Book Review - Extreme Ownership

By Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

Haha! I made it with 364 days without a blog post, which means it was not a full year. So I stand by new year’s resolution. Which was actually last year. Nevermind!

Today we are doing something a little bit different and moving towards shorter posts, which will allow me to post more frequently. And since I’m always reviewing my read books over on goodreads , I see no reason not to include the expanded reviews here as well.

We’ll start with a book I really looked forward to and was very disappointed by - “Extreme Ownership” by the ex-navy seals Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, which is New York Times’ Bestseller and one of the highly regarded management books from the recent decade.

This book aims to borrow techniques and approaches from the author’s (rich) experiences in Iraq and use them in the corporate world to train managers on all levels (but mostly upper management) to “LEAD AND WIN”.

Look, I get why people love this book. And by people, I mean post-9-11 young American managers in the corporate world. A competitive environment made of people freshly exposed to such trauma and two decades of war against an almost invisible enemy (TERRORISTS!) could explain why the weird tone of the book is received in applause.

In my opinion, the book suffers from a severe juxtaposition between cut-throat-testosterone-induced military jargon and the banal office politics that sound like they are taken straight from Office Space. It’s not a joke. The author could describe how increased planning was vital to resolving a deadly hostage situation In Iraq, and in the next paragraph, they explain how it is relevant to the manufacturing of toilet paper. Both in the same tone.

Believe it or not, the corporate world ISN’T a battlefield. When your company loses, you don’t DIE. If a product sucks, you simply make a new one, There’s even something to be said about the perks of failing in the corporate and startup worlds. Some even say it’s necessary to do it and fast. In my experience, your competitors today might be your ‘comrades’ tomorrow when you move to another company which pays better or has a better-fitting culture. Or is that a defection in Jocko-speak?

I’ve been hearing that at least in the GAMFA tech companies (or are they GAMMA now?) it’s becoming more and more so, with cultures like Netflix’s “dream team” that promote competition between individuals even within the company. Maybe I should read “No Rules Rules” next.

The sheer number of listeners to Jocko’s podcast should attest to probably how popular this militaristic, “us vs them” worldview is.

The presentation in the book is great - Jocko and Leif have captivating narrations, and listening to the cold openings of each section got my blood ready for action. However, as soon as the book got the ‘implications to business’ parts, I was laughing at the lack of awareness of the mismatch of tone and setting.

So, maybe just read the main intakes and highlights of the book, which are interesting, understandable, and solid. I’ll provide my own TL;DR of the book in the next section. Summaries of the book can be found online easily enough, and Jocko has a good TedTalk on the main principle.

I do believe they are the basis for every successful operation, in business, and in social activities that require coordination. I practice Extreme Ownership in my own little corner of the world and it has served me well. But I won’t say I’m ready to lead Task Team Bruiser through an accounting PowerPoint presentation or a siege of a terrorist hiding spot.

Main principles and intakes from Extreme Ownership

  • The leader is always responsible. This is the titular “Extreme Ownership.” Leaders must own their own mistakes, and avoid blaming others as much as possible, whether it’s the conditions, their teams or their commanders. If an issue occurs or is about to occur, take responsibility and try your best to make the situation better next time. When leaders take ownership of the situation they can change it, and they transition from being a ‘victim’ of the circumstances to dominating the situation.

The rest of the book is basically a derivative of this principle:

  • There are no bad teams, only bad leaders. A good leader can turn a bad-performing team into a successful one. A ‘bad team’ is performing so because of the leader.
  • Everyone on the team must believe in the mission, and that is inspired by the leader’s belief in the mission.
  • Check your ego. A leader should constantly reflect if their decisions are objective, or are they derived from an egotistic source.
  • Leaders should plan ahead (I wonder if that’s not obvious), keep plans simple, clear, and concise for everyone. When the details are abundant, it’s the leader’s job to focus on the core messages.
  • Figure out your priorities, and then act on them one at a time. Repeat.
  • Leaders should work with other teams to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes; They should delegate, build trust, and distribute the ownership of decisions among their sub-leaders.
  • Engage with your higher-ups; keep them in the loop, especially when they frustrate you.
  • Act decisively, doubly so when things are chaotic.

The last chapter contains mainly a list of the conflicting requirements of a successful leader. The chapter reads like an epic list that should be read at the end of an Officer’s Course or something like that, but it’s been two weeks and I totally forgot the main messages of it. It was eventually compiled into a sequal book named ‘The Dichotomy of Leadership’, which tells you it required some expanding upon.

Closing Notes

Many time throughout the book, at least thrice a chapter, Willink and Babin mention how they were handling ‘THE BAD GUYS’ and even counting the amount of ‘BOGIES’ they killed as a badge of honor, attesting to the success of the mission. It left a sour taste in my mouth every time it was mentioned. In my opinion, killing should not be glorified, and when it serves as a benchmark to success we should re-examine our perspective.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s nothing like it in the tech industries nowadays. At least until our Snowcrash future, in which we’ll re-institute Seppuku on failure or something like that. Making a deadline is not a life or death thing. Yet.

Phew. This took a lot longer than I anticipated. Maybe this isn’t short enough. Jocko, if you’re reading this - please don’t come bursting through my door and hit me :(

Share: Twitter Facebook LinkedIn