Extreme Ownership, How US Navy Seals Lead and Win

In Extreme Ownership, Jacko Willink and Leif Babin, Navy SEAL task unit leaders, relate military principles and tactics to business leadership.  In the past, I shared a summary of their recent book, The Dichotomy of Leadership.  Here’s a few minute overview of their original book Extreme Ownership along with some of my thoughts:

  • At the end of the day, all leaders are responsible for success or failure.  As Jim Collins shared, good leaders look out a window when there’s a success (i.e., you give praise) and when there’s a problem, you take 100% of the fault.
  • State the why when sharing goals or missions. Willink’s superiors said he’d be responsible for taking Iraqi soldiers on every mission; his initial thought was “no.” Then he understood the why.  If Iraqis couldn’t protect their own country, the US could be a permanent presence in the area.  For more on “why,” check out Start with Why by Simon Sinek.
  • When asked to do something by your leader and unsure why it makes sense, ask questions to understand.  Without understanding, it will be hard to be 110% behind the mission or goal.
  • When thinking of who’s on the “team,” look for the big picture.  In the book, one of the authors extracted his team from a mission in Ramadi, Iraq.  He led his team on a risky mission to get out of the city during the day.  In the end, they made it, but his commanding officer asked why he didn’t enlist a nearby SEAL team to provide coverage.  He admitted he was wrong and was thinking too narrowly about who was on his team.
  • Prioritize and execute.  In the book, there was a mission where it was a shit show, and many things went wrong at the same time.  As leaders, when this happens, it’s our job to be calm, prioritize, and execute.  In the book, they share the SEAL mantra of “relax, look around, make a call.”
  • When planning, to be successful, identify and mitigate risks. A complete communicated contingency plan increases the odds of success because everyone knows what will happen if things don’t go as planned.
  • Decentralize management.  Any person can manage six to 10 people.  If you or your leaders have bigger teams, break them down to this size.  Let them make decisions.  As a leader and friend of mine said many times, lead from behind and manage from the sides (i.e., let your leaders do their jobs and if they’re doing it well, stay out of the way.  If not, guide them).
  • Whether upstream or downstream, we can’t fault someone for not knowing something we didn’t tell them or answer vital questions they didn’t ask.  When in doubt, overcommunicate. 

Perfectly Confident: How to Calibrate Decisions Wisely

To help make better decisions, I just finished Perfectly Confident: How to Calibrate Decisions Wisely.  The author notes:

  • Overconfidence makes for bad decisions.  We rarely have all the information required to make a call, so we rely on our gut.  Using intuition leads to mistakes.  Instead of using confidence for decisions, use it to get the wheels in motion on an action or outcome.  For example, if I think I’m a good writer and want to launch a book, use that confidence to write the first chapter and move on from there.
  • Underconfidence creates self-limiting beliefs.  We forget others struggle.  We misjudge the time and attention others use to accomplish a goal.  For example, if learning a new language in a class setting, I may think I’m not as good as another student even though she’s just returned from a year language immersion program in another country.  Another source of being underconfident is doing something infrequently.  Try backing a boat into a landing every ten years versus someone who does it every day.  Frequency builds skill and confidence.
  • We all have feelings of vulnerability or not being “as good as.” In Perfectly Confident, the author shares that John Steinbeck said, “I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” As a not prolific writer myself, wow.
  • So, how do we make better decisions?  Make forecasts that outline the range of outcomes with assumptions, not the exact answer.  Forecasts make better decisions.  For example, if you’re estimating a project completion date, and it should take two months. Make a better decision by asking, “What’s the probability it’s finished six weeks, two months, or three months and why?” Thinking this way makes us consider multiple possibilities and assumptions instead of a single set of beliefs for the two-month target.
  • Think “which” not “whether.” In Perfectly Confident, the author shares a study where participants chose to buy a movie or not.  Next, they asked a separate group of participants who would rather have a film or the cash to buy the film.  75% presented with the choice of “whether” to buy the film.  A little over half chose the movie when presented with which.
  • Tied to the above, not in the book, I look for “and” solutions instead of “or” solutions.  For example, if I’d like to exercise and want to spend time with my son, an option is to go for a run with my son.
  • Be aware of bias.  Curb bias by involving others in decisions.  Keep in mind a crowd is typically better at deciding than a single expert.  When asking for opinions, get insight from people who don’t hold your exact argument; otherwise, you are doubling down on your preference.
  • Be confident yet know when you don’t know.  Research shows that being sure increases credibility, but if results don’t back that confidence and credibility, others will quickly fall away.  Also, being vulnerable and saying we’re not 100% certain of our decision creates authenticity and trust—balance confidence and vulnerability.
  • As a leader, be clear on standards and open-minded to new information.  Clear performance standards reduce bias.  When we’re open to others’ insights, we make better decisions.

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing

Daniel Pink is one of my favorite behavioral scientists.  I just finished When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.  In it, he shares:

  • We all have different times when we are most effective.  This is our chronotype. 
  • Most have a chronotype that peaks in the morning, have an afternoon trough, and an evening bounce. 
  • Beyond the above chronotype, there are two others:  night owl and lark.  Night owls hit their stride in the evening and are typically more creative and impulsive.  Larks believe in Ben Franklin’s early to bed, early to rise with their best hours in the early AM.  Larks tend to be stable and introverted.
  • So, how should one schedule the day?  Base it on your chronotype and plan accordingly.  For example, if you’re not a lark or an owl (which is 60-80% of the population), the morning peak is the best time to tackle focused tasks.  Do idea generation in the early evening.
  • If you’re an owl, flip the above.  Spend night time thinking critically and save the morning for creative tasks.
  • For meetings or negotiations, mornings are typically better than other parts of the day.
  • Are you having a medical procedure?  Do it in the morning.  Mistakes are most common after 3:00 PM.  At 9:00 AM, there’s a 1% chance of an error.  By 4:00, that quadruples.
  • Breaks are good.  Every hour, taking a five-minute break reduces fatigue and improves motivation.
  • Here’s the recipe for a nap which seems counter-intuitive.  Have a cup of coffee, then set a timer for 20 minutes.  If you’re like most, you’ll fall asleep in about seven minutes, get a dozen or so minutes of sleep, and have the ideal nap.
  • With projects, use a premortem.  Try to identify all the ways things could go wrong and identify ways to avoid them.  Understand the power of the midpoint.  Use the middle of a project, like a sports team down by one point after the first half, as an inspiration to bring the effort needed to get the project to completion.
  • While less a business idea than an interesting observation, in When the author shares the concept of “9-enders.” Whether it’s running a marathon or committing suicide, there’s a disproportionate number of 29, 39, 49, etc., who are inclined to do dramatic actions when finishing a decade.
  • While some life planners say happiness comes from being present, absolute satisfaction is when your current self lines up with your future and past you.

The Dichotomy of Leadership

In Extreme Ownership, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin relate lessons from war to business.  In their follow-up book, The Dichotomy of Leadership, they outline additional lessons learned. 

Below is a quick book recap and my $0.02:

  • Care for team members but know at times individuals may be sacrificed to complete the mission.  I believe in caring.  When people are going through a personal hard spot, I go out of my way to care and help.  Funerals are mandatory; weddings are optional.  On the flip side, in times like 9/11 or the pandemic, hard decisions to preserve the organization need to be made, like letting people go.
  • Spend leadership capital on what counts.  Stay out of the way and let others do their jobs.  When decisions need to be made by others, I say it is “It’s your call because I don’t want your job back.” Yet, sometimes, on a significant issue headed in the wrong way, I chime in and state what needs to happen.
  • Share “the why” not “the how.” As a leader, I share the overarching goal and the purpose but not the specific steps to achieve the goal.
  • To be a good leader, be a good follower.  The best idea wins, regardless of who’s behind the decision.  In discussions, I let others go first, withhold judgment, and seek to understand the positions and views of others.
  • Training is mandatory and should be realistic, focus on fundamentals, and repetitive.  Every Friday, I hold a training session with the Intertech Education Division’s Account Executives.  The agenda includes sharing a best practice from the last week, each covering a book summary, and performing mock sales calls.  The mock call is the core of our training.  After the call, we evaluate it.  The goal is to create true sales professionals who perform with muscle memory.
  • Plan, but don’t overdo it.  In goals, focus on the outcome and be flexible on the path to the destination.  When identifying potential goal risks and mitigations, don’t try to account for every possible thing that could go wrong.  Focus on the most likely and determine the best response.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things

In The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers, Ben Horowitz, outlines what it takes to be a solid leader:

  • Know what the organization needs and get the team to execute
  • Be honest and communicate the plan when there are problems
  • Train and care for your people
  • Realize in leadership; there are pressures and responsibilities
  • If firings are needed, be fast and fair
  • If there’s an executive who needs to go, the CEO should take responsibility for the hiring mistake and ensure continuity
  • Hire for strengths, mitigate weaknesses
  • Create an environment of engagement
  • Remove politics