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Extreme Ownership and Embracing Failure

Updated: Nov 14, 2020

Extreme Ownership works, unless you're dealing with Darth Vader.

Extreme Ownership is a leadership concept introduced to me by a book of the same name written by a retired Navy Seal named Jocko Willink. It occurred to me recently that while this is a good personal development rule to live by, it also works really well as a stress test for your job. I'd highly recommend giving Jocko's Ted Talk a listen and reading the book, but the main thrust of Extreme Ownership is the that the key to success, to happiness, to getting what you want, is to take responsibility of whatever come your way.

The first chapter of the book opens with a story about the very worst thing that can happen during any combat mission: friendly fire. During this particular battle due to a series of miscommunications, a group of friendly Iraqi soldiers ended up storming a building filled with SEAL soldiers thinking it was controlled by enemy combatants. In the ensuing firefight, both sides ended up with wounded and an Iraqi soldier fell under SEAL fire. After the mission, Jocko was informed that his boss, and his boss's boss would be coming to investigate the event, and to assemble his entire team.

The Debrief

Jocko knew that these types of investigations usually have one purpose: find someone to fire. That someone is typically whoever is most deserving of the blame. So Jocko did what he was supposed to. He gathered as much information on the prep for the mission as possible; Who was responsible for what communications. Who was ordering the movements for both the Iraqi troops and his own SEALs at each stage of the operation. It became clear that there were mistakes made, but there was no clear fault point that he was able to uncover, and the clock was ticking. Then, it hit him. "Despite all the failures of individuals, units, and leaders, and despite the myriad mistakes that had been made, there was only one person to blame for everything that had gone wrong on the operation: me."

As the senior officer in charge, Jocko ultimately decided that the buck stopped with him, and that's exactly what he told his boss, and his boss's boss in front of his entire team. After this declaration, he then analyzed each part of the mission and showed everyone how this could've been prevented. Did he get fired as expected? The opposite. He gained respect from both his superiors and from his squad, which increased his effectiveness as a leader. He was able to prevent further friendly fire incidents using this experience and the resulting analysis.

Passing the blame to anyone else negates our ability to prevent the failure from happening again in the future. Each time you emphatically take ownership of a problem, even if there's others you could potentially use as a scapegoat, you get a little closer to finding the path to success. Passing the blame is equivalent to passing your ability to find the solution.

So what does this have to do with Star Wars? I'd like to hone in on the response by Jocko's superiors when he took ownership. When he chose to take full blame for what happened, they could've made Jocko an easy target for an early retirement, and put the whole incident behind the SEALs. Instead, they recognized his act for what it was: leadership of the highest order. They supported Jocko and his team's learning from failure. Rather than punishment, they chose encouragement, and this allowed them to fight far more effectively. I'd like to contrast this leadership style with that of Darth Vader in episode V (bear with me).

Poor Captain Needa

In that movie, an imperial officer by the name of Captain Needa was faced with a mission should've been his to win: catch a tiny freighter with a destroyer that was larger, faster, and more heavily armed. The only reason he didn't was due to some quick thinking by Han Solo, that allowed him and his friends to escape against overwhelming odds. Rather than stammer excuses, Captain Needa immediately takes the weight of his team's collective failure to capture Solo and says, "I shall assume full responsibility for losing them, and apologize to Lord Vader personally." He could've blamed the radar guy, the gunners, or anyone else, but he decides to shoulder the blame himself. How does Vader reward his subordinate's honesty? The very next time we see poor Needa, he is collapsing to the ground after being force choked by Darth who mockingly says, "apology accepted."

Needa displayed extreme ownership, and is rewarded with death. While the majority of us are unlikely to face these exact consequences, the treatment we receive at work or at home might be closer to Needa's experience than to Jocko's. It's clear that the SEALs supported Jocko's extreme ownership with a culture that embraces failure as a necessary step on the path to success. Next time you're feeling "choked" up at work or at home, you should first ask yourself if you're truly owning your success. Find places in your life where you're blaming others for your failure to act, and eliminate them. Once you've done that, ask yourself what support you're getting from your team, and if its more Darth Vader than SEALs, consider looking for a change.

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