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

This is the follow up to last week’s article about the book Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin on the principles of great leadership.

5- Act decisively. Cover and move

This principle, as opposed to the previous ones, is more about the HOW rather than the WHAT (to do). When you are in the battlefield, you don’t want to go full on with a frontal assault when your enemy is entrenched in a good position, there are far more chances that you die than actually take over your enemy. So how can you “attack” someone that is in a very well defended position? Simple: imagine 2 people trying to overtake one, their best approach would be that while one covers (shoots some rounds at the enemy to keep them down) the other moves to a better position and then this other person, from a better position, starts covering for his companion who, in turn, will move to a better position until eventually one of them has a chance at taking over the enemy. This way, risk is low for them because the enemy never has a chance at using their advantage on them. How does this translate in real life and in large corporations?

In our every day lives, someone entrenched is someone that is stuck on their points of view. Maybe because of their egos, they want to be right at all costs and they want people to do things their way. Or maybe they simply see the world in a particular way which is not aligned with ours. Regardless of the reasons (which by the way you need to dig into and understand), the point is: don’t go frontal assault on them to try and change their thinking or their behaviour. You need to FLANK them. You need to “cover” your intent and “move” to a point where you have a way into their trench, otherwise they’ll attack you and you’ll lose your argument, possibly leading to a fight or worse.

I find this one particularly useful when trying to follow Office of Cards’s rule #MakeNoEnemies

Have you ever dealt with someone who was stuck in their opinions? I can almost hear the “HELL YEAH” coming out when you think about your colleague the other day, your kids, your partner with that discussion about where to go on holiday next year… it happens ALL THE TIME to have discussions with people who can’t seem to see (or care about) our point of view. If we keep pushing for it, while the other person is stuck in an opposite (or not fully aligned) position then we’ll end up arguing with them, it’s guaranteed.

To avoid this, the first step is to never openly challenge their point of view, actually to express mild agreement to what they are saying.

A- I think we should prepare the deck in this way (which you disagree with)

B (frontal assault)- no, I don’t agree because of XYZ. Or maybe no, you are wrong, this is not a good way to prepare the deck. (I hope it’s clear that with statements like these the discussion won’t end well. Let’s try cover and move)

B (covering)- that is an interesting approach, I did not see it that way. Why do you think it’s a good idea? (See, first of all I agree with them in principle, but then I am asking a question to get them to talk about why they think that way is good while I MOVE to a better position to attack their point of view)

The second step is to move to a position where I can safely make my move towards attacking the resolution in their heads and to do that, I need to get back to WHY they think what they think and work on that. So by asking questions about why they think that their idea is good, their approach would work, etc. I manoeuvre towards a point where it’s safe for me to make more resolute comments.

A (answering my question and feeling good about his idea because he sees I am thinking it’s a good one)- well, I thought that this approach was good because last time we did it this way and it worked well

B (aha! I see his point but don’t agree with it, so I need to move a little bit closer before making my attack)- oh right, now I remember and you are absolutely right, that approach worked well last time (I am moving closer by agreeing again, the dynamic of this dialogue is 100% alignment so far, don’t you think?)

B (now that I know his WHY, I have to work on it)- but, wait a second, wasn’t the goal of the deck you are referring to different? I mean, it worked well for sure, but do you think this is the same thing? It surely looks similar but we should make sure we don’t overlook some details here… (see how I mildly make a move? I still agree with him but I plant the seed of a doubt. I don’t say what is or what isn’t, I am just slightly forcing a reflection with a question, my point is that HE has to see the flaw in his thinking and HE has to change is mind, I just need to make it easy for him to do so).

A- Well, maybe you are right but still I think that approach would work (still a little resistance here)

B- You know what, I am not sure I am right either, I was just trying to make sure we tackle this right as we are tight on time and we can’t afford many reworks. How about we check with the boss? (See? I am putting myself in his team now! I use “we” so we are in the same team, which we are but if I had confronted him he would have felt a me-vs-him dynamic; also, I now defer to the boss which means my colleague and I avoided an argument; I know the boss will back my plan up so I completely defused a potential bomb, solidifying a relationship and adding more value to my boss and company). If I had taken this to the boss with my opening statement I would have surely upset A, making an enemy out of him which wouldn’t have helped either of us, or the boss, or the company.

Needless to say, to be good at cover and move you need to be the master of your ego because this approach takes a lot of time and patience and there’s no way you can get close to the enemy if you have your ego driving your reactions.

Cover and move is a great tactic and you should really think about how it could have helped you avoid unpleasant confrontations in your day-to-day.

6- Simplicity and clarity

Ironically, this principle is SIMPLE to explain, but not EASY to follow.

The principle suggests that a leader should always communicate his intent (aka the mission objective) in a simple and clear manner, so that no misunderstanding can happen. This does not mean that you should be prescriptive on everything every person around you should do, and how they should do it; it just means that your intentions, what you are trying to accomplish, should be communicated in a clear and concise way.

The benefits of this approach are many, but the main one is the reduction of confusion and noise, which in large organisations is usually so loud that it ends up being paralysing: people spend more time dealing with the noise (politics) than doing what they are supposed to do. This happens, also, when directions from the top are not given in a clear way, so people develop conflicting views on things which lead to friction, arguments, confrontations and ultimately decision-making paralysis. 

Complexity is the enemy of getting things done, so leaders should avoid generating complexity every time they can. Complexity is usually an alibi for inaction (too difficult, I can’t do it) and this happens in large organisations all the time. Just think about how some decisions require 20 people to be made, as I explain in Chapter 9 of Office of Cards, and the complexity of aligning 20 big egos and different points of view.

This is why it is key to be simple and clear when you communicate your intent, so there’s no room for interpretation (interpretation is good on the how, as we’ll see in principle 8 – Decentralised command) and do everything in your power to reduce complexity to the bare minimum.

Remember: in large organisations complexity increases exponentially with the size of the departments, so a good leader looks at everything, every process, every policy with a critical eye to make sure they are needed. If they are not, just get rid of them!

7- Prioritise and execute

This is my personal favourite. How many times do you feel overwhelmed by the amount of things you have to do? A busy day/week, work, family, your personal things… sometimes it’s really hard to keep up with everything and you feel you can’t do it, it’s too much.

Well, sometimes it is too much! And you should not worry about the fact that there is too much, because most likely not all things have the same importance or urgency. Some things may be life-death situations, so you need to deal with them immediately. Some things might have urgency in them, like filing your taxes, or renewing your passport for the upcoming trip… those take priority. Surely buying the groceries is important… or, is it? I mean, the fridge is empty but how about, instead of leaving work early and then having to work after dinner, you finish up what you have to do now, don’t stop by the supermarket and take your family out for dinner instead? Or order take-away? 

The way to deal with a long and articulated list of things to do is to prioritise them and then execute them, one by one. This way you will be dealing with one task at a time, not 23, so your mind and body will be focused on cracking that one task, then you do it and then you move to the next. 

Benefits? So many, but the most important ones are: 1) you get to actually complete something, instead of making 5% progress on 20 things, which is usually useless, you achieve 100% on one thing so that is done; 2) as you prioritised first, this one thing you completed was the most important one, so you have taken care of the life-death item on your list; 3) as you have done something, completed the most important thing on your list, you feel GOOD and energised to keep up and get going, tackling other things in your list (try that when you are at 5% on 20 items and tell me if you feel any closer to having accomplished something – if anything, you feel like you are making no progress which might make you feel even worse and thus reducing your chances of getting something done).

The trap in this principle is the prioritise part: you need to be ruthless and have criteria for this. You need to put high urgency, high impact first (i.e. health); then low urgency, high impact (i.e. taxes); then high urgency, low impact (i.e. dinner), and hopefully by now it’s time to go to bed, when you can focus on low urgency low impact (i.e. reading a book to unwind).

This is just an example, you need to develop your own approach to this but if you do, and then follow it to the letter and adjust if needed (which means, you do not make exceptions but you re-write the rule if you see something is not working). Then you execute, no distractions, and you will change your life forever, not feeling overwhelmed anymore!

“But I AM overwhelmed, it’s not just a feeling!!!”. Sadly, true. It’s not true that some people ARE overwhelmed, but it is true they think they are because #PerceptionIsReality. For those people, here is a numeric example to explain why prioritise and execute could be a lifeline and definitely a life-changing approach.

As you can see, prioritisation by impact allows to achieve higher completion rates faster, which will make you feel a lot better as you go along and drive you to get to 100%. Remember, what is important is that you prioritise first, and then execute items one by one and reject the temptation to go in parallel.

8- Decentralised command

When you are told what to do and how to do it, how do you feel? I bet not good. You feel trapped, bored, frustrated… especially if you see a better way of doing things but you are not allowed to do them your way. What if, on the other hand, you were told what the overarching goal is and you were told “now go figure something out”. Isn’t this a much better feeling? You feel important, valued, and you will put 200% effort in doing what you have to do to accomplish the mission. Of course, whoever is explaining you the objective should be there to help you figure things out if you get stuck, but isn’t that a much better environment to be in?

This is the summary of this rule: good leaders do not micromanage, the provide clear and simple objectives (rule 6) to their teams and let them figure out the details as they go along. This is not because of laziness or lack of will or capacity to do certain things, but it is for two main reasons: 1) people that are executing the mission (i.e. doing a job) may see something that was not visible during the planning phase (think about a phone sales pitch, can you follow the script to the letter? Chances are you will have to improvise a bit, and it’s much easier to do if you know that the overarching objective of this call is to make a sale, rather than having a 1000 pages script to go through that covers all possible scenarios; or worse, having your boss behind you suggesting what to say all the time); 2) by allowing you to make decisions, they free up time to do their own job which is to oversee the big picture and coordinate all moving elements, not to micromanage each single one of them.

Bonus point: by allowing people to make their own decisions (and mistakes!) you are making them grow into leaders themselves so this is a win-win scenario all the way.

Caveat: make sure you don’t allow people to make catastrophic mistakes, you need to be there to stop them if there’s a chance of disaster happening, so make sure you set a tight perimeter, but let them move within it freely.

9- Manage up and manage down

“You need to learn upward management”. This is a sentence I have been told a few times early in my career. What does that mean? Isn’t a manager, by definition, supposed to manage down to the people who report into them?

Yes, you are supposed to manage your team in the best possible way, following all the rules in this and other books about good management.

But you are also supposed to manage the relationship with the people above you, making sure they are smooth and clear.

Why would you have to manage your boss and other people senior to you? Simple, because they are opportunities, which could mean opportunities-to-bring-problems or opportunities-to-bring-solutions, which is which is a function of how you manage them and that is why this is important. Good upward management could bring more resources, more freedom, more budget, more people, more influence… all things that allow your great team to have more impact on the company, which ultimately is what everyone wants.

I wrote at length about this in Office of Cards, especially in Chapters 9 to 11, but here’s a summary:

1- Identify who are the key people above and around you that make things happen. Surely your boss, but maybe some key stakeholder, some lead of a department you support… but also enabling people like IT, HR, Finance, Legal. You will surely need their help at some point so you need to know who they are.

2- Identify what the priorities of each of this people are. Remember: we are not here to use people but to manage relationships, with the ultimate goal of benefitting the company. It’s therefore key to make sure that your intent is clear and transparent. Make sure you make 100% clear that you achieving your objective can help them achieve theirs.

3- Build solid relationships by giving (#BeAGiver and #BeOtherCentric) first. Don’t go to someone you don’t know and ask for things. You may get them, but you are not building a solid relationship this way. Your ultimate goal is not just success, it is for them to want you to succeed, they need to be your fans, not just enablers!

4- Make sure you keep people in the loop with your progress. What does a sports fan do on Sunday? They watch the game 🙂 so make sure people watch your games and cheer on when you are having issues. Communicate your progress proactively, over-communication is much better than under-communication in building solid relationships. Do weekly stand-ups, weekly digests, call people. Of course, you don’t want to spam or harass, so make everything optional for people to choose if they want to show up or not.

5- #GetHelp. This is both a HOW and a WHAT. By asking for help you get people involved in your success, they have invested time, money or political capital in you and so they will want you to win, definitely more than if they had just been on the sidelines doing nothing for you. And even more so if your victory means victory for them as well. This is the how, but the what is that #GetHelp is actually the reason why you have to learn how to manage up: to get things done you need help, support, sponsorship, and you need all these things from people who are more influential than you in your organisation. That’s why learning how to manage upward is so critical for a leader.

Bonus point: if you learn how to manage your boss, and his peers, and his or her boss… you will learn what they know, develop their skills, get familiar with that level of decision making, ultimately becoming able to take their place. Guaranteed 🙂

10- Discipline equals freedom

This one is so important that Jocko Willink decided to write an entire other book about it, the Discipline Equals Freedom – Field Manual. My advice is to check out the book but, unlike Extreme Ownership, that one is not for everyone. It’s a lot more “Jocko”, a lot more direct and it makes less compromises, so it will surely not resonate with everyone out there.

The principle though, is extremely general. What do Cristiano Ronaldo, Lebron James, Michael Phelps… and other great athletes have in common? Success? Yes! Money? Yes! Same goes for actors, musicians, writers, CEOs… the greatest in the world, those who excel at whatever they do, have success, live well, have money. Isn’t that the case? And what ELSE do they have in common? One thing, above all: THEY WORK HARD. Try to Google something like “Kobe Bryant insane work ethic” (Kobe was my hero-player when I was young) and you will know how he got to #3 all time for points scored in the NBA. Same for all the other “greats” in the history of sports, arts, and business!

So, what does Discipline equals Freedom mean? It means you have to have the discipline to work hard, to do that thing that you do not feel like doing but know you should, to follow your diet, to work out, to read, to study, to wake up early in the morning, to finish the book you started. With that, will come the Freedom you seek, the freedom to do what you want with your life. It seems a contrast, I know, but here are some examples:

  • Discipline to work out leads to better health which makes you feel better with your body and gives you more confidence when interacting with others, so you are increasing your chances of success in large corporations as confidence is a fundamental ingredient there
  • Discipline to stick to a good healthy diet, freedom to enjoy the occasional treat (had to put it there :)) but overall you feel better, have more energy throughout the day so you are more productive
  • Discipline to read that boring 50 page document you have to sign, freedom to sign it with the knowledge that you are covered and there will be no surprises down the line
  • Discipline to wake up early in the morning and read newspapers so you can make, for instance, informed investment decisions; Freedom to live better with the proceeds of those investments. Or maybe write a blog in that time frame before the sun is up 🙂
  • Bonus point for corporate environments: if people around you (aka your boss and superiors) see you have discipline on the small things, they will give you a lot of freedom to do what you want over time, this is how you gain trust. Discipline helps you build a solid reputation which means freedom and autonomy in the long run!

The key here is to define what you want to do with the freedom you gain. What makes you happy? What life do you want to live? What does success mean to you? In Chapter 3 of Office of Cards I go in depth on how to do that, because if you don’t know what makes you happy, you’ll never have the strength to make the hard decisions that are needed to get you there. Once you know what you want, then it’s “action time” and you need to do what you need to do, relying on discipline and not on motivation. Motivation comes and goes and it is unreliable, discipline is a habit and habits are something you have to control and refine.

I can think of no better way to end this post than by saying that it’s 7.20am, it’s raining, it’s 6 degrees Celsius and it’s running day for me, so I’ll put on a jacket and go for my run, rain is NO EXCUSE to skip my workout because I know I’ll hate every single step of that run, but I know I’ll feel awesome for the rest of the day  (and I can have cake at lunch 🙂) so I will go. 

Thanks a lot for reading this far and I really hope this article and this book can inspire some reflections and changes in your habits and your approach to life. I surely have changed a lot thanks to Extreme Ownership and I have seen results, so I hope it can be the same for you.

As always, please let me know if you have comments or questions!