At the beginning of my career as an engineer, I was under the delusion that I wanted to end up in management. As part of planning that career path, I turned to books for advice and lessons on leadership. Most of those books drove home the need to be a strong leader while at the same time being fuzzy on the specifics of what a leader actually was. In those books, a leader meant leading. Due to this circular reasoning, I quickly gave up reading business books. Then, I tried to learn on the job what leadership meant. Leadership meant leading by example. Again the circular definition confounded me, and at that company, the example was every individual for themselves. That environment was toxic, and I eventually left. It seemed that leadership was some intrinsic quality of A type people, and that introverts like me would never understand what leadership was. Then, I heard an episode of the Joe Rogan Podcast with a retired Navy Seal talking about leadership. He and his buddy/business partner wrote a book on the very same subject. For me, it was one of the best podcasts of 2015. Soon after, Jocko Willink started his own podcast, the creatively named Jocko Podcast. At the end of episode one, I was hooked, and it was time to get the book.
Extreme Ownership by Leif Babin and Jocko Willink does what most of the texts that I read failed to do. They define leadership. This book describes what a leader is and how to be one. The lessons aren’t new or groundbreaking, and the authors even say so in the afterword (page 286). What, then, made this book succeed where the others have failed? It is not the originality of the concepts. No. It succeeds because it is not a book about the self. It is about teamwork. Other books use teamwork as a path to individual success. Extreme Ownership focuses on the mission, on the team’s victory. Mr. Babin and Mr. Willink integrate the leader as one part of the group. In fact, they explicitly say that without a team, there is no leadership (see picture below).
My years in industry have shown me that management is not for me. So, why read this book? Because it is more than just leadership lessons; it is a master class in character. On the pages, there are lessons for being a good person. That’s a strange sentence to write because I’m not a fan of the self-help genre. Extreme Ownership is not a self-help book, but applying these lessons will improve your life. Hell, by just applying the title of the book – Extreme Ownership – you will take charge of your life and take responsibility for your actions. You contributed to the team’s success or failure. The extreme part means that you do this regardless of any excuses. Read the book and listen to the podcast to understand this concept in more depth. Babin and Willink never say it explicitly, but taking the book as a whole, a good leader is one of solid character. While this is marketed as a book for business and the professional world, leadership is for everyone in all aspects of life. The principle of Leading Up and Down the Chain of Command” (Ch. 10) is intended to show how leaders aren’t just managers, but this principle can be applied to anything.
Each of the 12 chapters is dedicated to a particular aspect of their leadership philosophy, organized into three parts. The first part is a story from their time in service that demonstrates the need for that particular leadership trait. The second part is a conceptual lesson on what that trait is and why it’s necessary. Finally, they give another story that draws on their experience as business consultants to show how the lessons are universally applicable. This structure works well for me because it introduces the concept, explains the concept, and translates it into an action to which I can relate. By revisiting it three times from three different perspectives, each concept is given more than a cursory description. This is an effective method of reaching the largest audience with their message. Anyone can pick up this book; it isn’t filled with corporate jargon and motivational yet empty platitudes.
When I think of Navy Seals, I think of toughness and discipline. It is that last aspect that is most needed to apply the lessons of this book. For me, I don’t think the discipline aspect was stressed enough. This may be because discipline is to these gentlemen as water is to fish, it’s so ubiquitous that it’s an after thought to them. The final chapter is where it is emphasized as part of sustaining the gains you have made. But from my reading and from listening to the podcast, discipline needed more emphasis. The lessons seem easy but are deceptively hard to implement. This is why they’ve included so many examples. Also, this is an easy read. One could knock it out in a sitting or two, but I’m going to recommend against that. Read a chapter and then put the book down to really think and digest that lesson. It’s well written, and the stories are compelling, which could lead to moving to the next chapter without processing what the authors are trying to say. If you want to read it for the stories, you won’t be disappointed, but make sure to go back and re-read. I’ve read the book straight through twice, and the momentum of the stories didn’t hold up the second time through. This allowed the lessons to take center stage, and I definitely got more out of it on the re-read. As I prepared for this review, I would dip into individual chapters to make notes, and each chapter stood on its own as a reference. I recommend reading straight through the first and second time, then use each chapter as a reference for the concept you’re studying. But these are small quibbles that in no way diminish the book.
To oversimplify, this book is a lessons learned review. Each chapter shows how Mr. Babin and Mr. Willink earned their knowledge in the most extreme of human conditions, and each chapter displays the immediate consequences of leadership. I highly recommend this book. Everyone is a leader, and this book can help bring out the best in your character. It has helped me be a better leader in my professional and personal life. If you liked this review, you know the right thing to do. Get after it!