21 Leadership Lessons Learned From Reading Extreme Ownership

“The only meaningful measure for a leader,” Jocko Willink said, “is whether the team succeeds or fails. For all the definitions, descriptions, and characteristics of leaders, there are only two that matter: effective and ineffective. Effective leaders lead successful teams that accomplish their mission and win. Ineffective leaders do not.” 

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Leadership and leaders are a hot topic. Talk to anyone on the street and they want to be a better and more effective leader. Not everyone will define good leadership the same, but all want to be effective. All want to win. 

I’m little different. I want to win at work, at home and in every area of life. I’m willing to take extreme steps to avoid losing, and to secure a victory. I want to exude drive, discipline, and focus. In short, I want to be the leader Jocko Willink and Lief Babbin describe in Extreme Ownership. 

Ask my wife and she'll tell you how obsessed I am with this book and Jocko’s podcast. I love their philosophy and take on leadership and am compelled to share a glimpse into why with you here. 

What follows is a list of twenty-one things I'm learning from both sources.

  1. Discipline equals freedom. This starts each day when the alarm clock goes off. In many ways, it’s the first test of the day, it sets the tone. If you get up, you win. If you don’t, you fail. Discipline starts with the little things and is the difference between good and exceptional.
  2. Check your ego. The most difficult ego to deal with is your own. 
  3. Own everything around you. Take responsibility. Look at yourself first whenever trouble arises. Your team not performing well? It's your fault, own it. Rather than blame others, figure out a way to better communicate so they understand. Instead of complaining about your boss, take ownership of problems and lead. Support your boss. Take responsibility for communicating in the right way.
  4. Be humble. Admit shortcomings and failures. Be willing to admit when you’re wrong or at least that the potential for being wrong exists. "Winning in daily battles," Jocko said, "gives you the opportunity to deflect credit, show your humbleness in victory and show your ability to lead. Which all help you in the long-term fight to achieve your goals. Losing a battle gives you the opportunity to generously cede your position, admit your wrong, which both display humbleness, and display your ability to follow. Winning or losing isn’t as important as how you react to winning or losing." 
  5. Believe what you say. If you don’t, ask questions until you understand and find belief in what must be done. You can't expect others to buy-in to an idea you yourself don't believe in.
  6. Explain the why behind things. Help people understand not just what you want them to do, but the goals and reasons why. Help them understand the intention. 
  7. What you tolerate is more important than what you say. "If substandard performance is accepted," Jocko said, "and no one is held accountable—if there are no consequences—that poor performance becomes the new standard."
  8. Never be satisfied. Always strive to improve and build that mindset into those you lead. There are no finished products this side of the grave. 
  9. Go on offense. It is always better to go on offense than to sit back and play defense. Be proactive rather than reactive.
  10. Cover and move. "Work well with others," Jocko said, "Support them and help them win. Make them part of your team. Stay close enough, physically and relationally that you can move to support and help one another."
  11. Simplify as much as possible. Complexity compounds issues when things spiral out of control, which they will.
  12. Detach from the situation. "Detach yourself," Jocko said, "when you start getting worked up and ask yourself, 'why?' then regain control of yourself." Detachment is a common theme on the podcast, one that sounds both difficult, and rewarding. 
  13. Prioritize your problems and take care of them one at a time, focusing on the highest priority first.
  14. Empower other leaders to go get it done. Give simple, clear, concise orders that are easily understood by everyone. Allow people to take initiative and make decisions. "They must know you have their back," Jocko said, "even if they make a bad call, as long as the call was made in an effort to achieve the objective."
  15. Develop standard operating procedures. 
  16. Have a system for planning. Have a repeatable checklist of all the important things they need to think about.
  17. Make decisions. Be decisive. Be aggressive.
  18. Don’t burn bridges. "Nothing is gained by this." Jocko said, "The future is unknown, and you should always do what you can to maintain lines of communication, bridges intact and reinforced if possible. Do not pursue a course of action that can not be undone, reversed or manipulated in the future."
  19. Don’t be emotional. Don’t lose control of them. If you can’t control your emotions what can you control? Take control of your emotions. "They don’t get a vote," Jocko said. Impose your will upon them; discipline, mind control, and drive. Don’t let them control you, control them.
  20. Be the best at everything you do. Put in the time, energy and effort required. Hustle hard, and outwork everyone.
  21. Listen and seek to understand what other people tell you. 

This is the man I want to be. These are the principles I want to fuse to the very core of my being. I want them to ooze out of me like sweat during a workout. 

Why am I drawn to these principles? Why do they suck me in like a moth to a flame?

The simple answer is that they reflect the biblical worldview and scriptural principles. God’s word calls His people to behave and respond to the world around them in the same way. They are an ideal worthy of our pursuit and one I want to run after.