BOOK REVIEW: Run your business like a Navy SEAL

Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALs lead and win, by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

The US Navy SEALs are arguably the most accomplished special forces in the world. They have achieved remarkable successes in some of the most dangerous assignments. Unlike the popular vision of military success, the total destruction of everything – living and inanimate – they have restored violent, chaotic areas, to relative peacefulness for the citizens.

To achieve this amidst an atmosphere of constant morbid danger, requires leadership at a level rarely seen elsewhere.

If your image of a military leader is an opinionated dispenser of instructions, and the soldiers as automatons mindlessly executing, you are still stuck in the 19-century model. Such an army would be no match for dedicated well-armed, mujahidin fighters who are willing to die just to kill more Americans and infidels.

So, what has this got to do with business?

Everything. Using the same leadership techniques, drilled and rehearsed by leaders in the SEALs, you will be a significantly better leader in any context.

If you are sceptical, read on and evaluate your own performance.  

Win the war within

The first element is "winning the war within". This starts with the skill from which the book takes its title: 'Extreme ownership'. The one consistent attribute that the best SEAL leaders all possess and that makes them exceptional, is that they take absolute ownership (or extreme ownership), not only for what they are responsible, but for everything that impacts on their mission.

When your subordinates aren't doing what they should, extreme ownership precludes you from blaming them for the failures. The 'blame-game' is simply unhelpful. If you take ownership for the success of the project, subordinate's failure is your failure for not ensuring that they don't fail.

The project and the team are more important than any individual, and must be given precedence in all your decision-making. If underperformers cannot improve, you, as the leader, must make the firm call to end their engagement and hire others who can do what is required.

Nothing is beyond your ownership as the leader. Nothing. Of course, that does not imply you do everything, that is not possible, but you own the problem and must stay on it until it is solved by the appropriate person.

"The best-performing SEAL units had leaders who accepted responsibility for everything. Every mistake, every failure or shortfall – those leaders would own it," the authors report.

What follows from this is the understanding, critical to great leadership, that there are "no bad teams, only bad leaders."

It's what you tolerate

A team can only deliver exceptional performance if the leader ensures that the team works together toward a focused goal that they all understand. He enforces high standards of performance, and a continuous desire to improve.

When it comes to standards, it's not what you preach or how well you preach, that makes a difference. It is what you tolerate. If you tolerate poor performance that becomes the new standard.

As the leader, it is imperative that you understand and believe in what you are asking others to do. If you don't believe it or understand it, taking extreme ownership requires that you clarify it for yourself first. Only when you are comfortable with the reason 'why', will you be able to share it with others.

It is job number one of every employee to ensure that their leader is successful. If you do not believe in the project, exercise the ownership principle of "leading up and down the chain" and talk it through with your superior. If it is the wrong thing to do, it is highly unlikely that she would want to do it. Extreme ownership is not only down the chain, but up too.

Humility is not weakness

"Ego clouds and disrupts everything." It clouds your ability to plan, to take good advice, and to accept constructive criticism. The most difficult ego to deal with is your own. Throughout the book, the authors describe exceptional people as "humble". This humility is not weakness. These are exceptionally aggressive, well-trained warriors, who make decisions to kill or be killed in seconds. It is the humility of knowing that you cannot and do not know everything. Not about situations, and not about yourself.

"When ego clouds our judgment and prevents us from seeing the world as it is, then ego becomes destructive," the authors explain.

The first "law of combat" is to "cover and move". It is the way SEALs move through dangerous areas with speed - one or some provide protective cover, while others move forward. It is a metaphor for teamwork in business. Everyone within the greater team is crucial (or shouldn't be there,) and must work together to accomplish the mission. They must, as mentioned, deeply understand what they are expected to achieve and why, so they support one another for the common purpose.

If they violate this principle and operate independently, or worse, work against each other, the results can be catastrophic.

To get the team to "cover and move" requires a common understanding, and the key to this is to simplify as much as possible. When plans and orders are too complicated, people may not understand them. When things do not go according to plan, as inevitably happens, complexity only compounds the issues that can spiral out of control into total disaster.

Plans must be communicated in a simple, clear, and concise manner. And all involved must be encouraged to ask questions that clarify when they do not understand the project, or the key tasks they are being asked to perform.

It is the leader who must encourage this communication as part of 'extreme ownership'.

And lastly, discipline

"The best SEALs I worked with were invariably the most disciplined." Personally, and professionally.

Discipline is paramount to ultimate success for any leader and any team. "Instead of making us more rigid and unable to improvise, this discipline actually made us more flexible, more adaptable, and more efficient", the authors report.

"When things went wrong, and the fog of war set in, we fell back on our disciplined procedures to carry us through the toughest challenges on the battlefield."

The idea behind this book is that the principles critical to the SEAL's success on the battlefield, can easily be translated for business management. This book is intended for experienced managers and is, simply, the most useful book I have read on the subject. Unsurprisingly, it made number one on the New York Times bestseller list.

Readability         Light --+-- Serious

Insights                High +---- Low

Practical               High --+-- Low

Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on strategy and implementation and is the author of 'Strategy that Works' and 'The Executive Update.' Views expressed are his own.

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