What it Means for a Leader to Take on "Extreme Ownership"
Updated: Jun 4
Photo: Jocko Willink (left) and Leif Babin (right)
I've written before about "extreme ownership" and how passing the buck (i.e., blaming others), making excuses, and not taking responsibility can derail a leader.
In this post, I'd like to delve deeper and talk about what exactly it means when a leader takes on an "extreme ownership" mindset and practice.
Here's an example of a courageous leader (at the time, Jocko Willink was the Task Unit Commander of SEAL Team Three's Task Unit Bruiser; he's now a retired U.S. Navy SEAL officer) who accepted responsibility for his team's mistakes and offered to resign.
Below is an excerpt from Jocko's TED Talk (2017). I've included it, without editing or summarizing it to show just how POWERFUL it can be when a leader is BRAVE and WILLING to do the right thing. Obviously, as a Navy SEAL, Jocko is brave in the literal sense in that he runs head-first to confront danger. However, what's even more impactful to those he led was his willingness to step up and accept responsibility when things went WRONG.
One of the most impactful lessons that I learned from war was in the spring of 2006, in the city of Ramadi, Iraq which at the time was the epicenter of the insurgency, where brutal and determined terrorists ruled the streets with torture and rape and murder. And it was in one neighborhood of that city, during an operation that I was in charge of, when all hell broke loose.
We had multiple units out on the battlefield fighting the enemy. We had friendly Iraqi soldiers, we had US Army soldiers and US Marines along with small elements of my SEAL team. And then the fog of war rolled in, with its confusion and chaos and mayhem, and with its gunfire, and enemy attacks and screaming men and blood and death. And in that fog of war, through a series of mistakes and human error and poor judgment and Murphy’s law and just plain bad luck, a horrendous firefight broke out. But this firefight, it wasn’t between us and the enemy. This firefight tragically was between us and us — friendly forces against friendly forces — fratricide, the mortal sin of combat and the most horrific part of war.
And when it was over and the fog of war lifted, one friendly Iraqi soldier was dead, two more were wounded, one of my men was wounded, the rest of my SEALs were badly shaken. And it was only through a miracle that no one else was killed. And it was reported up the chain of command what had happened, that we had fought and wounded and killed each other.
And when we got back to base, things didn’t get much better. There was a message waiting for me from my commanding officer. And it said, “Shut down all operations.” It said that the commanding officer, the master chief and the investigating officer were inbound to my location. And they told me to prepare a debrief to explain exactly what had happened on the operation and what had gone wrong.
Now I knew what this meant. It meant that somebody had to pay. It meant that somebody had to be held accountable. It meant that somebody had to get fired for what had happened. So I began to prepare my debrief and in it, I detailed every mistake that was made and who made it. And I pointed out every failure in the planning and the preparation and the execution in the operation and I pointed out who was responsible for that failure. There was plenty of blame to go around. There were so many people that I could incriminate with guilt but something wasn’t right. For some reason, I just couldn’t put my finger on who was at fault and who specifically I should blame for what had happened. And I sat and I went over it again and again and I struggled for an answer.
And then when I was about 10 minutes from starting the debrief, that answer came and it hit me like a slap in the face. And I realized that there was only one person to blame for the confusion, only one person to blame for the wounded men and only one person to blame for the dead Iraqi soldier. And I knew exactly who that person was.
And with that knowledge, I walked into the debriefing room with my commanding officer, and the master chief and the investigating officer were sitting there waiting for me along with the rest of my men, including my SEAL that had been wounded who’s sitting in the back of the room with his head and his face all bandaged up.
And I stood up before them and I asked them one simple question: whose fault was this? One of my SEALs raised his hand, and he said, “It was my fault. I didn’t keep control of the Iraqi soldiers I was with and they left their designated sector and that was the root of all these problems.” And I said, “No, it wasn’t your fault.”
And then another SEAL raised his hand and said, “It was my fault. I didn’t pass our location over the radio fast enough, so no one knew what building we were in. And that’s what caused all this confusion. It was my fault.” I said, “No, it wasn’t your fault either.”
And then another SEAL raised his hand, and he said, ‘Boss, this was my fault. I didn’t properly identify my target and I shot and killed that friendly Iraqi soldier. This was my fault.” And I said, “No, this wasn’t your fault, either.” And it wasn’t yours or yours or yours, I said as I pointed to the rest of the SEALs in the room. And then I told them that there was only one person at fault for what had happened. There was only one person to blame and that person was me. I am the commander, I am the senior man on the battlefield and I am responsible for everything that happens. Everything!
I've worked for, read about, and heard from many people (from rank-and-file employees, to middle managers, to executives) about leaders who did NOT take on an "extreme ownership" attitude and behavior. Sadly, the negative impact this had on their followers and the overall culture and vibe of their team was disastrous.
"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. I hadn’t been with our sniper team when they engaged the Iraqi soldier. I hadn’t been controlling the rogue element of Iraqis that entered the compound. But that didn’t matter. As the SEAL task unit commander, the senior leader on the ground in charge of the mission, I was responsible for everything in Task Unit Bruiser. I had to take complete ownership of what went wrong. That is what a leader does even if it means getting fired. If anyone was to be blamed and fired for what happened, let it be me." –Jocko Willink (Extreme Ownership, 2017)
"Credibility is about how leaders earn the trust and confidence of their constituents. It’s about what people demand of their leaders as a prerequisite to willingly contributing their hearts and minds to a common cause, and it’s about the actions leaders must take in order to intensify their constituents’ commitment." –Jim Kouzes & Barry Posner
Indeed, once a leader betrays, breaks, or loses the trust of their followers it can be very difficult if not impossible for them to regain or re-earn that trust.
John Maxwell wrote this: “For years I have taught leaders that in their interactions with others they create ‘accounts’ of trustworthiness. Every interaction with another person either makes deposits in that person’s account or makes withdrawals from it. The best way to make regular ongoing deposits is by modeling good character consistently. Why? Because people are convinced more by what a leader does than by what a leader says. . . .People see what you do. Leadership confusion occurs when your words and your walk do not match. If that incongruity continues, not only will you confuse your people—you will lose your people” (Maxwell, 2018, p. 54-55).
“It has been said that you don’t really know people until you have observed them when they interact with a child, when the car has a flat tire, when the boss is away, and when they think no one will ever know. But people with integrity never have to worry about that. No matter where they are, who they are with, or what kind of situation they find themselves in, they are consistent and live by their principles” (Maxwell, 2007, p. 343).
When leaders adopt an "extreme ownership" way to live and lead, they will earn the credibility, trust, and respect of not only their followers, but also other observers.
“Once people stop making excuses, stop blaming others, and take ownership of everything in their lives, they are compelled to take action to solve their problems. They are better leaders, better followers, more dependable and actively contributing team members, and more skilled in aggressively driving toward mission accomplishment.” –Jocko Willink and Leif Babin (Extreme Ownership)
“Good leaders don’t make excuses. Instead, they figure out a way to get things done.” –Leif Babin (Extreme Ownership)
“Leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame.” –Jocko Willink and Leif Babin (Extreme Ownership)
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Organizational & Leadership Development Leader
Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2011). Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It. Jossey-Bass.
Maxwell, J. C. (2007). The Maxwell Daily Reader: 365 Days of Insight to Develop the Leader Within You and Influence Those Around You. Thomas Nelson.
Maxwell, J. C. (2018). Developing the Leader Within You 2.0. HarpersCollins.
TED. (2017, February). Extreme Ownership | Jocko Willink | TEDxUniversityofNevada [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljqra3BcqWM
Willink, J., & Babin, L. (2017). Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win. St. Martin’s Press.