Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win

Book cover

Metadata

Author: Jocko Willink, Leif Babin
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Year: 2017
Pages: 322
ISBN: 978-1-250-18386-6
Links: Goodreads

Review (2021)

This book will like be highly influential to how I approach leadership challenges as I step into more and more of a managerial and leadership role within my professional career. Reading the chapters in this book, I found that I’ve already adopted many of these principles in my own leadership style, but the way they are laid out here provides an effective and engaging overview of these topics and something of a framework for others to adopt.

It also made me realize that as my responsibilities and workload have increased tenfold over the past two and a half years, I’ve failed to uphold some of these consistently. For example, when I joined Castor initially, I took “extreme ownership” over everything I did and I was very conscious to consider any failings in my sphere of influence as personal failings. But as my team has grown and the size of our infrastructure has expanded rapidly, I’ve gotten lax about owning everything I say and do in that area.

Out of the entire book, the first two chapters were probably the most insightful to me, challenging my views more than the other chapters did and reminding me of my own behavior and practices that let me rise successfully in a fast-growing startup.

That being said, this is a book written by men in a position of authority, proven in a largely male-dominated environment. While I would recommend reading this to everyone, I strongly suspect that if women or people in minority groups were to follow these same practices, this could hinder rather than help their careers.

Notes

Introduction


Part 1: Winning the war within

Chapter 1: Extreme Ownership

Jocko Willink starts off this chapter with by recounting a story of one of his first major operations in Ramadi.

Multiple US and Iraqi troops entered a heavily-contested area of the city in the early morning hours. Among them is a SEAL sniper element under Jocko’s command.

Not long into the operation, many gunfights have ensued and radio traffic is filled with reports of fights and casualties. The Iraqi Army is requesting a QRF1 (this one consisting of 4 humvees), but around the same time his sniper element is reporting being engaged in a heavy firefight and requesting a heavy QRF (consisting of two M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tanks) to assist.

Jocko ends up following the heavy QRF in and just before they engage the building where the resistance is supposedly holed up, he gets suspicious of the situation and ends up going in for a look himself together with one other US navy SEAL.

What he finds in that building is his own SEAL sniper element.

They had engaged in blue-on-blue. In the heat of battle, an Iraqi soldiers had entered the building. Not expecting friendly forces in the area, the SEALs had seen a foreign-looking male armed with an AK-47, assumed him to be an insurgent, and taken him out.

This is an interesting, classic story about ‘human error’ and it turns out there were many contributing factors, including changes to battle plans on both the US and Iraqi side which had not been communicated, troop positions not called in, timetables moved up, and other mishaps.

But how Jocko handled the fallout is interesting. After the operation, in front of both the SEAL team members as well as investigating official, he took full ownership (blame) of the situation.

As the commander in charge, he said it was his responsibility. He was to blame.

He then proceeded to walk them through all the factors that contributed, and for each he laid out steps aimed at improving or avoiding them from happening again in the future.

Takeaways

  • Responsibility for team failure falls entirely on the leader. As a leader, always take full responsibility and blame for any failures that happen, even when there are many contributing factors.
  • When taking blame for failure, learn from it. Go through all of the contributing factors and come up with steps to fix these going forward.
  • Team accomplishments shouldn’t be claimed by the leader. Success requires contribution from everyone on the team, so pass on this praise to the team members instead.

Chapter 2: No bad teams, only bad leaders

This story is told by Leif Babin and set a couple of months after he’s returned from two deployments to Ramadi, Iraq. Back on US soil, he’s currently assigned to instruct the Junior Officer Training Course and supporting SEAL training on the side as an instructor during the Hell Week.

During this fourth week of SEAL training, the trainees had so far been put through 3 days of almost non-stop physical exercises with barely more than an hour of sleep. They were currently divided up into groups of 7 “Boat Crews”, each team assigned a rubber boat with the most senior member of each team being the leader.

Leif tells us how two teams stood out from all the others: One team consistently came out on top, coming in first with almost every challenge. The other team consistently under-performed, coming in last and drawing more and more attention of the instructors.

The winning team functioned as a well-oiled machine, with team members supporting each other and making up for each other’s weaknesses. The losing team on the other hand was growing more and more bitter and dysfunctional, with the members and their leader all blaming each other for their consistent failings.

Leif continues the story by explaining how at one point, one of the instructors suggests swapping team leaders between these two teams, while leaving all other conditions the same. Miraculously, after having their leaders swapped, the losing team immediately becomes the top-dog, now coming in first in all the following exercises.

The previously winning team continues to do well too, coming in second, continuously chasing the new winning team, but not managing to take back the lead.

The original leader of the underperforming team learned a valuable lesson that day, seeing the turnaround of his former crew under new leadership. He took those lessons to heart, ultimately graduating from BUDS/S training and going on to have a successful career in the SEAL teams.

Takeaways

  • As a leader, you’re the one setting the standards for your team. If you’re not pulling your weight, the rest of the team won’t either.
  • If you want to build and maintain a high-performing team then you can’t settle for “good enough”. You must push your team to continue improving whenever possible. If you do this consistently, you’ll instill this mindset in every layer of your team.

Chapter 3: Believe

This chapter illustrates the Importance of why. If you, as a leader, don’t believe in the mission, then how can you expect the men and women under you to do the same and give it their all?

Jocko tells a story here of a change in strategy by US command which he didn’t immediately buy into. In short, he was told that all future missions needed to be run together with the Iraqi Army, and feature Iraqi presence in addition to US personnel.

The Iraqis, at that point in time, were objectively known as the worst possible army you could imagine. Their men were poorly trained, uneducated, badly outfitted and generally uncommitted or unmotivated.

There were even some enemy sympathizers among the ranks, and cases of Iraqis turning on their US and UN allies were not completely unheard of.

Understandably, Jocko was less than thrilled about the news that his close-knit, highly trained SEAL units would have to operate together with Iraqi elements whom they actively distrusted.

He questioned the rationale for this decision and spent time trying to understand the motivation and mindset behind this strategy. After some time, he realized that there was simply no way the Iraqi Army, in its current shape, could run security and defend its own country. But if the US didn’t somehow improve this situation, they would never be able to hand over operations to the Iraqis so that they could eventually withdraw from the conflict. Something needed to change.

His SEAL teams were not happy when he told them about this change in policy. But by understanding the reasoning behind it himself, he was able to convey that same understanding to his subordinates in turn.

They weren’t happy about it, but they made the best of it. It led to various extra risky situations and near-misses, but they included Iraqi elements in all their future operations.

This led to some unexpected benefits as well. The Iraqi soldiers knew the locking mechanisms of typical houses. Instead of using loud, noisy breaching charges, they showed how to open them silently.

And with their local knowledge of the language, dialects and mannerisms, the Iraqi soldiers could pick out insurgents from ordinary people in the crowds.

In the end, because command approved all missions with these Iraqi elements, they were able to hammer the opposition and dramatically reduce the enemy’s strength and resistance. They took down strongholds, letting US and Iraqi forces move in to these newly won areas.

By the end of their deployment, the reduction in enemy strength had caused these areas to become sufficiently safe that they could hand over control to the Iraqi Army, despite their poor training.

The second part of this chapter illustrates this Importance of why with a business case about a change in sales team compensation plans within a company. The CEO had a simple plan which changed incentives, aimed at weeding out poor performers and stimulating those who were doing well.

But the managers of those teams didn’t understand why they were doing this, which caused them to see only risks and downsides as opposed to the opportunities successful execution would give.

Afraid of being seen as incompetent or stupid, none of the managers dared speak up and ask the (experienced and competent) CEO why she was implementing the change in compensation.

It took Jocko’s outside involvement to bring the CEO and managers together to talk about their concerns. After the CEO explained why she was implementing these changes, and addressed the managers' concerns about the plans, did they buy into the strategy.

Takeaways

  • Always strive to understand why you’re being asked to do something.
  • Never relay a command to your subordinates when you don’t understand its value or purpose.
  • Always make sure the people below you understand why they’re being asked to do something.

Chapter 4: Check the Ego

This chapter discusses the problems that having too big of an Ego can have.

In the first example, told by Jocko, he shares a story from some of his time in Camp Corregidor, situated in a dangerous, hotly contested area of Ar Ramadi. Insurgent attacks on the camp were an almost daily occurrence.

Realizing they would need to work closely together with regular navy and army units there in order to survive and be successful, the navy SEALs did their best to fit in, including focus on tidy uniforms and adherence to other navy regulations (which tend to be looser for SEALs).

This garnered them some respect from the other soldiers and allowed a bond to form between them.

Learning of the heavy engagements there and kills racked up by the SEALs, a combined US army/Iraqi unit wants to get in on the action. Unlike the vast majority of the Iraqi Army, this was an elite unit with experience and exceptionally good gear. As a result, they got a lot of leeway and tended to get away with a lot.

This group was cocky and didn’t bother fitting in. Instead, they acted elitist. They refused to play nice with the rest, going so far as refusing to share detailed information on their plans and missions.

Referring back to the dangers of bad communication and intel, as shown by the blue-on-blue example from the story in chapter 1, the base commander eventually made the call to kick them out and send them back before the situation could lead to a serious incident.

In the second part of the chapter, Leif shares a story of a mid-level manager who was having trouble dealing with a highly experienced, but insubordinate member of his team.

Their company did drilling operations and this team member had changed a piece of critical equipment without passing it by the manager, in violation of standard operating procedures. This ended up backfiring and set them back thousands of dollars.

The manager wasn’t sure how to call the guy out on it, as he knew the man to be highly experienced and senior. He didn’t think challenging the topic would land well.

Leif mentioned it was important to address the situation, but suggested taking extreme ownership here too. Even if the manager felt the other guy made the mistake, as the manager, it happened on his watch, so he was to blame.

Did the other employee understand how this local decision fit into the larger, strategic plan? Chances are he didn’t, and ultimately, that was the manager’s job.

With the manager taking complete ownership, and bringing this narrative to the employee from this angle, they could sidestep the problem of ego and engage the employee in resolution.

By including the employee in the remediation, giving them an active role, they would see their own mistakes and be involved in the clarification of roles, responsibilities and authorities.

They’d have to work together to align and agree on these points, making it a shared burden.

Takeaways

  • Keep your ego in check if you want to be respected by others.
  • Running into trouble with a specific individual? Don’t ignore the problem, but take ownership of it and address the issue.
  • Taking ownership here includes acknowledging your own role in the problem. How has your behavior influenced the other’s actions? What constraints are they operating under? Do they understand the bigger picture and the strategic plans?

Part 2: Laws of combat

Chapter 5: Cover and Move

This chapter, told by Leif, explains the importance of teamwork, illustrated against the background of “Cover and move” military tactics.

It features a relatively lengthy story about an operation in Ramadi where two SEAL sniper units (OP1, OP2) provide cover and overwatch for US marines and Iraqi Army units as they performed inspection/search operations within a certain, dangerous sector of the city.

OP1 was situated about 300 meters away from the military base, while OP2 had a position much further out which required them to move into place under the cover of darkness ahead of the mission. The operation ends up being a success and both OP1 and OP2 withdraw back to base afterwards.

On their way back, OP2 is engaged by hostile insurgents (as anticipated), but successfully they make it back to base without any casualties. While the team is elated upon their return, their commander is not: “Why didn’t you coordinate with OP1 and leave them in place to cover your retreat until you were back inside?"

Indeed, OP1’s position had plenty of coverage over OP2’s way back, and could have provided supporting, covering fire for the team as they were engaged by the Muj during their retreat back through the streets of Ramadi.

This was a valuable lesson to Leif about the importance of coordinating and working together. In the heat of the moment, he’d only considered the concerns of his own team without thinking about how those actions would affect other teams, or, more importantly in this case, how other teams could have helped them be more successful.

The Bulldog company commander they wrote about in this story has written about his perspective as well on the Echelon Front blog: Build Teams That Cover And Move (Bajema 2019)

The application to business part of this chapter maps this to teamwork with other departments. Instead of thinking only about your own team or your own department, consider the teams you depend on or who depend on you. How do your efforts fit together into the larger strategic plans of the company as a whole, and how can you support each other with these efforts?

Takeaways

  • Don’t focus solely on your own team to the detriment of others. Remain aware of how the work other teams are doing contributes to the same mission you’re trying to contribute to and align accordingly.
  • Keep other teams informed of what you are doing so they can ancitipate and offer their support when needed.

Chapter 6: Simple

Lessons in simplicity, told through two stories.

The first is set during the first days of combat outpost (COP) Falcon being established and the first patrols outside the confines of its (relative) safety. It illustrates how a new, inexperienced commander proposes a foot patrol which would take it through 3 different sectors, operated by two different army units and one marine unit, all with their own radio nets and standard operating procedures.

A complex operation, while Jocko knows they’re going to meet enemy contact for sure. Having multiple different units involved would complicate QRF2 and CASEVAC3.

He manages to convince the commander to stick to a shorter, closer route which would keep them exclusively within the battlespace of Team Bulldog.

12 minutes after they headed out on patrol (Jocko timed it with a stopwatch) they are engaged by enemy insurgents. They end up with two wounded, requesting CASEVAC and fire support.

Because the patrol remained in the local battlespace, Jocko was able to easily and quickly relay all of this information to Team Bulldog’s company commander, located within the same combat outpost. The commander then took a section of battle tanks and an APC out to evacuate the patrol. (Both wounded ended up being Iraqi soldiers).

The business story discusses a factory with a highly complex, elaborate bonus scheme. Because of its complexity, none of the people on the floor understand how they receive or qualify for a bonus, which leads to lack of engagement.

After the bonus plan is radically simplified and made dependent on two main factors, it becomes easy to understand and follow. This led to greater engagement and resulted in the top employees producing more than enough to offset the 4 weakest performers, who could eventually be let go entirely.

They had been dragging the entire team down, but with the increased productivity, keeping them on was no longer needed at all.

Takeaways

  • The simpler something is, the easier it is to understand and remember and the more likely people will engage with it.
  • Simple plans and solutions are easier to adapt to unforeseen complications.

Chapter 7: Prioritize and Execute

This chapter begins with a story from Leif. With a number of SEAL units, EOD technicians and Iraqi military under his command, they have inserted deep into enemy territory to soften up the resistance.

They moved into a 4-story building under the cover of darkness, engaged in numerous firefights over the course of the day, and prepared to exfiltrate again under the cover of dusk.

There was just one problem: the building had only a single entrance, and because they hadn’t been able to cover that part of the street without great risk, the enemy had managed to plant an IED right by the exit.

They end up using a sledgehammer to break through a second-story wall, letting them get onto the roof of the adjacent, single-story building. But as they’re exiting, one of the SEAL members falls through the roof, landing 20 feet below with no way to defend himself.

The only way to get down to him is via a narrow stairway, but it’s barred by a locked, steel door. They’re still deep within hostile territory, with well-armed Muj fighters all around. It’s put them in a precarious position.

With many competing concerns, Leif tells us how training instilled in him the need to prioritize, then execute, the most pressing issue. (They verbalize this principle with the direction “Relax, look around, make a call”).

First he gives the order to “Set security” - get men, especially the SEAL machine gunners, in place to cover everyone. Next, a breacher is sent up to get through the locked gate, and finally he orders his leading petty officer (LPO) to do a headcount to make sure everyone made it out of the original building correctly.

Luckily, the SEAL who fell through the roof landed on his backpack and ends up being mostly fine. Everyone makes it back to base safe and sound in the end.

Next, Jocko tells us a story about a CEO of a company within the pharmaceutical industry where he applies the same principle.

The company had traditionally been doing well and expanded greatly, but now their revenue was trending down, long enough that if it would continue, this could spell trouble. The CEO and his execs prepared a “State of the Company” brief with various initiatives and plans to improve the situation, which they hoped could reverse the trend again.

Asked what he thought about the plan, Jocko asked if the CEO had ever heard of the term “Decisively Engaged”4 and remarked that with all those initiatives, they would have “a whole lot of battles going on”.

Jocko asked which of those initiatives had the highest priority. To the CEO, there was a clear answer to that question: the activity management of their sales forces, to ensure their sales people were engaged in the right activities. Without their sales people talking to customers and selling product, none of the other initiatives would matter.

Having the other initiatives around in parallel would distract from this core initiative, and leave the other departments shorthanded to assist in the effort.

Instead of tackling all initiatives at once, the CEO focused only on the activity management of their sales force. He made it clear to the entire company that it was the company’s highest priority.

This ensured that everyone was aligned and working to support this initiative. Progress was seen quickly and momentum was gained.

Takeaways

  • When you take on too many tasks or initiatives, you are likely to become overwhelmed trying to balance and coordinate them all. Instead, focus on the most important thing and defer the rest.
  • Having too many initiatives going on doesn’t just reduce your own focus, it affects that of everyone involved. This can leave people shorthanded.

Chapter 8: Decentralized Command

As human beings, we can only effectively lead groups of about 6 to 10 people. And as a leader, you want to avoid becoming so involved in the minutia of an operation that you can no longer see the bigger picture. With these constraints, it’s necessary to create some sort of hierarchy with senior leaders giving direction to more junior leaders who run their own groups.

This is where decentralized command as well as Commander’s Intent come in. In order to empower leaders who report to you, it is crucial that they understand why they are being asked to carry out certain assignments and how their efforts fit into the larger strategy.

It is also crucial for these leaders to be empowered to make their own decisions and to have their leadership back up those choices. This can only work when responsibilities are clearly defined and leaders know which calls they can take on their own, and which require consulting with someone more senior.

With decentralized command, there is a risk that everyone acts independently without being aware of what the other teams are doing, which could lead to efforts that interfere with each other (such as a case of friendly fire, the combat story presented in this chapter). To mitigate this, leaders and their subordinates should constantly push information up and down the chain of command.

People lower on the chain need to inform higher-ups about changes they make to the plan (in this chapter, a SEAL team changing location because the originally designated building didn’t meet all the mission criteria). Similarly, high-ups should inform their units in the field about changing conditions and the actions of other units when these might affect what the team is doing.

Takeaways

  • Divisions and departments should be broken down into teams of 5 to 6 people each, all with a clearly designated leader.
  • Authority should be clearly defined, so that leaders know which decisions they can make on their own.
  • Leaders should present their high-level goals and strategy so that teams below them can adapt their plans to changing conditions, while remaining true to the objective.
  • Leaders should push situational awareness down the chain of command, while those below should constantly push information about changes to plans and conditions back up the chain.

Part 3: Sustaining victory

Chapter 9: Plan

This chapter introduces a story, told by Leif, about a hostage rescue mission in Iraq. Once the mission is planned out and they’re geared up, about ready to step out, new intel comes in that the insurgents may have planted IEDs and set up fortified machinegunner’s nests in the building. The team laughs about it, “Looks like we’re going to get some today”, and heads out anyway.

They successfully complete the mission, liberate the hostage, and return home safe. No IEDs were encountered, nor were any machineguns turned against them as they took the enemy by surprise and overran them before they had a chance to mount a response.

What I find most interesting about this story is that in later SEAL training, they present this very scenario to trainees: Hostage rescue, last-minute intel comes in about IEDs and machinegun nests, do you abort or continue? A lot of the SEAL commander trainees say the risk is too great and that they should abort and re-plan.

Leif’s counter-argument is that you should plan your missions with worst-case scenario in mind. That way you are prepared for the worst and know how to respond in case of contingencies.

The same applies to business. By assuming things will go wrong you can prepare contingency plans, and make sure everyone involved in the mission is aware of them and knows how to respond as well.

(This reminds me of anticipating obstacles from Decision by Design, specifically part 6. Anticipate the Future)

PowerPoint briefings

There is also a good illustration in this chapter of the misuse of PowerPoint and other presentation software. During training with so-called Field Training Exercises (FTX), they were also expected to prepare briefings to their teams.

The US navy used PowerPoint templates for this and their instructors would always criticize the briefings and slides they made. They were expected to include more slides, including more maps, diagrams and fancy charts.

For the final FTX, the SEAL Team commanding officer (CO) and operations master chief informed them they would attend the briefing. During this time, selections were being made of which SEAL teams would be deployed where, and nailing this briefing and exercise would be a key factor in the selection.

As Leif and the other platoon commander built out their brief, it was clear it was heavy on slides, complex, but lacking on different pieces and parts of the execution. They weren’t feeling optimistic about their chances.

Jocko told them: “Forget about all this crazy PowerPoint. I want this plan to be clear to everyone that is actually in your platoon. I’m not worried about the CO or the master chief. The true test for a good brief is not whether the senior officers are impressed. It’s whether or not the troops that are going to execute the operation actually understand it."

He told them to keep the brief simple and to make sure even the most junior man can fully understand the operation. “If there is some flak over this from the CO, don’t worry. I will take it."

With that guidance, they refactored their presentation. Fewer slides and more focus on the core pieces of the plan. They hung maps on the walls, the same ones they’d carry in the field, and referenced them.

They had their subordinate leaders brief those pieces of the operation that they would be leading, allowing them to focus on their Commander’s Intent and the bigger picture.

When the brief concluded, the CO and master chief gave them credit for a solid brief and delivery - much to their surprise, given they were used to receiving criticism and nitpicks on their slides. Of all the mission briefs he had listened to during the workup, this brief was the one he understood most clearly, the CO said.

Shortly thereafter, they received word that Task Unit Bruiser had been chosen to deploy to Iraq.

Takeaways

  • Don’t start making plans until the objectives and desired end-state are clear. Make sure you’re going to be solving the right problem.
  • Delegate as much of the planning down to subordinate leaders and frontline personnel. This will lead to more buy-in, plus they know the conditions on the ground better than you do (as a senior leader, you must guard the overall strategy of the plan as a whole).
  • When making plans, take the time to come up with scenarios of what could easily go wrong. Then determine how to mitigate those risks and/or create corresponding contingency plans.
  • Always evaluate and reflect on a plan’s outcome. Implement lessons learned in future plans.

Chapter 10: Leading Up and Down the Chain of Command

The topics in this chapter boil down to effective flow of information up and down the chain. These stories are written by Leif.

Leading down the chain

Back stateside after their deployment to Iraq, Jocko, Leif and rest of task unit bruiser are integrating back into civilian life. It is a time where Leif is wondering how much of a difference their efforts made.

Seeing the reports on the news, as well as rumors and criticism from other teams (such as that they had been taking too many risks), he also grows increasingly frustrated and angry. After all, those people weren’t there, on the ground, putting their lives on the line every single day.

When Jocko is asked to present to the chief of naval operations, he prepares a presentation showing the city of Ar Ramadi before their arrival and after. It’s only after seeing this presentation that all the pieces clicked for Leif. Why their missions were important, the difference it made, how their efforts contributed to the bigger picture.

Jocko and Leif both realize they failed as leaders to their respective teams, by not explaining this better to their subordinates during the deployment itself.

Another interesting point made here is that in their observation, the SEAL operators who grew increasingly disillusioned and questioning about their efforts were those members who were least involved in any sort of planning. And those operators who remained spirited and eager to continue their deployment were those who had gotten to do some of the planning, even if it was but a small piece of it.

In Leif’s words, those who were more involved had been exposed more to the intent and goals of the missions.

Leading up the chain

We return back to Camp Marc Lee. Leif just stormed into Jocko’s office, completely pissed about higher command’s constant emails with further questions about their operations every time they try to get them approved.

“Did you coordinate an appropriate QRF?"

Leif found the question nearly insulting. “Do they really think we would do any type of operation whatsoever here without a significant QRF package fully coordinated and on standby? We even set up QRFs for our administrative convoys. This is Ramadi. Going out there without a QRF would be suicide."

Each of these question and answer email chains took precious time and attention away from mission planning. In Leif’s eyes, this actually made things riskier, not safer.

Jocko had, up until not long before that moment, been of a similar mind and opinion. But he had started to come around on his way of thinking.

Their CO and command staff were located some 30 miles east in Fallujah, a significantly more stable region. Seeing it from the COs point of view, they have to approve every mission, and defend each of these calls to their commanding officers. And they have no idea what it’s like in Ramadi.

The fact that their missions weren’t getting approved easily and raised questions for further clarification showed they weren’t pushing the right information up the chain.

Jocko challenged Leif to take full ownership of the problem and he accepted it head-on. Together, they made it a point to send information up the chain of command. They provided extremely detailed mission planning document and post-operational reports and pushed this understanding down to their team leaders within the platoon as well.

They invited their CO, their command master chief and other staff to visit and accompany them on combat operations (their command master chief went along on several missions in response).

The more information they passed up, the more the CO and other staff understood what they were trying to do. The more they understood, the more they saw how they were mitigating risks, the things they were trying to achieve, and the more trust was built. This led to all the combat missions they would submit receiving approval.

Chapter 11: Decisiveness amid Uncertainty

It’s early morning in Ramadi and Leif’s team is on a sniper overwatch mission, covering a hugo Army force of M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tanks, M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and platoons of foot soldiers, as they moved in to set up another combat outpost. The SEAL team had moved hours prior to set up their sniper outpost.

Chris Kyle (from American Sniper) reports “I’ve got a guy with a scoped weapon in the second-story window of building 127”. This is a bit unusual as Chris was highly experienced and fully capable of calling his own shots - so clearly he was unsure and looking for guidance from his commanding officer, Leif.

Chris can’t make positive identification (PID) and can’t be entirely sure it’s a hostile sniper. Leif checks in with his fellow battlefield commanders, but there’s no known friendly presence in building 127 according to the company commander, in charge of the troops out in the field.

“Request you engage”, said the company commander. But Chris obviously didn’t feel certain, and so Leif doesn’t either. While he would feel terrible if it’s an enemy combatant and they blow their chance to take him out, it would be much worse if it turns out to be friendlies after all.

If they take the shot now, there’s no going back. If they wait, it’s possible new information will present itself.

So Leif tells the company commander negative, they can’t engage without PID. He suggests that he send in a team to clear the building again instead. The company commander is not happy and Leif is pressed a few more times, but he stays firm.

Eventually the company commander tasks a unit to break off and check it out. As soon as they do, everything becomes clear to Leif and his team - they’d misidentified the building and they were looking at friendly forces. They’d narrowly avoided a friendly-fire incident.

In the application to business section, we look at a successful software company where two engineering team leads are completely at odds with each other. Rather than cooperating, they’ve started undercutting and trying to outdo one another in hopes of getting a promotion ahead of their peers.

Their CEO had tried for months to improve the situation, but things had only deteriorated to the point that it was now a dysfunctional relationship and destructive to the rest of the teams.

One of these two was calling for the other to be fired. There was also a rumor that the other had met with a recruiter from another company and was considering leaving. Not the be outdone, similar claims were being made the other way around.

Their CEO didn’t know who to believe or who’s side to take. Losing either would hurt the company, in their opinion, but without enough information, they were inclined just to let the situation play out by itself.

In Jocko and Leif’s opinion, it was important to act decisively. The default setting should be proactive rather than reactive, even if the picture wasn’t complete.

There were other options than waiting to see how things would play out. They could fire one or the other engineer. But then, whom to choose?

There was another option as well: fire both of them. This suggestion came as a surprise to the CEO, but it was a tactic they had seen used in the army earlier in their career.

In this situation, it turned out neither engineer was particularly disliked or well-liked by their respective teams. And both teams had promising lead developers who, it turned out upon checking, would be happy to step up and fill their shoes. Importantly, these two also had a good working cross-team relationship with each other.

Not much later, both the troublesome engineering leaders were served their termination letters and the lead developers promoted to take their places.

Chapter 12: Discipline Equals Freedom – The Dichotomy of Leadership

This chapter starts with a story by Jocko about his first deployment to Iraq as SEAL platoon commander. He explains how one common Direct Action mission was to perform targeted raids in order to gather intelligence. These would follow a predictable pattern:

  • Approach a target location at night, then proceed to breach and secure the building.
  • Conduct quick battlefield questioning on military-age males, identify suspected terrorists or insurgents and detain them, to be extracted and turned over to a detention facility for further questioning.
  • Before leaving the target, search the building for intelligence and evidence which might help convict suspects of terrorist activities in the Iraqi court system.

Of course, these SEALs weren’t trained in police investigative techniques and initially, their method of searching a target location were not well refined. Their technique mostly consisted of ransacking the place, turning everything upside down.

While this did make them good at finding the most obscure hiding places, it also took them about 45 minutes on average. It was so chaotic they often had to go over places multiple times and sometimes, things would get lost.

There was also no clear Chain of Custody, which was becoming increasingly problematic as a new Iraqi court system, composed of Iraqi judges and American advisors, was imposing increasingly strict requirements for the admittance of evidence.

To improve the process, Jocko tasked his assistant platoon commander (known as the assistant officer in charge, or AOIC) to come up with a more efficient procedure. After a few days the AOIC had come up with a plan:

  • During these raids, a search team would be designated with specific responsibilities for different members of the team
  • One would draw a sketch of the layout of the location
  • Another would number each room they encountered
  • Another would video and photograph evidence where it was found
  • Each room would have a designated “room owner”, responsible for everything happening and found in that room
  • Searches would happen in parallel as much as possible and go from the floor up, so that they wouldn’t have to search through stuff dumped on the floor again later
  • Rooms would be marked as done with an “X” once a search was completed

The SEAL operators were initially opposed to the idea and didn’t like to change their existing methods, but after taking a step back and walking them through why these changes were needed, Jocko convinced his team try give it a try.

They went out and ran through a practice drill. The first run took about 30 minutes, which was already quicker than average. They ran through it two more times and got it down to about 10 minutes the final time. The guys were now believers.

Jocko is also a firm believer of personal discipline, which begins as soon as your alarm clock goes off in the morning. In his experience with the SEAL teams, all of the older, experienced SEALs who weren’t just good but exceptional, had excellent self-discipline.

  • They woke up early and arrived before everyone else
  • They worked out every day
  • They studied tactics and technology
  • They practiced their craft

Some of them even went out on the town, drank, and stayed out until the early hours of the morning. But they still woke up early and maintained discipline at every level.

Discipline applies to teams just as much as to individuals. The more “disciplined” standard operating procedures a team employs, he writes, the more freedom they have to practice Decentralized Command (Chapter 8).

He took this idea with him into Task Unit Bruiser. There were of course many preexisting SOPs in place already, but in Bruiser they took them even further. They standardized the way they loaded out their vehicles, how they mustered in a building on a target, the way they “broke out” (exited) buildings, even how they got headcounts.

Rather than being controlling or restricting, this gave them freedom. As everything was standardized, they were all practiced and proficient with it, and could fall back on this without thinking even in the thick of combat. It made them more flexible as well, changing plans midstream on an operation became simpler because they didn’t need to recreate the entire plan - just mix and match existing procedures or explain the differences compared to their standard process.

The dichotomy lies in the balance between discipline and freedom. Discipline shouldn’t lead to restrictions or loss of control when flexibility and freedom is required, it should only simplify things so there’s room to focus on the big decisions.


Afterword

References

Bajema, Mike. 2019. “Build Teams That Cover And Move.” Echelon Front (blog). March 4, 2019. https://echelonfront.com/build-teams-that-cover-and-move/.


  1. Quick Reaction Force ↩︎

  2. Quick Reaction Force ↩︎

  3. Casualty Evacuation ↩︎

  4. In land and naval warfare, an engagement in which a unit is considered fully committed and cannot maneuver or extricate itself. In the absence of outside assistance, the action must be fought to a conclusion and either won or lost with the forces at hand. (US DoD) ↩︎