Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win (2015) by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin is a self-help type book about leadership. Each chapter begins with a short recollection of the Navy Seal leaders’ time in Ramadi, Iraq that illustrates a specific concept of leadership. Then they outline this principle more explicitly before applying it to the business world. Willink and Babin have apparently become consultants for business managers and presidents, and they take examples from these consultants to further illustrate their principles.
First, the good things. The principles, although they seem simplified, make sense. They gave me something to think about, and I think if people really do follow them, they probably would become better leaders.
This book also included a relatively interesting, if general, look into what it was like to be fighting in one of the most violent areas in Iraq. I also learned a bit about what Navy Seals do in an urban war. The most captivating stories about war in Ramadi involved possible friendly fire. It was clear how easily mistakes could be made that would involve situations even more tragic than being killed by the enemy.
I am very impressed by our military, especially the elite forces. One day when I’m sure I was procrastinating, I happened upon a show about Navy Seals in training. What they go through just to become Seals is incredible. I am even more impressed because I am not a good swimmer. Their work ethic and comfort in the water and other extreme circumstances is amazing. However, on the other hand, I am something of a pacifist. I cannot glory in the death and destruction of war, even when the death is of our enemies. I understand that when an enemy soldier is killed, Navy Seals are potentially saving other American soldiers and innocent Iraqi citizens. However, the dehumanization that is required for this celebration of death is beyond my capability. While reading this book, I found myself concerned about the Iraqi homeowner who just had a team of Seals break into his home in the middle of the night to use it as a Sniper position. How much is his home going to be damaged? Is he in danger now? It was obvious I did not have the same mindset as the authors.
I sometimes got the feeling that Willink and Babin were milking the aura and awe that surrounds Navy Seals for their own benefit. Some of the stories felt a little self serving. There were pictures of Chris Kyle (the American Sniper) as well as a specific story about him. It didn’t help that the writing was not great. Some of the descriptions felt awkward or cliche. In addition, both the war stories and corporate examples were very general. The people involved, the specifics of the company or the mission were always kept vague. They said they did this to protect Seal tactics and the privacy of their clients, but it also made the book less interesting. It’s the details that draw you in. When every leader of every company they work with is a nameless person with little to no personality besides smart and hardworking, it’s hard to get too attached. In addition, the recountings of Willink and Babin’s training sessions with corporate managers felt more like a self-serving restatement of their leadership points than real interactions.
Finally, the book was very repetitive, from the descriptions of the Seals and their enemies, to the many restatements of their main principles. Because it was very clear cut and simplified, the knowledge could have been imparted in fewer words.
One lesson from the seals is that if you don’t wake up immediately when your first alarm clock goes off, then you lack discipline. In my defense, I set my alarm clock ten minutes early, so when it goes off, I can immediately get out of bed and turn on the heat. And then I immediately get back in bed and wait for it to warm up. Definitely reasonable, but perhaps not very impressive to a former Navy Seal who voluntarily jumped into freezing ocean water for hours at a time. Although there were some interesting points that would improve leadership, this book was far from perfect.
The chapters in this book were split up to showcase the rules of leadership:
-The leader is always responsible (leaders must always “own” the mistakes and shortcomings of their teams)
-Everyone on the team must believe in the mission
-Work with others teams to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes
-Keep plans simple, clear, and concise
-Check your ego
-Figure out your priorities, and then act on them one at a time
-Clarify your mission/plan
-Engage with your higher-ups; keep them in the loop–especially when they frustrate you
-Act decisively, even when things are chaotic
-Summary of the contradictory qualities of a leader.
You can read all of my reviews on my blog.