brief so I could get a feel for what they were doing. It contained a plethora of new initiatives, each with its own set of challenges. First, the CEO planned to launch several lines of new product, each with its own marketing plan. With the aim of expansion, the CEO hoped to establish distribution centers in a dozen new markets in the next eighteen to twenty-four months. Additionally, he planned to break into the laboratory-equipment market, which he hoped to sell through their access to doctors and hospitals. The CEO also discussed a new training program designed to educate managers and improve their effectiveness as leaders. Additionally, the company planned a complete Web site overhaul to update their antiquated site and improve customer experience and branding. Finally, with the aim to improve sales, the CEO also planned to restructure the company’s sales force and compensation plan. This entailed an activity-management system that would more efficiently focus the sales force on income-producing activities and reduce wasted time and effort. The CEO went into great detail through a multitude of very impressive sounding plans. He was clearly passionate about the company and excited to implement this array of new initiatives to get the company back on track. At the end of the brief, the CEO asked if I had any questions. “Have you ever heard the military term ‘decisively engaged’?” I asked. “No, I haven’t. I was never in the military,” the CEO replied with a smile. “Decisively engaged,” I continued, “is a term used to describe a battle in which a unit locked in a tough combat situation cannot maneuver or extricate themselves. In other words, they cannot retreat. They must win. With all your new initiatives, I would say you have a hell of a lot of battles going on,” I observed. “Absolutely. We are spread pretty thin,” the CEO acknowledged, wondering where this was going. “Of all the initiatives, which one do you feel is the most important?” I asked. “Which one is your highest priority?” “That’s easy,” the CEO quickly answered. “The activity management of our sales force is the highest priority. We have to make sure our sales people are engaged in the right activities. If they aren’t getting in front of customers and selling our products, we will no longer be in business,” said the CEO. “With all that you have planned, do you think your team is clear that this is your highest priority?” I asked. “Probably not,” the CEO admitted. “On the battlefield, if the guys on the front line face-to-face with the enemy aren’t doing their jobs, nothing else matters. Defeat is inevitable,” I replied. “With all your other efforts—all your other focuses—how much actual attention is being given to ensuring your frontline salespeople are doing the best job possible? How much of a difference would it make if you and the entire company gave them one hundred percent of your attention for the next few weeks or months?” “It would probably make a huge difference,” the CEO admitted. “As a SEAL, I often saw this with junior leaders on the battlefield,” I continued. “With so much going on in the chaos and mayhem, they would try to take on too many tasks at once. It never worked. I taught them to Prioritize and Execute. Prioritize your problems and take care of them one at a time, the highest priority first. Don’t try to do everything at once or you won’t be successful.” I explained how a leader who tries to take on too many problems simultaneously will likely fail at them all. “What about all the other initiatives?” the CEO asked. “They will help us as well.” “I’m not saying to throw them away,” I replied. “They sound like great initiatives that are definitely important. But you won’t move the needle on them when you are spread so thin. My suggestion is to focus on one and when that one is completed, or at least has some real momentum, then you move on to the next one and focus on it. When that one is done, then move on to the next, and so on down the line until you have knocked them all out.” “Makes sense,” the CEO replied. “I’ll give it a try.” He was eager to turn the company’s performance around. For the next several months the CEO focused the efforts of the entire company on supporting the frontline sales force, making it clear that this was the company’s highest priority. The labs set up tours for customers. The marketing designers helped create new, informative pamphlets for products. Sales managers set minimum marks for the number of introductory meetings with doctors and medical administrators that the sales force had to achieve each week. The company’s marketing team created online videos interviewing their top salespeople on the most successful techniques so that others could watch and learn. It was a full focus of effort on the highest priority initiative to increasing the company’s business. This focus on a singular initiative unified the efforts of the entire company. Progress was seen quickly and gained momentum. The CEO recognized the traction, and the effectiveness of the method: Prioritize and Execute

DECENTRALIZED COMMAND

  • Human beings are generally not capable of managing more than six to ten people, particularly when things go sideways and inevitable contingencies arise. No one senior leader can be expected to manage dozens of individuals, much less hundreds. Teams must be broken down into manageable elements of four to five operators, with a clearly designated leader. Those leaders must understand the overall mission, and the ultimate goal of that mission—the Commander’s Intent. Junior leaders must be empowered to make decisions on key tasks necessary to accomplish that mission in the most effective and efficient manner possible. Teams within teams are organized for maximum effectiveness for a particular mission, with leaders who have clearly delineated responsibilities. Every tactical-level team leader must understand not just what to do but why they are doing it. If frontline leaders do not understand why, they must ask their boss to clarify the why. This ties in very closely with Believe.

  • Decentralized Command does not mean junior leaders or team members operate on their own program; that results in chaos. Instead, junior leaders must fully understand what is within their decision-making authority—the “left and right limits” of their responsibility. Additionally, they must communicate with senior leaders to recommend decisions outside their authority and pass critical information up the chain so the senior leadership can make informed strategic decisions. SEAL leaders on the battlefield are expected to figure out what needs to be done and do it—to tell higher authority what they plan to do, rather than ask, “What do you want me to do?” Junior leaders must be proactive rather than reactive.

  • To be effectively empowered to make decisions, it is imperative that frontline leaders execute with confidence. Tactical leaders must be confident that they clearly understand the strategic mission and Commander’s Intent. They must have implicit trust that their senior leaders will back their decisions. Without this trust, junior leaders cannot confidently execute, which means they cannot exercise effective Decentralized Command. To ensure this is the case, senior leaders must constantly communicate and push information—what we call in the military “situational awareness”—to their subordinate leaders. Likewise, junior leaders must push situational awareness up the chain to their senior leaders to keep them informed, particularly of crucial information that affects strategic decision making.

  • With SEAL Teams—just as with any team in the business world—there are leaders who try to take on too much themselves. When this occurs, operations can quickly dissolve into chaos. The fix is to empower frontline leaders through Decentralized Command and ensure they are running their teams to support the overall mission, without micromanagement from the top. There are, likewise, other senior leaders who are so far removed from the troops executing on the frontline that they become ineffective. These leaders might give the appearance of control, but they actually have no idea what their troops are doing and cannot effectively direct their teams. We call this trait “battlefield aloofness.” This attitude creates a significant disconnect between leadership and the troops, and such a leader’s team will struggle to effectively accomplish their mission. Determining how much leaders should be involved and where leaders can best position themselves to command and control the team is key. When SEAL task units train in assaults—in what we call close-quarters battle, or CQB—we practice this in a “kill house.” A kill house is a multiroom facility with ballistic walls, which SEALs, other military, and police units use to rehearse their CQB skills. For young SEAL officers learning the ropes of leadership, running through the kill house with the platoon provides a great training opportunity to determine how much they should be involved and where to position themselves. Sometimes, the officer gets so far forward that he gets sucked into every room clearance, meaning he is continually entering rooms and engaging targets. When that happens, he gets focused on the minutia of what’s going on in the immediate room and loses situational awareness of what is happening with the rest of the team and can no longer provide effective command and control. Other times, the officer gets stuck in the back of the train, on cleanup duty. When that happens, he is too far in the rear to know what is happening up front and can’t direct his assault force. I advised many officers that the right amount of involvement—the proper position for them—was somewhere in the middle, generally with the bulk of their force: not so far forward that they get sucked into every room clearance, but not so far back that they don’t know what is going on up front. Contrary to a common misconception, leaders are not stuck in any particular position. Leaders must be free to move to where they are most needed, which changes throughout the course of an operation. Understanding proper positioning as a leader is a key component of effective Decentralized Command, not just on the battlefield. In any team, business, or organization, the same rule applies.

  • The effectiveness of Decentralized Command is critical to the success of any team in any industry. In chaotic, dynamic, and rapidly changing environments, leaders at all levels must be empowered to make decisions. Decentralized Command is a key component to victory

PLAN

  • What’s the mission? Planning begins with mission analysis. Leaders must identify clear directives for the team. Once they themselves understand the mission, they can impart this knowledge to their key leaders and frontline troops tasked with executing the mission. A broad and ambiguous mission results in lack of focus, ineffective execution, and mission creep. To prevent this, the mission must be carefully refined and simplified so that it is explicitly clear and specifically focused to achieve the greater strategic vision for which that mission is a part.

  • The mission must explain the overall purpose and desired result, or “end state,” of the operation. The frontline troops tasked with executing the mission must understand the deeper purpose behind the mission. While a simple statement, the Commander’s Intent is actually the most important part of the brief. When understood by everyone involved in the execution of the plan, it guides each decision and action on the ground.

  • Different courses of action must be explored on how best to accomplish the mission—with the manpower, resources, and supporting assets available. Once a course of action is determined, further planning requires detailed information gathering in order to facilitate the development of a thorough plan. It is critical to utilize all assets and lean on the expertise of those in the best position to provide the most accurate and up-to-date information.

  • Leaders must delegate the planning process down the chain as much as possible to key subordinate leaders. Team leaders within the greater team and frontline, tactical-level leaders must have ownership of their tasks within the overall plan and mission. Team participation—even from the most junior personnel—is critical in developing bold, innovative solutions to problem sets. Giving the frontline troops ownership of even a small piece of the plan gives them buy-in, helps them understand the reasons behind the plan, and better enables them to believe in the mission, which translates to far more effective implementation and execution on the ground.

  • While the senior leader supervises the entire planning process by team members, he or she must be careful not to get bogged down in the details. By maintaining a perspective above the microterrain of the plan, the senior leader can better ensure compliance with strategic objectives. Doing so enables senior leaders to “stand back and be the tactical genius”—to identify weaknesses or holes in the plan that those immersed in the details might have missed. This enables leaders to fill in those gaps before execution.

  • Once the detailed plan has been developed, it must then be briefed to the entire team and all participants and supporting elements. Leaders must carefully prioritize the information to be presented in as simple, clear, and concise a format as possible so that participants do not experience information overload. The planning process and briefing must be a forum that encourages discussion, questions, and clarification from even the most junior personnel. If frontline troops are unclear about the plan and yet are too intimidated to ask questions, the team’s ability to effectively execute the plan radically decreases. Thus, leaders must ask questions of their troops, encourage interaction, and ensure their teams understand the plan.

  • Following a successful brief, all members participating in an operation will understand the strategic mission, the Commander’s Intent, the specific mission of the team, and their individual roles within that mission. They will understand contingencies—likely challenges that might arise and how to respond. The test for a successful brief is simple: Do the team and the supporting elements understand it?

  • The plan must mitigate identified risks where possible. SEALs are known for taking significant risk, but in reality SEALs calculate risk very carefully. A good plan must enable the highest chance of mission success while mitigating as much risk as possible. There are some risks that simply cannot be mitigated, and leaders must instead focus on those risks that actually can be controlled. Detailed contingency plans help manage risk because everyone involved in the direct execution (or in support) of the operation understands what to do when obstacles arise or things go wrong. But whether on the battlefield or in the business world, leaders must be comfortable accepting some level of risk. As the U.S. Naval hero of the American Revolution and Father of the U.S. Navy, John Paul Jones, said: “Those who will not risk cannot win.” The best teams employ constant analysis of their tactics and measure their effectiveness so that they can adapt their methods and implement lessons learned for future missions. Often business teams claim there isn’t time for such analysis. But one must make time. The best SEAL units, after each combat operation, conduct what we called a “post-operational debrief.” No matter how exhausted from an operation or how busy planning for the next mission, time is made for this debrief because lives and future mission success depend on it. A post-operational debrief examines all phases of an operation from planning through execution, in a concise format. It addresses the following for the combat mission just completed: What went right? What went wrong? How can we adapt our tactics to make us even more effective and increase our advantage over the enemy? Such self-examination allows SEAL units to reevaluate, enhance, and refine what worked and what didn’t so that they can constantly improve. It is critical for the success of any team in any business to do the same and implement those changes into their future plans so that they don’t repeat the same mistakes.

  • While businesses can have their own planning process, it must be standardized so that other departments within the company and supporting assets outside the company (such as service contractors or subsidiary companies) can understand and use the same format and terminology. It must be repeatable and guide users with a checklist of all the important things they need to think about. The plan must be briefed to the participants, geared toward the frontline troops charged with execution so they clearly understand it. Implementing such a planning process will ensure the highest level of performance and give the team the greatest chance to accomplish the mission and win.

  • A leader’s checklist for planning should include the following:

    • Analyze the mission.
      • Understand higher headquarters’ mission, Commander’s Intent, and endstate (the goal).
      • Identify and state your own Commander’s Intent and endstate for the specific mission.
    • Identify personnel, assets, resources, and time available.
    • Decentralize the planning process.
      • Empower key leaders within the team to analyze possible courses of action.
    • Determine a specific course of action.
      • Lean toward selecting the simplest course of action.
      • Focus efforts on the best course of action.
    • Empower key leaders to develop the plan for the selected course of action.
    • Plan for likely contingencies through each phase of the operation.
    • Mitigate risks that can be controlled as much as possible.
    • Delegate portions of the plan and brief to key junior leaders.
      • Stand back and be the tactical genius.
    • Continually check and question the plan against emerging information to ensure it still fits the situation.
    • Brief the plan to all participants and supporting assets.
      • Emphasize Commander’s Intent.
      • Ask questions and engage in discussion and interaction with the team to ensure they understand.
    • Conduct post-operational debrief after execution.
      • Analyze lessons learned and implement them in future planning.

LEAD UP AND DOWN THE CHAIN OF COMMAND

  • Any good leader is immersed in the planning and execution of tasks, projects, and operations to move the team toward a strategic goal. Such leaders possess insight into the bigger picture and why specific tasks need to be accomplished. This information does not automatically translate to subordinate leaders and the frontline troops. Junior members of the team—the tactical level operators—are rightly focused on their specific jobs. They must be in order to accomplish the tactical mission. They do not need the full knowledge and insight of their senior leaders, nor do the senior leaders need the intricate understanding of the tactical level operators’ jobs. Still, it is critical that each have an understanding of the other’s role. And it is paramount that senior leaders explain to their junior leaders and troops executing the mission how their role contributes to big picture success.

  • This is not intuitive and never as obvious to the rank-and-file employees as leaders might assume. Leaders must routinely communicate with their team members to help them understand their role in the overall mission. Frontline leaders and troops can then connect the dots between what they do every day—the day-to-day operations—and how that impacts the company’s strategic goals. This understanding helps the team members prioritize their efforts in a rapidly changing, dynamic environment. That is leading down the chain of command. It requires regularly stepping out of the office and personally engaging in face-to-face conversations with direct reports and observing the frontline troops in action to understand their particular challenges and read them into the Commander’s Intent. This enables the team to understand why they are doing what they are doing, which facilitates Decentralized Command.

  • As a leader employing Extreme Ownership, if your team isn’t doing what you need them to do, you first have to look at yourself. Rather than blame them for not seeing the strategic picture, you must figure out a way to better communicate it to them in terms that are simple, clear, and concise, so that they understand. This is what leading down the chain of command is all about

  • If your boss isn’t making a decision in a timely manner or providing necessary support for you and your team, don’t blame the boss. First, blame yourself. Examine what you can do to better convey the critical information for decisions to be made and support allocated.

  • Leading up the chain of command requires tactful engagement with the immediate boss (or in military terms, higher headquarters) to obtain the decisions and support necessary to enable your team to accomplish its mission and ultimately win. To do this, a leader must push situational awareness up the chain of command. Leading up the chain takes much more savvy and skill than leading down the chain. Leading up, the leader cannot fall back on his or her positional authority. Instead, the subordinate leader must use influence, experience, knowledge, communication, and maintain the highest professionalism.

  • While pushing to make your superior understand what you need, you must also realize that your boss must allocate limited assets and make decisions with the bigger picture in mind. You and your team may not represent the priority effort at that particular time. Or perhaps the senior leadership has chosen a different direction. Have the humility to understand and accept this. One of the most important jobs of any leader is to support your own boss—your immediate leadership. In any chain of command, the leadership must always present a united front to the troops. A public display of discontent or disagreement with the chain of command undermines the authority of leaders at all levels. This is catastrophic to the performance of any organization.

  • As a leader, if you don’t understand why decisions are being made, requests denied, or support allocated elsewhere, you must ask those questions up the chain. Then, once understood, you can pass that understanding down to your team. Leaders in any chain of command will not always agree. But at the end of the day, once the debate on a particular course of action is over and the boss has made a decision—even if that decision is one you argued against—you must execute the plan as if it were your own. When leading up the chain of command, use caution and respect. But remember, if your leader is not giving the support you need, don’t blame him or her. Instead, reexamine what you can do to better clarify, educate, influence, or convince that person to give you what you need in order to win.

  • The major factors to be aware of when leading up and down the chain of command are these:

    • Take responsibility for leading everyone in your world, subordinates and superiors alike.
    • If someone isn’t doing what you want or need them to do, look in the mirror first and determine what you can do to better enable this.
    • Don’t ask your leader what you should do, tell them what you are going to do.

DECISIVENESS AMID UNCERTAINTY

  • Books, movies, and television shows can never truly capture or articulate the pressure from uncertainty, chaos, and the element of unknown with which real combat leaders must contend. The combat leader almost never has the full picture or a clear and certain understanding of the enemy’s actions or reactions, nor even the knowledge of the immediate consequences for momentary decisions. On the battlefield, for those immersed in the action, the first recognition of an attack might be the wicked snap and violent impact of incoming rounds, flying shards of concrete and debris, or the screams of pain from wounded comrades. Urgent questions arise: Where are they shooting from? How many are there? Are any of my men wounded? If so, how badly? Where are other friendly forces? Is it possible they are friendly forces mistakenly shooting at us? The answers are almost never immediately obvious. In some cases, the answers to who attacked and how will never be known. Regardless, leaders cannot be paralyzed by fear. That results in inaction. It is critical for leaders to act decisively amid uncertainty; to make the best decisions they can based on only the immediate information available.

  • This realization is one of the biggest lessons learned for our generation of combat leaders—both in the SEAL Teams and throughout other U.S. military branches—through the years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no 100 percent right solution. The picture is never complete. Leaders must be comfortable with this and be able to make decisions promptly, then be ready to adjust those decisions quickly based on evolving situations and new information. Intelligence gathering and research are important, but they must be employed with realistic expectations and must not impede swift decision making that is often the difference between victory and defeat. Waiting for the 100 percent right and certain solution leads to delay, indecision, and an inability to execute. Leaders must be prepared to make an educated guess based on previous experience, knowledge of how the enemy operates, likely outcomes, and whatever intelligence is available in the immediate moment.

  • This “incomplete picture” principle is not unique to combat. It applies to virtually every aspect of our individual lives, such as personal health-care decisions or whether or not to evacuate from the predicted path of a major storm. It particularly applies to leadership and decision making in business. While business leaders may not generally face life or death situations, they are certainly under intense pressure. With capital at risk, markets in flux, and competitors actively working to outmaneuver opponents, professional careers and paychecks are at stake. Outcomes are never certain; success never guaranteed. Even so, business leaders must be comfortable in the chaos and act decisively amid such uncertainty

WHAT IS LEADERSHIP

  • 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.

THE DICHOTOMY OF LEADERSHIP

A good leader must be:

  • confident but not cocky;
  • courageous but not foolhardy;
  • competitive but a gracious loser;
  • attentive to details but not obsessed by them;
  • strong but have endurance;
  • a leader and follower;
  • humble not passive;
  • aggressive not overbearing;
  • quiet not silent;
  • calm but not robotic, logical but not devoid of emotions;
  • close with the troops but not so close that one becomes more important than another or more important than the good of the team; not so close that they forget who is in charge.
  • able to execute Extreme Ownership, while exercising Decentralized Command.

A good leader has nothing to prove, but everything to prove

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