Tom MacWright

tom@macwright.org

I read Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin on

Review

I was promoted Extreme Ownership from multiple angles – I saw ads, saw his appearance with Casey Neistat, heard about it from friends. The layout for my books on this website doesn’t include covers at this point, so I’d recommend seeing the book’s website to get a taste of the general aesthetic.

Extreme Ownership is a book about leadership and responsibility written by two retired Navy SEALs. Each chapter follows this template:

  1. War story
  2. The principle
  3. Application

So, you’ll read about a firefight in Ramadi, then how it’s necessary for people to practice decentralized command, and then about how a manager at a company was taught that lesson by Jocko or Leif and how it helped them move past a professional challenge.

The message

The titular concept, Extreme Ownership, is an extension of the principle of “the buck stops here,” which extends both up and down: if one of your reports fails, you’ve failed. And if you report to someone and they fail, you’ve also failed. Expansive concepts of guilt are familiar to me from the religious context and I’m convinced that guilt can be motivating and educational - one of the reasons why I’m still unconvinced by the idea of blameless postmortems in technology. But it’s easy to over-apply and the psychological costs are tremendous, and Extreme Ownership makes no effort to deal with either of those problems.

Besides, that, it shares four “lessons of combat”:

  1. Cover and Move: most tasks require everyone to switch roles and share in the duty regardless of department
  2. Simple.
  3. Prioritize and Execute.
  4. Decentralized command: roughly the same as the theory of Commanders Intent, which I’ve found very useful.

The style & format

Let’s be clear: Jocko has a theory of America’s role in the world and the military’s scope of responsibility and it’s not good. He uses Bush-era “good guys” and “bad guys” labels. They use “muj” to refer to enemy fighters. He complains about having to fill out paperwork to confirm that he’s not killing civilians. He’s confident that without broad military engagement in Iraq, America would not exist.

It’s bad. The military is just the toast for the business parable butter, but I couldn’t imagine Iraqi-Americans getting through this book because of the simplistic and flippant way that it approaches militarism.

In terms of style, it’s pretty wild. What Jocko and Leif encountered in the field was shocking and terrifying, and then you hear about them telling middle-managers at mining companies that their staffing crisis is just like the problem of whether to send a casuality to Germany for life-saving surgery or to let him recover on-base.

Summary

Should you read Extreme Ownership? Most leadership books appear to be discussing the selfsame concepts but with different words attached to them. If you’re already familiar with things like commanders intent, I’m not sure that you’ll get much from Extreme Ownership.

Details