Extreme Ownership

Extreme Ownership; How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin (Macmillan, 2018 revised version, 320 pages)

Review by Stephen Lepper. October 24, 2020

Both authors of Extreme Ownership are veterans of the U.S. Navy’s elite Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) Teams and share leadership principles developed during their time as officers in Naval Special Warfare units to demonstrate that they apply equally to leaders in combat as well as in business. 

The book provides examples of the authors’ leadership principles in action, largely during the Iraq War, focusing on efforts around Ramadi, Iraq. Willink and Babin were members of Task Force Bruiser, where Willink served as the commander of the unit and Babin worked for him. Post-navy, the authors co-founded Echelon Front, a leadership training group and the book contains examples of their experiences during their time as leadership consultants.  

Current and former sailors will not be surprised to see that the authors’ big focus is similar to the navy’s philosophy regarding commanding officers. In the navy, a commanding officer is responsible for everything that happens in their unit. The authors’ concept of “extreme ownership” is essentially the same, but applies to all leaders at all levels, not just the senior leader in an organization.  

Willink and Babin state that leaders must not cast blame on others. They must develop solutions and solve problems. Leaders must be responsible and accept ownership for everything that happens in their world. To help readers develop as leaders, the authors have identified twelve leadership principles, each with its own chapter in the book and further grouped into three sections: Winning the War Within, Laws of Combat, and Sustaining Victory.

In each chapter, either Willink or Babin introduce one of the principles by providing an anecdote about their time on a mission or during training that highlights the importance of that principle in combat. They then go on to briefly explain the principle with another example, all to illustrate how the principle applies to leaders in any business or organization. 

Generally more than half of each chapter is devoted to the anecdote from combat operations in Iraq, which illustrates why the principle is important and can mean the difference between life and death in the field. But the anecdotes are compelling reading and make it easy to get started on each chapter. The authors avoid excess military jargon, so even those not familiar with the navy or the military in general can still clearly understand what is happening in the stories.  They also emphasize the examples of the principle rather than dryly discussion each–one of the best parts of the book and what makes for an easy read.

Extreme Ownership is a great book for leaders at all levels, but is recommended especially for junior leaders or those who are new to being supervisors. 

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