At Conductor, I manage our customer success teams. Nobody dies if I make the wrong decision. When I consider risks, they’re usually financial, not life-threatening. The missions I plan aim to achieve outcomes like increasing a customer’s organic traffic, not rescuing hostages from enemy territory in a foreign country.
I am not a field general, but the best lessons I have learned about leadership came from two Navy SEALs who fought and led soldiers in Iraq.
That’s because the principles of good leadership are universally applicable, from battlefields to boardrooms.
What Is Extreme Ownership?
“Extreme ownership” is the practice of owning everything in your world to an extreme degree. It means you are responsible for not just those tasks which you directly control, but for all those tasks that affect whether or not your mission is successful.
The extreme ownership philosophy was formalized by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin in their book, Extreme Ownership. Willink and Babin served as Navy SEAL officers in Ramadi during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Upon returning from Iraq, they found themselves consulting with businesses in the private sector. They soon learned their philosophy was broadly applicable to leaders of all kinds and thereafter formed a consulting firm, Echelon Front.
Extreme Ownership covers 12 leadership principles. They’re all incredibly valuable, but here are the three that have most influenced the way I lead my team:
1. No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders
This was one of my favorite stories from the book. It focuses on two boat crews in Navy SEAL training. The two teams are at the opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to winning and losing the boat races, and the drill instructors make one simple change: the leaders. I won’t spoil the ending, but you probably know where this is going.
I love this story because it created a deeply motivating insecurity in me. Could another leader take over my team with the exact same resources and do a better job? When I think of underperforming teams, I remember this maxim.
2. Check the Ego
The ego can motivate, and it can also destroy. It pushes us to perform at a high level, but it can prevent collaboration when “personal agendas become more important than the team and the overarching mission’s success,” as Willink and Babin put it.
This simple lesson helped me silence my reflexively defensive reactions when I receive criticism. It also put me in a position to understand when others are letting ego cloud their judgment and how to navigate those scenarios.
Putting your ego in check is the kind of work that is never fully finished, and I have to keep up the effort constantly for the good of the entire team.
3. Prioritize and Execute
As a leader in a rapidly growing tech business, I am never lacking in things to do. Even as I’m writing this, a dozen other tasks are calling my name. That level of constant demand on your time and attention can be overwhelming. Eventually, it can lead to paralysis.
It’s key to develop effective tactics for dealing with a mountain of competing priorities, which this chapter of Extreme Ownership does. One tactic that I have found especially helpful when I’m overwhelmed is the following mantra: “Relax. Look around. Make a call.”
Why Is Extreme Ownership Effective?
The essential principles of extreme ownership should be the bedrock philosophy of all leaders. Obviously, there are all kinds of effective leadership tactics that different leaders can and will employ, but extreme ownership provides an excellent base for many different tactical approaches:
Extreme Ownership Makes Blaming Others Unacceptable
When things go wrong in a team environment, there are a lot of people you can point to and blame: sales didn’t properly set expectations; my client wasn’t bought in; the product isn’t good enough, etc. Those all may be valid contributors to a failure, but extreme ownership means you own everything in your world. When something goes wrong, you own it, figure out what happened, and build the solution.
Extreme Ownership Inspires Creativity
One of the most dangerous aspects of assigning blame is that it brings the problem-solving conversation to a dead stop. When you take extreme ownership, you know that success in the mission is all that matters. You must find a way despite all obstacles.
Extreme Ownership Is Empowering
It might seem like constantly owning more than your “fair share” of blame could feel defeating or even depressing, but I have found the opposite to be true. Acknowledgement and acceptance of a failure can help you truly understand what happened. Accepting the honest reality of a situation is the first step toward figuring out a solution.
When you acknowledge the failure, you send the following message to people around you: “I own the responsibility for what happened, I know why and how it happened, and I have a plan to fix it.” Failure is okay so long as you learn from it.
How Can I Implement Extreme Ownership?
Extreme ownership is maximally effective when the whole team has adopted it. For our customer success team at Conductor, extreme ownership created a shared language and set clear expectations for how we would govern ourselves.
Furthermore, as a leader, you are responsible for developing the skills of the people who report to you. That means helping them learn the way of extreme ownership.
I originally came across extreme ownership via a podcast, and then I read the book. I wanted to get my management team on board, so I pitched the idea of attending a conference run by Willink and Babin to our VP of people. The VP informed me that we didn’t have it in the budget (read: I failed to convince him of the value) and that I would have to find other means to share this knowledge.
No budget? Good. That meant I got to learn how to build my own leadership training curriculum.
Here is how I implemented extreme ownership, starting with my management team:
1. Learn the Content: I closely read each chapter of extreme ownership to get a feel for the content, highlighting and taking notes on key concepts.
2. Build Study Guides: I then went back and reread each chapter while building study guides. There were three goals in mind for the study guides:
- Verify that the person had read the chapter by asking basic questions about the content.
- Guide their understanding based on what I felt was most important for them to know about the principles. This meant posing lot of “why” questions.
- Get people to apply the principle to their role, to the business as a whole, and to their personal lives.
3. Meet and Discuss: Roughly every two weeks, we met and discussed the specific principle for that week. You should be leading the discussion, but remember that it is meant to be an open conversation guided by questions from the week’s learning. Two important logistical items:
- Make sure peoples’ answers are actually written out. Part of successful implementation means knowing that they know. Conversations would clearly struggle when one member had not “done the homework.”
- Have people train their teams. Once we were about halfway through and people had bought in, we decided that we should roll out the training to the members of their teams. These people are individual contributors, but we could see that there would be benefits to introducing shared language. Spreading extreme ownership would also help cultivate young leaders.
On my team, implementing extreme ownership has created leadership at every level, and I am confident that it has helped team members in both in their careers and their lives. I’m not an expert in extreme ownership, nor am I a perfect leader. I still fail, but when I do, extreme ownership is the framework and philosophy that gets me back on track.
Joe Taylor is senior director of customer success at Conductor.