Chronicling both heroic and tragic war stories, Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin had the potential to be just another good war-focused book destined to fall short of illuminating a novel facet of business leadership. However, we were relieved to find that our book of the month avoids that snare.
After serving in the Iraq War as commanders of SEAL Team 3 Task Unit Bruiser, Willink and Babin teamed up once again to coauthor a book like none we’ve read before. Extreme Ownership opens by retelling in great detail the events that lead to the accidental killing of a friendly Iraqi soldier by a fellow Navy SEAL. After reflecting on what went wrong and who was at fault for this deadly mistake, Willink ultimately comes to the conclusion that, “Despite all the failures of individuals, units, and leaders, and despite the myriad mistakes that had been made, there was only one person to blame for everything that had gone wrong on the operations: me.” Strong start.
So, what was our final reaction 300 pages later? Happily surprised.
While Extreme Ownership starts off with a bang, we were uncertain if it would be able to avoid the classic pitfalls found in many military leadership and business leadership books. All too often, military leaders assume that lessons learned in the fast-paced, high-intensity world of battle will naturally translate to the civilian world and, more specifically, the business world. Further, the typical business book is dry, uses hand-picked examples, often trades heavily in conjecture and unsubstantiated claims, and stays too high-level to be readily applicable to real-world business scenarios. Extreme Ownership artfully dodged all of those usual literary ailments by starting each chapter with an enthralling story that gets the blood pumping and prepares the reader to fully absorb the lesson and the business application that follows each high-stakes anecdote.
Lastly, and perhaps most surprisingly, we learned more about how to lead ourselves than how to lead others. So much so that the beloved American aphorism, “the buck stops here” would be an apt replacement title. This is a mindset that can be overlooked in the office but should stay at the forefront for each businessperson to achieve the highest levels of personal and professional success.
All in all, Extreme Ownership proved to be the non-business business book we didn’t know we needed by exemplifying the power of shifting the onus of teamwork onto those truly responsible for success or failure: the leaders.