Extreme Ownership, by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

I was attracted by the notion of extreme ownership because of the tendency of human beings, and me in particular, of blaming bad luck when things do not go our way. I have always been wary about these thoughts. Things like “well, this is a mistake but it was done by my co-author, so it is not my fault”, or blaming administrative work (that I had to do) for the delays on my submissions. This is not to say that I made all the mistakes. This is to say that this way of thinking is not really useful, and that understanding the problems in life and then taking responsibility (taking “ownership”) to solve them seems much more effective.

In the book, Extreme Ownership, Jocko and Leif, who were part of the SEAL team in the Iraq war and spent a lot of time in Ramadi (they were leading the team of the American Sniper), explain how they apply this concept of extreme ownership to their day-to-day operations as well as their current business consulting activities. These are principles about leadership, so they can be applied to many things in life.

There are a total of 12 principles and the structure is as follows. First, either Jocko or Leif explain a situation in Ramadi where this principle was (or should have been) applied. Second, they explain the principle in plain words. They finish the chapter with a case in their consulting activities where typically a firm has a problem and this principle can be applied.

I have a problem with this type of books, however. They are way too long. For some reason, editors must hate short books (presumably because they cannot charge £15 for them) and you end up with books that are interesting but would be a delight to read if they were 150 pages long (in this sense, Sam Harris’s last books are great, especially Free Will and Waking Up: short and to the point). I like the principles, and I particularly enjoyed the business applications (typically 4-5 pages long). But their stories about the war are long, too long. They try to be as accurate as possible, and probably some people enjoy the military jargon, but unfortunately not me. The leadership ideas are good but sometimes are lost in the long war stories that are often just tangentially related to the principle being discussed.

What are these principles? Just to name a few, obviously extreme ownership, or the understanding that it is your responsibility as a leader whether or not the project succeeds or fails. Another principle I found interesting is the leading up and down the chain of command, which prevents people from blaming the leadership in many situations. In their case, they complained about the vast amount of paperwork that they had to do to get each mission approved. This is a recurrent complain in many places. But they argue that this is because they are not providing useful information to their superiors, and acted to change that—in other words, they lead up the chain of command.

The last one that they mention is discipline equals freedom. This might sound Orwellian, but it is not. By being disciplined, which is nothing more than acquiring habits that make your life better, one gets more time to enjoy it. Eating healthy, exercising, meditating… it might take discipline but it allows you to life a better life.

All in all it is an interesting book that give great insides, in particular for those that are interested in leading, although they can be applied to many situations in life. Jocko, by the way, has a podcast where he discusses leadership: Jocko Podcast.

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