“Can you recommend a book for…?”
“What are you reading right now?”
“What are your favorite books?”
I get asked those types of questions a lot and, as an avid reader and all-around bibliophile, I’m always happy to oblige.
I also like to encourage people to read as much as possible because knowledge benefits you much like compound interest. The more you learn, the more you know; the more you know, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more opportunities you have to succeed.
On the flip side, I also believe there’s little hope for people who aren’t perpetual learners. Life is overwhelmingly complex and chaotic, and it slowly suffocates and devours the lazy and ignorant.
So, if you’re a bookworm on the lookout for good reads, or if you’d like to get into the habit of reading, this book club for you.
The idea here is simple: Every month, I’ll share a book that I’ve particularly liked, why I liked it, and several of my key takeaways from it.
I’ll also keep things short and sweet so you can quickly decide whether the book is likely to be up your alley or not.
If you’ve already read a book that I recommend or have a recommendation of your own to share, don’t be shy! Drop a comment down below and let me–and the rest of us “book clubbers”–know!
Okay, let’s get to the featured book: Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.
Over the last couple of millennia, many smart and successful people have said many things about leadership, and like any subject or activity, a minority of those things have proven uniformly workable and are now recognized as first principles.
Extreme Ownership is an exploration of several of these non-negotiable laws of effective leadership, including:
- A leader is only as good as he or she can win.
- A leader must be fully responsible for everything in his or her world.
- A leader must face reality as it is, not as he or she wishes it were.
- A leader must earn the trust, confidence, and respect of those he or she is leading.
- A leader must put the group’s well-being before his or her ego and personal interests.
What’s more, this book wasn’t written by an ivory tower intellectual or executive sidekick who has worked with leaders but never been one, but by a couple of frontline soldiers. They not only led men into battle, but into some of the heaviest and most sustained urban combat operations in the history of the SEAL Teams that successfully wrested control of the war-torn city of Ramadi, Iraq away from al Qaeda loyalists.
Extreme Ownership is a distillation of the leadership principles and practices that proved most successful during the Battle of Ramadi and that were subsequently incorporated throughout the Teams as standard protocols.
And as you can guess, leadership precepts that work in the harshest conditions imaginable (war) are easily transferable to lower-stakes endeavors like business and even interpersonal relationships.
Hence, the popularity of this book, which explains how the authors have helped businesspeople use these hard-won lessons to create bonanzas and breakthroughs.
Additionally, this book isn’t just for people in a leadership position at work or elsewhere—it’s for people who aspire to lead in any capacity, starting with simply taking charge of their own affairs for their own benefit.
Because unless someone can assume full responsibility for their immediate sphere of influence—what’s directly under their control—and earn their own trust and confidence through thoughtful planning and effective execution that produces desirable long-term results, they’ll never be able to create or even meaningfully contribute to a group that wins.
And so I recommend you read Extreme Ownership regardless of whether you consider yourself a leader. We’ve all been tasked with leadership of ourselves by nature, our creator, or some cosmic unknown, and our ability to flourish depends primarily on how well we can execute that mission.
Let’s get to the takeaways.
My 5 Key Takeaways from Extreme Ownership
“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.”
By my lights, this is the most powerful teaching in the book.
Effective leadership requires the willingness to be ultimately responsible for everything that leads to the group’s success or failure. The moment a leader explains a failure by pointing their finger elsewhere or making an excuse, they abdicate from their position.
As the title of the book implies, the authors champion this mindset in the extreme. No matter the circumstances, they say, an effective leader always accepts ownership of the outcome and never tries to finesse their mishaps.
The authors share many examples of this attitude in action throughout the book, ranging from wrestling with administrative palaver to executing dangerous missions with unskilled and unreliable Iraqi soldiers, and the moral of the stories is simple:
No matter the reason, if we’re not getting the outcome we want, we must hold ourselves exclusively accountable, and then figure out why we’re floundering and what it’ll take to win.
Many people find this philosophy unpalatable because it invalidates their precious justifications for their failures, but the proof of the Extreme Ownership pudding is in the eating: the less inclined someone is to make excuses, the more successful they are; and the people going nowhere always have a wheelbarrow of excuses to explain why.
The crucial realization is this:
Nearly every problem has a solution. It may not be the one we want, but it’s a solution. It may not be easy or enjoyable, either, but who said it should be? No matter how difficult or daunting a situation is, there’s always a path forward. Whether we take it is on us.
“ . . . there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.”
If a group isn’t winning, it’s only because the leader hasn’t created the conditions necessary to win.
Maybe they have the wrong attitude. Maybe they haven’t developed the right plans. Maybe they haven’t assembled the right team. Maybe they’re asking people to do things they’re unwilling to do themselves. Maybe they’re more interested in assigning blame than discovering solutions. Maybe they’re weakhearted or complacent. Maybe it’s some other factor.
I remind myself of this when any part of my businesses aren’t performing to my expectations. It would be easy to pass the buck to employees who did bad work or vendors who didn’t deliver as promised, but who’s responsible for the systems used to hire those employees and vendors? Who’s responsible for ensuring employees are trained, evaluated, and reassigned or dismissed if necessary? Who’s responsible for making sure vendors are held to our agreements?
Lo and behold, it’s me in every case. And so if I’m dissatisfied with the effects I’ve created, there’s only one question to ask: What am I going to do about it? And therein lies the power of the prism of extreme ownership—it automatically orients you away from stewing about the past and fretting over the future and toward taking action to create a favorable tomorrow.
I apply this perspective to the maximum degree, too—to every effect I experience in every corner of my life, good and bad, including the occurrences that many people would say are simply “beyond my control.”
I agree that there are many forces in life that are outside my control, but this is a precondition for any game (if everything is under your control, what fun is that?), and who’s responsible for the decision to participate in the game of life? Who’s responsible for the decisions to expand that participation to include more people, activities, and ambitions? Who’s responsible for learning how to keep winning?
This approach to living is particularly elegant because it doesn’t matter whether it’s ultimately true—by simply behaving as if it were true, you’ll immediately increase your ability and potential. And that’s something that really resonates with a dyed-in-the-wool pragmatist like me.
“ . . . when it comes to standards, as a leader, it’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate.”
No matter what a person in a leadership position says or writes or even does themselves, if they accept substandard performance from people in their charge, that’ll become the new standard for the group at large. A downward drift in execution and achievement will be inevitable.
Therefore, it’s incumbent upon leaders to not only embody but also uphold the virtues and values required for winning and to communicate and enforce consequences for failing to meet those standards.
I’ve had to learn this lesson more than once in building my businesses. In several instances, I’ve allowed the wrong people to stick around much longer than I should’ve and signifincantly retarded growth as a result. In one case, I truly believe that Legion would be at least double its current size if I had fired and replaced a key employee a couple years earlier than I did, which, given the circumstances at that time, would’ve been perfectly appropriate.
This principle of getting what you tolerate applies to a lot more than business, too. We get the body and mind we tolerate, relationships we tolerate, community we tolerate, government we tolerate, and the world we tolerate. In other words, while we may not feel we’re responsible for the vicissitudes of life—disease, dysfunction, and hardships—we’re minimally responsible for tolerating them. Extreme ownership.
“Leaders must delegate the planning process down the chain as much as possible to key subordinate leaders. Team participation—even from the most junior personnel—is critical in developing bold, innovative solutions to problem sets.”
In business and life, many people become leaders by first excelling at something—by being able to personally produce outstanding results in some activity. Many of those same people then struggle as managers or directors because they can’t or won’t give up any control of plans and operations or even seek input from their team members.
Instead, these would-be leaders believe that they know best and so they seek to direct every part of every process, and the result is a group of demotivated, disengaged, and discontented people who will never perform at a high level.
The solution, according to the authors, is ensuring that everyone involved in a project has ownership of some part of it, even if it seems trivial. For example, the authors noted that the soldiers who experienced the most combat fatigue, dejection, and skepticism were the ones who were given the least amount of ownership of the planning of the operations they participated in. Conversely, the operators who fared the best mentally, emotionally, and spiritually all had ownership of some part of the plans they executed, even if it was just picking a route to travel, a method for breaching an entry door, or a protocol for coordinating with supporting aircraft.
Good leaders create understanding and buy-in by encouraging opinions, questions, and suggestions from everyone no matter their station and by resisting the urge to domineer and discourage discussion or dissent.
“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.”
This encapsulates the secret sauce of good leadership. It isn’t raw talent, skill, or confidence, but modesty, diligence, and self-awareness. In other words, the absence of ego.
A leader must maintain the willingness and discipline to conduct honest, realistic assessments of their own performance and that of their team. They must accept that there’s always someone better than them and that they always have more to learn. They must remember that, as the poet Theognis wrote, the first thing the gods bestow on those who they wish to annihilate is pride.
What’s more, great leaders keep their ego in check by holding themselves to standards that others consider excessive or unreasonable. Winning alone isn’t enough. People can get lucky and win. Can they be the best version of themselves, though? Can they embody more and more of their potential? That’s the “inner scorecard,” as Warren Buffet put it, that exceptional leaders measure themselves against, not others’ opinions on what objectively qualifies as “success.”