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The 1 Thing Extreme Ownership Doesn’t Tell You About Accountability

War is ugly. The fact is that bullets whizzing past your ears are enough to make cowards of nearly all of us, but the mentality of a leader on the battlefield is pivotal in steadying the troops and completing the mission.

Your business is no different, and there are many parallels that can be drawn between the decisions your make that affect your team and clients, and the extreme pressure of leading troops into a warzone.

In today’s video, we’re discussing what “Extreme Ownership” by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin doesn’t tell you about accountability.

Stand Up:

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 the mission.”

Jocko Willink and Leif Babin are ex US Navy Seals who now work as leadership consultants – bringing all their experience forged in the heat of battle into the business world. Remaining strong, disciplined, and level-headed in a situation is something that applies to any leader.

“Extreme Ownership” is a book bringing their military skillsets across into a corporate setting, acting as a memoir for their national service while at the same time applying core principles to everyday life.

The book may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but there is no doubt that it’s a must read for anyone looking to lead from the front, to be that shining beacon of light that motivates a team and spurs them on to do and be better.

Lesson 1 – Be Accountable

“A team’s success depends on the leader’s willingness to take blame for failure.”

The origins of this first lesson date back to 2012, when Willink was leading a SEAL task unit in Iraq. All of a sudden, his squad takes heavy fire and one of his team loses their life. He later learns that what they thought was an enemy attack was actually friendly fire from another nearby unit – an absolute tragedy. As the ranking officer, what was Willink’s next move?

Well, he knew that ultimately, as the leader, accountability for what had happened rested on his shoulders - the buck stopped with him. Leaders are human, and leaders make mistakes. By owning up to his level of responsibility, he retained his rank and the respect of those in his command – his superiors understood that the best leaders learn from their mistakes, however big or small.

Navy SEAL training is actually designed to weed out poor leaders, who blame their team or the situation when the worst-case scenario happens – it’s a human reflex to alleviate the burden of guilt and the pressure it puts on oneself. Successful aspiring Navy SEALs are those who not only admit fault, but who actively seek out advice and counsel from their superiors to correct their mistakes – using them as a learning experience so they’ll never happen again.

The big takeaway here is that nothing in the business world is equal to losing a solider under your command. If Willink can take ownership, then why can’t you. The attitude of a leader naturally filters down to those in their team – if management won’t admit their mistakes, then the workforce won’t either. Both the good and the bad are opportunities to grow and learn, so putting your hand up and receiving praise as well as reprimand is the key to setting the standard for your team, and showing them an example of what it is to be a leader.

Lesson 2 – Prioritize and Execute:

“Identify priorities and take action on them one at a time to remain efficient when the pressure mounts.”

The Navy SEALs have a mantra – “relax, look around, make a call.” Say you’re behind enemy lines, and a soldier under your command falls and breaks their leg. Now, a wounded soldier is something that puts the whole team at risk, as you’re no longer capable of moving at pace as a group. To make matters worse, there are enemies blockading your only escape route. Where do you go from here?

This actually happened to Babin. He recounts that he didn’t panic, and summed up the situation as a sum of its parts – each being assigned a priority that ordered which would be addressed first. The first point of call is to decide on what problem to work on first, and in this case, Babin decided on his team’s safety – administering treatment to the wounded soldier as well as performing a headcount to make sure the whole team was accounted for. Stepping back and slowing things down mentally provided the direction and focus needed to take stock of the current situation, and eventually getting his team out unharmed.

The parallel in the business world is mistakenly making hasty decisions based on mounting tension – and not identifying the highest priority item. Take the time to pull things apart and think about each issue separately, then stack them mentally in order from highest priority to lowest priority. Only then can you stand concentrating your resources on executing your plan of attack.

Lesson 3 – Pre-Planning:

“Effective leaders mitigate risks before a mission or project begins.”

The book describes a situation Babin found himself in regarding a mission to rescue an Iraqi hostage, where just before setting out he was told the target was guarded by machine guns in a bunker surrounded by improvised explosive devices. Having learned that the risk of failure of the whole operation had risen exponentially, what was Babin’s response?

Thanks to his Navy SEALs training, he had already included these potential eventualities during his pre-planning process, and was mentally equipped to deal with them. Babin’s attention to detail and the fact that he had discussed the plan and all possible outcomes with his squad meant that they were able to mobilise without any further delay.

Being in a position of management means being across every aspect of a project – not only the ins and outs, but all the risks and hazards associated with it as well as how to mitigate their effects. Odds are that you’ll encounter roadblocks along the way, so there really is no better preparation than to take the time to think about the worst-case scenarios and have a game plan to combat them should they arise. Focus on what you can control – it’s not future events, but how your team reacts to future events.

What It Doesn’t Tell You:

So what “Extreme Ownership” touches on, but never fully explores, is how transparency feeds into accountability. Each of the 3 lessons taught by the ex-Navy SEALS only work when you commit to fully sharing the information at hand with your team.

Just think about it for a moment. The key words here are informed choices. You can’t expect your team to make the correct decisions in their work if you don’t level with them – it’s just like heading into battle blind with no reconnaissance.

Respect is earned, not bought. The fastest way to get on the right side of those you’re responsible for, and staying that way, is full transparency. As the parameters of a project change, it’s important that the team as a whole is notified so each person knows their role and course of action for addressing the issue.

Taking responsibility for mistakes only has a positive outcome when there is full disclosure. Likewise, prioritising issues under duress doesn’t work if you keep them all in your head and don’t share the next steps with your team. And pre-planning is a bit of a futile exercise if your team isn’t kept abreast of what pitfalls they may encounter throughout the project.

So, to sum it all up, “Extreme Ownership” instructs you on how to do just that. It’s amazing to see that principles vital to human survival during war can be interpreted from a human Synergistics point of view – that Navy SEALs training can directly influence workplace culture in a positive way, and build better leaders and more efficient team dynamics.

The one glaring omission however is the importance of transparency in leadership. Just remember, anything you choose to keep to yourself today, may undermine your authority and erode your standing within your team when the information sees the light of day in the future.


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