25 Dec 2019
Extreme Ownership is the best book I've read on leadership and management. The core of the principles stems from the elite military unit called Navy Seals and the experiences they've had during their deployment in Iraq. All the principles listed in the book are directly applicable to any client I have worked with previously and any management consulting firm as a whole. The extreme nature of these principles is what makes them so attractive to me: everything is your responsibility, you have no excuse. If your leaders expect time-consuming reports, it's your fault that you do not explain your work enough; if your troops made a mistake, it's your fault that you did not explain the operating procedures enough; if you are short on resources, it's your failure of securing sufficient resources by explaining why they are critical; if you think your mission is absurd, it is your responsibility to seek the understanding within yourself or with your leadership. Below I summarize the key principles from the book.
1. Extreme Ownership. The leader is always responsible for any outcome - not the unfortunate circumstances, not the incompetent team members, not anything else. 2. No bad teams, only bad leaders. One of the authors brings up the example of Navy Seals training teams, where the team #2 was the obvious top performer while team #6 was a systemic laggard. When the captains of the two teams were instructed to switch, an amazing thing happened: team #2 became the second-best, while team #6 became the top performer. 3. Believe. The leader must deeply believe in the cause of the mission in front of him. If he does not believe in it, he will not be able to lead his team, who itself might be doubtful or skeptical about the team's mission. Thus, the leader must do everything to understand why the mission is important. If he cannot arrive to this understanding himself, he must seek clarification from the higher ranks. As it is shown in a few examples, the straight-forward high-level objectives of the military generals or the CEO might be completely non-obvious to the front-line troops, and they must be diligently explained. 4. Check the ego. Personal ego may not stand in the way of the team achieving its goal. Healthy competition within the organization is normal, but the troops must always remember that the true enemy is out there, not within your own team. Beware that the team members who cannot get along with each other, no matter how valuable and talented they might be, are toxic to the cohesion of the team and must be let go. 5. Cover and move. This is the key principle of Navy Seals in the combat: have other units/team members cover your move, then secure a position and cover others, letting them move as well. This is essentially the teamwork: team members must support each other and cover each others' backs, especially when the other units are highly vulnerable. 6. Simple. Any plan must be simple enough for the frontline troops to be able to understand and refer to in the stressful situation. It is the responsibility of the leader to convert/upgrade complex and ambiguous plans into simple, easy-to-remember instructions. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. 7. Prioritize and execute. In the midst of the battle, too many urgent requests may require the leaders' attention. This can easily be overwhelming and debilitating to the leaders' decision-making. The key here is to prioritize and execute. Find out the most important/impactful priority and execute. Once it's resolved, find the next most-important one and execute on that. This is the algorithm for effective fire-fighting. 8. Decentralized command. The junior leaders in the team must feel comfortable taking the lead and make decisions within their area of command. In order for this to be successful, the overall objective of the mission must be clear, the standard operating procedures and the boundaries of their decision making must be explained. Decentralized command makes the team decision-making more effective, as a single leader, especially if located remotely from the frontline, is not the best decision-maker simply to the lack of context that the frontline leaders possess. 9. Plan. Having a plan is always better than not having a plan. The landscape will change, the plan will have to adapt or change altogether. But having a clear path to the objective that the team can refer to in case of uncertainty is always productive. 10. Leading up and down the chain of command. Good leaders must remember that they must lead not only down the chain of command, but also up the chain. This means that the communication with the upper leadership must be flawless: they must be always aware of the situation on the ground, they must understand what resources are necessary to the frontline troops. On the other hand, the instructions and critical information from up the chain should be swiftly and clearly forwarded down the chain of command, so that the person does not become the informational roadblock. 11. Decisiveness amid uncertainty. This is the only principle that I do not fully agree with, especially that it contradicts with Ray Dalio's principle of waiting to come up with better decision. The authors argue that it's better to be decisive and make decision amid uncertainty than to wait and hope that the crisis will resolve itself. 12. Discipline equals freedom.