Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Extreme Ownership

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, St. Martins Press, 2015.

“So, there I was, knee deep in hand grenade pins…”  The authors claim that this is not a string of self-glorifying war stories, the kind that old men grow in the retelling.  But, in fact, every teaching point is illustrated with a real war story. The authors assure us that the reports are sanitized so as not to violate operational security (OPSEC). Business briefs follow the battle scenes. Again, the details are altered to protect the client. Unfortunately, that reduces these white papers to blank pages. Although the Navy SEALs are realistic, the business people all sound alike. Lacking depth, the executives and managers are cardboard characters. Despite those flaws, the teaching points are valid. 

The thesis of the book is easy to understand. Extreme Ownership means taking full responsibility for your experiential world. If your boss does not understand your circumstances, then the failure is yours: you did not make it clear enough. I was reminded of a scene in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Some thuggish architects are complaining to each other about the hero, Howard Roark. Face it, one admits. You are just mad because he doesn’t even notice you. “He’d notice me if I bashed his head with a club.” No he wouldn’t: he would just blame himself for not avoiding the club.

The other lessons are equally unarguable.
No bad teams, only bad leaders.
You must believe in your mission.
Check your ego. (In other words, control it, block it, like checking your luggage at the departure gate.)
Cover and Move means that teams protect each other, leap-frogging forward.
Simple commands are easier to carry out. Complex missions must be simplified to their essentials.
Prioritize and execute.  You cannot do everything all at once. Attempting the wrong task will cause other goals to be missed. Know what is most important and do that.
Decentralize command. It is old advice. Nonetheless, delegating authority can be a matter of life and death in an urban warzone. In every organization, span of control means that each decision-maker ideally has only about five people reporting.  I was reminded of how ships –especially warships – are run: each department depends on all the others, and each expects the others to run their shops effectively. The captain cannot do it all from the bridge. Each section is responsible for its own performance.

Plan.  This shocked me: the US Navy SEALs devote more time – much more time – to creating and presenting PowerPoints than they do fighting in combat.  As I came close to the end of the book, I had a long weekend training drill at Texas State Guard headquarters. I chatted with another ex-pilot about software development. Pilots spend as much time or more planning flights than actually flying. But software developers seem to all just bang out code with no planning. The results are all around us. If code really blew up, or if systems really crashed, programmers would do more planning.

Leading up and down the chain of command is a direct consequence of extreme ownership. It takes some finesse to lead the people above you, but it is no less necessary than leading those under your command. You are responsible for your environment. If your boss does not understand your situation, it can only be because you failed to communicate.

Decisiveness and Uncertainty are easy opposites. Leaders make decisions, usually right ones, if they are good leaders. Leaders who waver, postpone, and procrastinate are not leaders at all, but managers who are in deep water (or worse) over their heads.

The chapter on Decisiveness and Uncertainty introduces the final chapter: Discipline equals Freedom. This chapter actually goes into Aristotle’s “golden mean” without naming it explicitly. The authors run down a list of opposites and counsel moderation in all things: leader and follower; confident but not cocky; humble but not passive; competitive but a gracious loser; and so on.  Through the course of the book, the tension between opposites powers much of the narrative. In Chapter 8, the authors explain that Decentralized Command is possible only when the Commander’s Intent is communicated clearly.  

Books on management and leadership are easy to find. A book that announced radically new truths would be rare. The guidance here is not radical. Shorn of the war stories and business briefs, this might be a 20-page essay.  They are nonetheless 20 very valuable pages.

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