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Extreme Ownership

How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win

By Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
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Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

Extreme Ownership (2015) is about how Navy SEAL Team commanders lead. These blinks discuss the complex, life-and-death combat situations that Navy SEALs often have to deal with and how you can apply their skills in the world of business.

Key idea 1 of 7

Leading a team to success means taking responsibility for each and every one of its failures.

In 2012, one of the authors, Jocko Willink, was in Ramadi, Iraq, as a SEAL task unit commander when his unit was met with heavy fire from what was assumed to be the mujahedeen, or enemy insurgents. But as it turned out, it wasn’t the mujahadeen at all; it was another SEAL unit and, in the chaos of the friendly fire, a soldier lost his life.

As the ranking officer in the operation, there was only one thing Willink was certain of: everything that went wrong was his responsibility. And guess what? By taking ownership of this horrible event, he actually saved his job.

That’s because his superiors knew what lots of business leaders don’t: every leader makes mistakes, but only the good ones take responsibility for them. That’s why he was allowed to keep command of his unit.

The importance of the commander’s attitude can also be seen during the worst-case-scenario trainings that SEAL teams undergo. The majority of units that underperform during such operations have leaders who blame either the scenario, their subordinates or the troops themselves. In other words, by refusing to take responsibility, they fail their missions.

On the other hand, the SEAL units that perform the best in training are led by commanders who readily shoulder blame, seek out constructive criticism and take detailed notes on how to improve.

When leaders fail to take responsibility, the consequences can be far-reaching. For instance, in Willink’s experience, when a poor SEAL leader blames everyone but himself, that bad attitude is passed on to his subordinates who then do the same. This results in the team becoming ineffectual and incapable of carrying out their plans.

Such a team just makes excuses and passes the buck, instead of adjusting to and solving the problems that inevitably arise. By the same token, the subordinates of leaders who take total responsibility emulate that behavior themselves. As a result, accountability and initiative spread all the way down the chain of command.

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