The Navy SEAL School of Business Leadership
Leadership is one of the most challenging – and essential – parts of running a successful business.
Who better to learn it from than one of America’s most elite military units, the Navy SEALs?
That is exactly the type of wisdom that Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s book Extreme Ownership delivers. They spent years putting their lives on the line in the most dangerous areas of Iraq. For them, leadership wasn’t a matter of income and market share; it was life and death.
When Willink and Babin retired from the SEALs, they distilled the skills they learned on the battlefield into applicable lessons for business.
Think you don’t have it in you to be a great leader?
Principles You Can Apply in Any Industry
Extreme Ownership is based on universal principles which you can apply in any industry. The lessons shared are timeless.
You might not think you’re a natural leader, or you’ll never quite figure this stuff out, but give the tips below a try. You just might surprise yourself!
Take Responsibility for Everything
If you want to be a great leader, get used to this simple phrase:
“It’s all on me.”
This is the essence of Extreme Ownership, and the inspiration for the title. The authors quickly discovered that the best leaders were the ones who took responsibility for the outcome of every mission – good or bad.
This sounds unfair at first blush. It’s only natural to blame your competitors, employees, or the economy when things go wrong. But being a great leader means taking 100 percent ownership of the outcome. Especially if it’s a bad one.
From this moment on, decide to look in the mirror next time something goes wrong. If an employee breaks protocol, find a better way to communicate your expectations. Shipping snafu? Why not see if you can negotiate a better arrangement with a different supplier?
Taking responsibility is the only way to reflect as a leader and grow. And when you take ownership of every outcome, you create a culture that permeates through every employee. People get proactive about making things happen – and honest about their mistakes.
As Willink and Babin say: “There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.”
Get Your Ego in Check
Even the best leaders make mistakes.
One reason why they’re great is because they own up to their shortcoming and make plans to improve. For every great leader out there, there are countless others pretending they’re infallible.
Refusing to let go of your ego, according to Willink and Babin, clouds your judgment. Your employees have a tough time relating to you because you’re pretending to be someone you aren’t (perfect). It also closes you off to the possibility that someone else might have a better idea to improve.
Assess your weak point. It’s one of the best ways to move forward. Even if you’ve been on a hot streak lately, you can’t afford to get complacent.
Sometimes, being a great leader means being willing to follow. Stay approachable to employees, who often have a more nuanced perspective of what day-to-day business is like. If they have a great idea to make something better, credit them publicly and run with it!
Believe in Your Vision
A great leader must believe in the mission at hand. According to the authors of Extreme Ownership, your team can pick up on even the slightest doubt or hesitation.
Without that unshakable belief, effective leadership becomes impossible. Why should someone else believe in the mission if the person in charge – the motivator and delegator – does not?
Step one is getting absolutely clear on your vision for the business. Consider why you get out of bed every morning besides just paying the bills. Whom do you want to serve? What kind of impact do you dream to make?
This vision can and will change over time as your business evolves. That’s natural. The important thing is to have a precise objective in mind for now. Print it out and tape it to your wall by your desk. Look at it daily to remind yourself why you’re doing what you do.
Once you’re clear on your vision, take some time to share that with your employees at every level. You don’t have to get into every technical detail. But conveying a big-picture snapshot will drive them to perform better. Once they understand the why behind what they’re doing, it’s easier for them to get motivated and feel empowered that they’re doing something important.
Move and Cover
One of the most important SEAL military tactics is move and cover. This describes how part of the team advances their position while the other lays down suppressing fire. Then, once the first half has advanced, it’s their turn to cover while the others move.
This is the essence of teamwork when the stakes are life and death. It can help you in business as well.
Extreme Ownership emphasizes the importance of decisiveness. SEAL team leaders must be willing to make hard decisions, often without as much information as they’d like. They are biased toward action.
Think about how you make your business decisions. Do you pull the trigger on instinct alone? Or do you dawdle about every little detail without ever following through?
Willinck and Babin recommend a middle ground. Do what you can to get the key information you need and cover your risks, then make the call.
There are always unknowns; you’ll never have 100 percent of the information. But a bias toward action (once you’ve done a worst-case analysis if things go wrong), will teach you things about your market and customers you’d never learn otherwise.
Finally, remember that not acting is a decision too. There are consequences; sometimes it’s the wrong call.
Prioritize and Execute
Sometimes the demands of running a small business can feel overwhelming. Obligations pull you in a million directions. Not to mention other important things like family, friends, and sleep!
Your to-do list is a mile long. Yet you only have a limited amount of time and energy to spend on it. How do effective leaders handle this task?
Extreme Ownership recommends identifying your highest-priority task. You might have plenty of urgent, but not really important, tasks to deal with. Pick out the urgent and important ones for guidance where to direct your focus.
Once you pick one task to do next, give it all of your attention. Either lead your team personally or delegate it to the appropriate person, and don’t stop until you see it through. Then you can move on to the next highest-priority task.
This strategy is dead simple, but effective. It will help you navigate the chaos that comes with running a business.
Give Others a Chance to Shine
Great leadership requires trust from everyone who follows.
You earn that trust by taking ownership of the outcome, getting your ego in check, and trusting others in your organization to fulfill their roles.
Willink and Babin argue that the leader’s primary task is to work himself or herself out of a job. By empowering other leaders to delegate and execute tasks, you’ll give them the chance to build invaluable leadership experience.
Once your junior leaders and managers practice enough, they’ll be able to train other promising employees to take their jobs as they move up.
Stop trying to do it all on your own. You’ll just drive yourself crazy running around the office all day, sending emails and memos but never really getting anything important done.
Instead, divide up your employees into smaller teams. Extreme Ownership recommends four or five people per team, with a clearly designated leader in charge. Fill them in on their role and the bigger picture. Then get out of the way and let them work.
Remind everyone that when one team succeeds, they all succeed. You’re all in this together!
Discipline Is Freedom
This sounds like an oxymoron.
Isn’t discipline, with all its rules and structure, the exact opposite of freedom?
Not at all, according to Extreme Ownership. The authors argue that the first step to leading others effectively is to learn to lead yourself.
If you sleep through your alarm every morning and get lax about your workout program, that lack of discipline bleeds over into your work life. Little moments of being undisciplined add up; you’re subconsciously telling yourself it’s okay not to live up to your standards.
This makes trying to lead feel inauthentic. How are you supposed to direct others when you can’t even direct yourself?
Fortunately, discipline is something you can practice. The SEALs see it as a muscle you can flex. It starts all the way back in boot camp, with rules like having to shave every day and make your bed.
Practice discipline every day, both in your professional and personal life. It might seem constricting at first. But keep it at, and you’ll have more time and mental energy to get creative when the situation calls for it.
For elite soldiers like Babin and Willink, great leadership meant surviving another night. The stakes aren’t quite as high for you, but they’re still extremely important.
No matter where you stand right now, this is something you can learn and improve. Take some time to evaluate how you’re doing and explore ways to work the principles of Extreme Ownership into your business.
Do you consider yourself a natural leader? Why or why not? What’s the best leadership tip you’ve ever heard? Leave a comment below and share your experience!