I first heard Jocko Willink on the Tim Ferriss Show. I’ve also heard him on the Joe Rogan Experience, Sam Harris’s Waking Up podcast, and again on the Tim Ferriss Show. None of these specifically covered his book with Leif Babin, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win. The Tim Ferriss and Joe Rogan podcasts were more like general conversations about life. The Sam Harris podcast addressed foreign policy and Islamic terrorism.
Despite liking Jocko as a podcast guest, I wasn’t particularly inclined to read his book, largely because something seemed “hokey” about the combined themes of battle, leadership, and business. But recently I realized I needed to cultivate more leadership traits to achieve some longer-term life goals. Jocko’s book came to mind. I was still skeptical, but because I had heard Jocko as a voice on my favorite podcasts so many times and because he seemed like the kind of person whose judgement I could trust, I read the book over the course of January.
I would generally recommend this book to anyone. I wouldn’t push it as a must-read, life-changing experience, but I’d recommend it to anyone interested in reading about leadership, or looking for a framework to help reevaluate their life and performance.
It’s not a big time commitment. Even though I spent a month reading it, I read it slowly and took notes. There’s a little less than 300 pages, set in a medium-sized font. The book is well organized, and written plainly.
It's organized into three parts with four chapters per part. The first covers personal traits required for leadership. The second part covers key concepts to bring a team's performance to its full potential. The third covers “how to sustain victory.”
Each chapter covers a single topic in the same pattern: an anecdotal tale from either Jocko or Leif’s experience as a SEAL, a summary of the principle the chapter is devoted to, and a pertinent “application to business” story from either Jocko or Leif’s experience running a management consulting and leadership firm.
The table of contents includes:
Part I: Winning the War Within
1: Extreme Ownership
2: No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders
4: Check the Ego
Part II: Laws of Combat
5: Cover and Move
7: Prioritize and Execute
8: Decentralized Command
Part III: Sustaining Victory
10: Leading Up and Down the Chain of Command
11: Decisiveness amid Uncertainty
12: Discipline Equals Freedom
While each chapter is important in its own right, the first and last likely best serve as encapsulations of the entire book. The first chapter, which shares the title of the book, stresses the importance of taking responsibility for every aspect of your performance, either as a team leader or team member. The authors summarize the principle as, “the leader must own everything in his or her world.” If you make a mistake, you need to admit it. If your boss or superior or leader gives you a direction that you don’t understand, you have a responsibility to ask for clarification (that includes scenarios where you just don't understand why the direction was given). If your team makes a mistake, you need to first ask yourself what you could have done to prevent it, and pass along any valuable insights to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
The final chapter carries a title that I’ve heard Jocko use as a phrase in repeated podcast appearances, “discipline equals freedom.” He asserts that using discipline and doing the right thing as efficiently as possible leads to increased freedom and creativity by freeing up resources. He discusses how his unit standardized and perfected every routine task that they could, both to leave slack for when things go wrong, and to help people see how their tasks fit together, so they could understand when those tasks needed to be rearranged.
The concepts behind Extreme Ownership are simple. Putting them into practice can be hard. This is why keeping the concepts simple seems important — so you can be mindful of them.
As I said before, I was initially concerned that the war anecdotes would distract from the concepts of the book. I thought they would either read like war propaganda, or feel entirely foreign to my experience as an office worker. I quickly came to think these anecdotes were critical to the book. They seemed authentic. They came across as genuine accounts of mistakes made in battle that were entirely applicable to the lesson of the chapter, and to life in general. This really is the key to the success of the book: it clearly and honestly discusses patterns that can be used to guide your decisions in complex, uncertain events.