Some books you read for lesiure. Some books you read for a kick in the pants. Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin is the later kind of book.
At it’s core, the book drives home this powerful point: Effective leaders take complete ownership of everything that is connected to them. They don’t blame shift. They don’t make excuses. They don’t pass the buck. If it is connected to their responsibility in any way, they take ownership of it. This runs against the course of human (sinful) nature. We naturally want to minimize our connections to failure. Yet it remains that successful leaders resist that temptation and instead practice humble and complete responsibility for those who are above and below their position.
The setting for the book is the siege of Ramadi by American forces during the Iraq war. Both Jocko and Babin were Navy SEALs and members of Task Unit Buriser during the operation to clear the city of insurgents. Ramadi was the location of some of the fiercest fighting of the entire war and posed constant leadership problems. A few mistakes could cost lives.
It is with this back drop that Jocko and Babin tell their stories. They make it clear from the beginning that while many of their stories are from true events, they have been shaped as to bring out the principles they desire to teach. In a way, they are almost military leadership parables that condense the lessons learned from a mountain of experience. Their stories are gripping and exciting (especially in the audible version). I am pretty partial to military history already, so it was the perfect backdrop from which to see these leadership lessons in action.
No Bad Teams, Just Bad Leaders
Proabably the most stunning and humbling take away from the book is their claim that there is no such thing as a bad team, just bad leaders. As someone in leadership, this is one of those gut checks that is needed often.
Babin illustrates this point with a story about two boat teams he observed during SEAL basic training or BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL). During the grueling exercises and drills one boat team was constantly getting first place in the competitions and another was constantly getting last. The winning team had a leader who took ownership of his position and didn’t pass the blame to others. He was able to organize and inspire his team to preform at a high level. The other boat team was full of arguing and blameshifting. The leader felt that the problem lied with his team, he has just been dealt a bad hand.
In an experiment, the instructors switched the leaders of the two teams. In the next day’s competition, it was the team who had constantly been in last place who finished first. The take away was that a good leader can make a seemingly bad team effective. The underlying differences between the two leaders was that one took ownership of his team and held them to high standards. He not only communicated those standards, but he lived them by example. The other leader refused to take ownership of his team. It wasn’t his fault that they were underperforming, it was theirs. This caused the his team to function as a group of individuals rather than a cohesive unit.
Common Grace Throughout
The reason why Jocko and Babin’s book is full of such great wisdom is because so much of it is connected to Biblical wisdom, whether the authors intended this or not. Leaders in God’s design, take ownership of the people and the things they have been given. In particular, men, have been called to sacrificial leadership in their families and churches. In fact, it was a failure of male leadership that lead to the first sin.
God had created Adam and given him a job. Tend the garden. Name the animals. Protect God’s creation from threats. After the creation of Eve, God gave him a person to take responsibility of. When Eve was speaking with the serpent, Adam stood by and watched. He abdicated his responsibility as a leader. He should have marched right over to the snake and crushed it. Even after Eve sinned and Adam remained sinless, there was an opportunity for him to take action. He should have grabbed his wife’s hand and confessed the sin before God. He should have taken ownership of Eve’s sin by being willing to die in her place that she might be redeemed.
That last part should be familiar. For Jesus came and took ownership of our sins. He who knew no sin, became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God. Jesus is the ultimate leader and laid down this pattern for us. He, justly so, could have left his people in their sins, but he did not. He came to seek and save the lost because they belonged to him. He practiced extreme ownership by dying a brutal death for the failure of those underneath him. Therefore, the call to practice extreme ownership is ultimately a call to lead like Christ.
I found this to be an excellent book and I highly commend it to you.