Book review: Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin (1/2)

The authors of this #1 New York Times best selling book are former NAVY SEALS and they have fought in Iraq, in the battle of Ramadi. Their Task Unit “Bruiser” what the most highly decorated unit in that war.

But this is not a war book. Yes, it uses war anecdotes to make points, but the points they make apply with great ease to business, and life and I took a lot out of it, so I hope this article can tease you into checking out this book. You can find it here.

This is one of the books that has inspired me to write Office of Cards, in that I felt it would have been good, for some, to see the points Willink and Babin make made by someone who has been in corporate, who uses the language and examples of life in large organisations, to make the lessons more relatable and applicable.

But the book by Willink and Babin, if you read it with an open mind, is a gold-mine of truth and suggestions of ways you can improve your day-to-day, no matter what you do in life.

This book is written for those who want to win, at whatever they do. The rules and principles listed are only good if you are in the game with a burning desire to get something out of it. They refer to “leaders” as their target audience, which in my opinion is just a part of the people who should read this book. This is really for every person with any kind of goal in life, the principles apply to everything people do and these lessons can make an impact even if you are a post office employee or a night shift hotel receptionist (with all due respect for these two professions), as long as you want to improve your life (and, but not necessarily, your job).

Drifters, with no real goal in life, will probably not like this book… they will actually not even read it because they are (cit.) “not into military stuff”. Like I said, your call, but this rules make people win 🙂

Here are the 10 rules they identified, freely described by me and with some comments for each one. I truly advise you buy the full book here though, it’s an easy read but it will give you a significantly new perspective on things. If you are into audiobooks (I listened to this book) check the Audible link here.

1- True leaders embrace extreme ownership

A “leader” (again, I will use leader as a word to keep in line with the authors but you should fill “leader” with your name every time you see that) owns everything. What does this mean? As I detailed in Office of Cards, using the hashtag #OwnYourLife, if you want to win you need to focus, and worry about, and fix, only what you can control or influence. There is no point in complaining, pointing fingers, moaning about things you have no control over. This approach is life-changing because if you own things (i.e. the outcome, even if bad, of a project; a mistake; the responsibility for hurting someone with your words or actions) then you can address it and fix it. Think about your day, starting from the one thing that really upsets you and think about what you can do to change it. Maybe a damaged relationship, maybe some person you had an argument with, or a project you were supposed to work on but aren’t, maybe a diet or going to the gym… so many excuses prevent you from doing something about those things. Stop complaining and go do something about that. Go talk to the person you argued with, take responsibility for the argument and move on. Go do the project you are supposed to do, #GetHelp if you need it. Start your diet, stop buying doughnuts and stick to the meal plan you decided to follow, it is ON YOU and no one else. This is extreme ownership, in a nutshell. It’s about behaving like a rational adult who sees the big picture and cares about that, rather than getting entrenched in small quibbles and excuses that pervade our lives. That is what babies do, are you a baby?

2- There are no bad teams, only bad leaders

Phrased like this, it may a bit extreme and I don’t know if I fully agree with that because I have seen bad teams with good leaders throughout in my career. But the reason why they phrase it like this is because they are talking to the leader, the leader who thinks that, if results are bad, it must be because the team is bad and not because they are at fault. In the context of extreme ownership, this cannot happen: if a team is bad it is on the leader to take responsibility for whatever is not working and do what is necessary to fix it. So it’s not about who is bad and who is not, it’s about what to do to stop being bad. Real leadership focuses on solutions and causes, not problems. So if you are in a situation in which you think you can’t win because you are in a bad team, stop complaining and start doing something to improve things, for yourself and everyone around you. Results and rewards will follow.

3- Mission clarity

This is a critical step for people managers and leaders to learn and master, and I find this particularly interesting when told by military people. Yelling at people what you want them to do, giving orders with no context, not spending time to make sure what you said has been properly understood… those are not good ways to lead people, even in a highly stressful situation like war where you may think there’s no time to give your subordinates the full context.

Willink and Babin make a point about how explaining what the mission is about, making sure people buy into the reasons why they are asked to do what they are asked to do, is critical for them to be motivated in executing the plan. And not only that, but this also gives them the freedom to make decisions based on information that becomes available as they progress, because if they know what the overarching goal is, they also know if a decision they make will get them closer or farther away from it.

So think about your team, or your boss maybe. Do they give you clarity on why you have to do what they say? Are you sure you understand the role of what you do in the context of the company’s objective? If you are not, you should step up and ask, make sure there’s always a connection between your work and the mission.

Without clarity there can’t be accountability and without accountability there is no ownership, which is typically what happens in large organisations.

4- Keep your ego in check

This rule stands to life and professional success like a multiplication of any number by 0 or 1. If you multiply a number by 1, which is if you do keep your ego in check, then the number does not change, so everything else you do is ok and will pay off as planned. But, if you do everything perfectly, you #PlayTheLongGame, you #OwnYourLife, you follow Willink and Babin’s rules… and you let your ego run the show, even just once, you risk of destroying everything you built. 

Your ego, your desire to have things your way, to have the last word in an argument, to have people seeing the world as you do and to do things the way you want them to be done… is YOUR ENEMY (there’s a great book by Ryan Holiday with this title, you can check this too here). Your ego clouds your judgment, things done because of your ego are things that, with a cool head, you would never do.

This is why I insist so much on my #StayCool rule, because only when you are cool and detached you can keep your ego in check and focus on the long game and how to win that. Your ego wants immediate gratification, it wants to be fed with small useless things that don’t help you in the long run, quite the opposite, they most likely impede you in your path to success.

I will probably write more in depth on this one as it’s very difficult 1) to spot when ego is running the show and 2) even when we do spot it, to control it and let our minds go back on the driver’s seat. For now, though, try to think of a case (hint: you probably won’t have to think too hard) in which you had an impulsive reaction at work. Someone saying or doing something you disagreed with, and you ending up having a useless argument and making an enemy out of this person (breaking the #MakeNoEnemies rule). Try to detect signals that led you to that moment: you probably were accelerating your breathing pace, maybe clenching fists or grinning teeth. Maybe you were perspiring a little. You know why? Because we are ANIMALS and behave like ones when we let our limbic system (ego) take control. Accelerated breathing? We’re taking in more oxygen to get ready to fight or run. Clenching fists? We’re ready to hit. Grinning teeth? A display of strength to try and dominate the other party without fighting (have you ever seen a NatGeo documentary?). Perspiring? Cooling our skin and accelerating our heartbeat to be ready to fight or flee.

You see? We think we’re so smart with our neocortex ruling our lives, and yet on a daily basis we let our animal brains decide so many things on our behalf. I call them ego, although ego is a much deeper psychological construct, because I associate ego with instinct, doing things for our immediate pleasures disregarding consequences, rather than thinking about the long game and take the high road when needed.

Beware of when ego takes over, learn how to ready your body before it happens and try to find ways to control it, it’ll save your life, quite literally.


There are 6 more rules, you can find them in the second part of this review here.