Lessons in leadership from Jocko Willink: Extreme Ownership and beyond

"Don't count on motivation. Count on discipline," Jocko Willink says on an audience Q&A episode of Tim Ferriss' podcast.

Willink is a retired Navy Seal and co-author with retired Seal Leif Babin of Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win. The two are partners in a corporate leadership consulting firm called Echelon Front (NOTE: auto-play audio, safe for work).

I first came to know of Willink on an interview-style podcast he did with Ferriss; Joe Rogan learned so much from that episode that he had Willink on his show soon after.

I know that lately with my non-fiction book reviews, I've been primarily listing the notes I took. But I took six pages of notes on this one. I'd be doing both you and Extreme Ownership a disservice if that's how I approached this.

What I'm going to do first is recommend the book. It's a quick read (I read it in three sittings, despite taking six pages of notes), it's really interesting and it's immensely practical.

In each chapter, Babin or Willink (they each wrote half the chapters) begins with a combat story. They set the stage, discuss the mission, how it was designed and executed, what went right and wrong, and discuss the principles at play. Then, in a short section, they more clearly define the principle. Finally, the chapter concludes with the principle at play in a business setting — using an example from a business their company has actually worked with.

The combat stories are interesting to me as someone who has never been in combat; I imagine they'd be interesting to someone who has served, as well. The principles are clearly defined. I've seen many of the business examples at play in companies I've worked for.

I tend to take bodies of work as a whole in my brain. These items were certainly in the book, but they also bleed into the podcasts and other writings. These are my four favorite takeaways (but again, read the book and listen for yourself). You can also scroll down to the bottom of this post for photos of my notes if you want more.

When the team understands the mission, they can better carry it out. This isn't a new idea, but it is something that leadership has long been resistant to. Jump to around 50 minutes in this Richard Feynman lecture — when the military conscripted a bunch of engineering students to punch holes in cards at Los Alamos, it was slow going. But when Feynman got clearance to tell them what they were doing and why, they went from solving three problems in nine months to solving nine problems in three months, inventing new processes and programs along the way.

Too often, the people doing the work are asked to just do the work, without any insight into the larger goal. In other words, they don't have a look at the big picture and are just checking off something on their to-do lists.

Be willing to tell your frontline workers why you want them to do something. At the very least, you give them a sense of purpose within the larger context of what you're trying to accomplish. You might get a lot more, though: you might get better ways to do things. You might get insight into other ways to accomplish your goals. You might get insight into other things you're also accomplishing without realizing it.

The more people you have invested in the goal, the more likely you are to be successful.

I think enough time has passed that I can talk a little about the time earlier this year when I thought I was going to be unemployed. I had received a month's notice that my department was to be eliminated. A little less than two weeks later, an asshole with a gun shot up a gay nightclub in Orlando, and instead of waiting until 9 a.m. to post to our news sites, when I was scheduled to work, I delayed my run by half an hour to post it before 7 a.m. A few days later I got a call that the company had decided not to eliminate my department.

I'm sure that the one action I took did not save the department. I'm sure, however, that it helped. I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't understood our mission as a company and what my role in accomplishing that mission was. I don't post news to check "post news" off my to-do list, I do it because it helps us achieve our goals. If I didn't understand that, I might have just waited until it was time for me to clock in.

Departments within the same company need to find a way to work together without blaming each other for shortcomings. I've encountered this problem in every company I've ever worked for. Some of those companies have been hugely successful. Some have failed.

In every case, the problem has been communication. Specifically, a failure to communicate a reminder that different departments are not competing, trying to keep each other down. We are working toward the same goal. It seems sometimes like Department A is trying to sabotage Department B. In all likelihood, it really is that Department B has never told Department A what the problem is how Department A could better help Department B — and conversely, ask if there's a way for Department B to help solve the problem, with different communication or other practices.

Leadership works in two directions within the chain of command: Down and up. Leadership is a personality trait more often than it is a function of title. If you have a leader among the rank-and-file, you'll want to make sure you listen, even if you're a great leader. A higher rank is not always an indicator of the best idea for every situation.

In about 4 of every 5 shifts I work, I have rank. I'm good at a lot of things. Sadly, delegation is not one of them, but I'm working on that. One of the things I have definitely gotten better at, though, is recognizing strengths in others and either leaning on them for the things they're strong at, or asking them to teach me those things.

If you want to change the way things are done, pick your battles and earn the right to be heard. This is hugely important in every organization, not just companies. Every organization has its faults, and many of them are operational. "That's the way we've always done it" is a common answer for why things are done the way they are. That doesn't mean it's a good answer.

When you see something that could be done better, it makes sense to speak up. But first, you must show you understand the mission: why you're doing the thing you're doing and why it's been done that way for so long. You must be a voracious worker — someone who has earned the trust of those who have the power to change things before you'll really be heard up the chain of command.

And if you make noise on one thing, you might not get heard on something else, so pick your battles. You don't want to be seen as a complainer, someone who just hates all the processes. At some point, you'll just be the boy who cried wolf.

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Willink also has his own podcast. I personally don't enjoy it: his delivery is very dry even if the information is interesting; it's not for me. I know other people who enjoy it.

Photos of my notes: Pages 1-2 | Pages 3-4 | Pages 5-6

Political disclaimer: Willink and Babin are both veterans. They served their country with honor. They support the missions given them. They also follow Department of Defense guidelines n the way they write about war, soldiers and the U.S. mission. You do not need to agree with them to get a lot of their work. You do, however, need to be willing to look past your own prejudices, whether you agree with them or not. Either way, I don't believe either of them is guilty of blind boosterism.

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