This week I read Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. Looking at the initial notes I had this to say about the book.
I’m not expecting too much from this book but it should hopefully be an easy read regardless. In general, I’m reading it because I’m interested in leadership and ownership as general concepts. In the day to day corporate world there’s a lot of ass covering and people hiding from responsibility. Would be nice to see an alternative.
I laid it out in the first sentence, I wasn’t expecting too much and I didn’t receive that much. The book itself is simplistic and one dimensional. Every US solider is a hero. Every Iraqi Mujahudeen is a villain. The chain of command is sacrosanct. Everything is sacred and just. You can kind of get this from the cover as well which should have given away some of it.
The prose itself is repetitive to the extreme, the book follows a laboured format that is repeated ad nauseam. There is a “War Story” where the authors get to thump their chests a bit. This is then attempted to be instilled into a catch all “principle” and then, quite fittingly for an airport business book, there is an “Application to Business” section. In this sense, the authors are attempting to establish themselves as leadership guru’s which I cannot fault them for in today’s age. Some of the instructions do feel a bit trite however.
The prose and overall reading experience aside I’ll try to distil what I took away as the key messages. It it is the height of arrogance to engage with the presentation and not the underlying ideas so I’ll leave aside any further critique here.
The book is based around the concept of “Extreme Ownership” which can be loosely interpreted as “owning everything required to achieve the objective even if it’s not your ‘job’”. In this it’s a welcome anecdote to a lot of the ass covering that does happen in the modern world. If you practice Extreme Ownership you can never argue that a failure isn’t your fault because by definition everything is your fault.
The viewpoint is interesting. Whilst in some situations it could be incredibly valuable it also could be incredibly harmful to an individual. The unspoken sentence that isn’t really repeated throughout the book is the alignment with the “mission” itself. That is, would it be worthwhile to practice “Extreme Ownership” over something that you fundamentally disagree with?
As such, whilst I agree that in general people taking on challenges and trying to get them done is a good thing I am not sure I can agree with the viewpoint as a blanket statement. There are some things that are just completely outside of your control. In this I fall more towards the Stoic mindset of not stressing about the situation but instead focussing upon your response to the situation. The advice expressed is very good tactical advice once you have already determined the direction you’re going. It can’t help you on the direction though.
The rest of the book covers a series of concepts which are important in this approach. Of these, the most important ones that were iterated were:
- Work Together (“Cover and Move”)
- Prioritise and Execute (under uncertainty)
- Decentralised Command
- (Extensive) Contingency Planning
The first take away is that it’s important to keep things simple. Keeping things simple means that there is less risk that someone will screw things up. Complex plans are too hard to execute upon, by keeping things simple the actions themselves are de-risked which will often lead to a better outcome.
I think this can be broadly applied to pretty much everything. It’s always better to keep stuff simple.
Work together - Self explanatory
Prioritise and execute - This one is for the perfectionists. You’ll never be able to do everything and you must also act under uncertainty without perfect information. This is a key point that most armchair observers should always internalise. In these situations it’s impossible to know everything and there are often substantial constraints placed upon the overall outcomes. You can’t just do everything and instead your must focus your attention one what you can do.
This is something that I struggle with, it’s a question I should continue to ask myself. Am I working on the highest priority task?
Decentralised Command - This is something that as someone in a management responsibility I’ve been thinking about more lately. Decentralised Command means trusting the people underneath to act accordingly.
What I didn’t actually realise before, and do now, is the key benefit of this is that it frees you up to think about challenges on a different level. If you’re always down in the mud dealing with tactical problems you’ll miss the bigger problem. This is something that I’ve been guilty of in the past and that I need to get better at. Being able to take a step back and look at the situation from a different angle is a key part of what I can do.
I think the ultimate question to ask myself in these scenarios is: “What can I bring that no-one else in my team can?” There’s no real value in me doing someone else’s work for them. Instead, the value comes from being able to take a step back and do the work that, by virtue of my knowledge, position and experience, only I can do.
Extensive Contingency Planning - This one also resonated. I think in too many scenarios things are left up to chance. The authors outline an approach to planning out extensive contingencies for all manner of scenarios and how this actually gives freedom to work. By planning out the different scenarios and contingencies and having a plan on how to respond it enables greater confidence in decisions as you can quickly adapt them and change your approach if the conditions warrant it and new information comes in. This is valuable. Something I’ll need to think about more both in my personal life and my professional one.
Finally, the book finishes with a section on Discipline with the message that Discipline equals Freedom. This message is an interesting take away and I believe it’s been included as a counter to the “hippy free spirit” style of action where people are all about avoiding hard work.
The authors outline how by remaining disciplined they can give themselves greater control over their surroundings and do the things that they need to do to live a fulfilled life. By being disciplined they can continue to dedicate the work towards their goals, whatever they may be. In doing so, they become more free.
I’m interpreting this as if you have the discipline to take care of the little shit on autopilot then it will free you up to focus on the big stuff. However, if you don’t have the discipline to take care of the little stuff then you’ll never get the time/attention to work on the big stuff. In this case, discipline does equal freedom as without it you’ll be overwhelmed by all of the little details in life.
Overall, it’s an okay book. It’s a good reminder that planning, discipline and leadership still have a place in the world and that you can’t abdicate your responsibility. Whilst it’s trendy to talk continuously about empowering autonomous teams to achieve objectives this doesn’t lessen the need for proper leadership, if anything, it strengthens it. Leaders must clearly articulate their vision in such a way that people can execute without continuous monitoring and micromanaging.
Overall, I’d give it a 3/5.