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Extreme ownership: The winning principle of the U.S. Navy SEALs

November 12, 2015

It’s early morning in the Mallab district of Iraq. Dust fills the air from the tanks rolling by and powdered concrete from nearby walls pulverized by machine gun fire. U.S. Navy Seal commander, Jocko Willink gets out of his armored Humvee. American and friendly Iraqi forces have been engaged in a fierce gunfight all morning and Jocko has arrived to the scene after receiving not one, but two, calls for the quick reaction force units--meaning they need back-up. Jocko knows the calls mean his seal teams are in serious trouble.

Getting out of the Humvee, Jocko walks towards a marine gun sergeant standing outside the building. A tank in the middle of the road points its gun towards a building. What’s going on? Jocko asks. He’s told there are enemy forces inside. A unit of allied forces had tried to take the building earlier in the morning but came under heavy fire. One Iraqi soldier was killed in action. The Americans retaliated with heavy gunfire all morning. Jocko is told that the marine is now coordinating an air strike that will blow up the building – and everyone inside it.

But something doesn’t feel right to Jocko. Why are there Iraqi allied forces in the area when they weren’t supposed to arrive until hours later? And where is the Seal sniper team, which is supposed to be close by but has not reported their location during the mayhem?

Jocko tells the marine to stand by. To the stunned look of the sergeant, Jocko and his second in command proceed towards the building where enemy forces are waiting. A huge concrete wall encases the building. Jocko moves towards the door that is slightly ajar and, M4 rifle at the ready, kicks it open. To his surprise, there is one of his Seal Platoon Chiefs staring him back in the face.

Everything is suddenly clear. This was a blue-on-blue… a fight between friendly forces. In the early morning hours, the Iraqi allied forces had moved into the area before their instructed time and before U.S. forces had secured it. Not knowing who was in the building, the Iraqi forces had tried to take the building in which the U.S. sniper team had held up. The U.S. sniper team thought they were under attack and fought back, killing one Iraqi allied soldier and wounding others. When the Iraqi forces retreated, they called in the Americans for back up. Believing the house to be infested with enemy insurgents, the Americans had come within minutes of launching a deadly air attack on an entire team of Navy Seals.

It was all one brutal terrible mistake. And in the world of U.S. Navy Seals, a blue-on-blue is the worst possible mistake you can make.


But Whose Fault was this?

The situation above is a true story from the Iraq war. It is a scene described in Extreme Ownership, a book written by decorated former U.S. Navy Seals Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. This event exemplifies the book’s core principle: the mindset of extreme ownership.

While the rest of the mission had been a success, Jocko felt sick to his stomach from what had happened. One Iraqi soldier was dead and some of his men were wounded. His superiors were equally furious. They demanded to know what had happened and several were on their way to question Jocko’s unit. Looking through the detailed reports for that day, Jocko saw that there had been many little mistakes that had led to that day’s failure.

When everyone had assembled in the room, the silence was deafening. Jocko got up in front of everyone and asked: “Whose fault was this?”

The room was silent. His superiors looked on, curious as to what would follow. Then, the Seal that had mistakenly engaged the Iraqi soldier spoke up. He explained how it was his fault for not positively identifying the target before engaging him.

Jocko nodded but then said, “No.” He turned to the room again: “Whose fault was this?”

Several more voices shout out and other Navy Seals took responsibility. “Wrong,” Jocko answered again. “Whose fault was this?”

Seal after Seal owned up to the way they contributed to the failure, only to have Jocko shoot it down. Finally, Jocko spoke to the room.

“It was my fault,” he said.

The room was staring at Jocko. As commander for his unit, Jocko explained how it was his overarching responsibility to ensure that everything within the unit functioned properly, that protocols were understood and communication channels were open. While there were a myriad of little failings that contributed to the day, as leader, it was ultimately his role to ensure that the team was ready to plan and execute the mission successfully. The blame was squarely on him.


Cultures of Ownership

Jocko’s acceptance of responsibility in that moment is a good example of a leader taking extreme ownership. It is the kind of action in which we can all find a little inspiration.

Extreme ownership is a powerful mindset, whether in the military, in business or in your personal life. Not only is it an integral component of leadership excellence, it is also a necessary ingredient in developing a culture of high performance. Teams that perform at a high level consist of individuals who are willing to step up and own their mistakes. Unfortunately, extreme ownership is not a philosophy to which it is easy to subscribe.

Most of us adhere to “conditional ownership” – that is, we are willing to take responsibility in a situation if others are also willing to do so. When something goes wrong, we are often willing to take partial ownership – but not all. We tell ourselves that taking full ownership isn’t “fair” and we “shouldn’t” have to because others also messed up. But this misses the point.

As Jocko notes, the best leaders don’t just take responsibility for their job – they take responsibility for everything that impacts their mission. After all, it is the job of a leader to create the conditions of success. Likewise, it is our responsibility to create the conditions of success in our own lives.

When Jocko took full ownership of the failure in Ramadi, an array of positive consequences followed. His genuine acceptance of the blame was immediately received with respect from his team and his superiors. The move built trust and had a cascading effect: suddenly, his followers were emulating this kind of extreme ownership throughout all of their work, making the entire team stronger. Imagine if this kind of ownership was embraced all over the organization in which you work today.

Admittedly, it is not always easy to embrace this mindset – it takes courage and a removal of ego to do so. However, in Extreme Ownership, Jocko and Leif provide a compelling case to try.



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