Own It

Back when I was in college, starting my first company, I read every business book I could get my hands on.  For a several-year spree, I made my way through all of the business classics.  And then for several years after that, I still kept up with new bestsellers.

But, over time, I found myself reading fewer and fewer business books.  In part, because most didn’t really have anything new to say.  And, in part, because most were terribly, terribly written – a chapter’s worth of ideas stretched to hundreds of pages through needless repetition and bland anecdote filler.

Sure, I discovered a handful of great volumes in the past decade – like Scaling Up and The Lean Startup– that I re-read, refer back to, and recommend. But, mostly, I was out of the business book game.

That’s why, though it was recommended by several different mutual friends, I was initially reluctant to read Jocko Willink’s Extreme Ownership.  The book extends the lessons Jocko and his co-author Leif Babson learned as Navy SEALs (both as commanders in Iraq, and then leading the SEAL’s officer training program back stateside) to the business and not-for-profit world, where they’d been consulting for several years.  As much as I steer clear of most business books, I tend to skip pretty much all military history books.  So, despite thinking very highly of Jocko, his book seemed like a total miss for me.

But since it was published and climbed the bestseller lists, I kept hearing about it – whether from articles and podcasts, or colleagues and friends.  So earlier this month, I decided to finally give it a read.

And, in short, I’ve very glad I did.  It’s the first business book in a couple of years that I would actually recommend.

Further, though it’s pitched to a corporate audience, Extreme Ownership is actually about leadership in the broadest sense.  Anyone who works with other people, on pretty much anything, would probably benefit from the book’s insights.

Each chapter follows a simple, standard structure: a story from the authors’ time as SEALs (whether coaching young officers through a training boat race in San Diego, or rescuing hostages in Ramadi), a broader principle drawn from the story, and then an example of how that principle applied in their civilian consulting work.

The chapters are concise, engaging, and fluff-free.  And all of them gave me food for thought.  Fundamentally, they each boil down to the titular idea of extreme ownership – taking responsibility for everything that happens around you, even if it seems like it’s out of your direct control.  If your subordinates are dropping the ball, perhaps it’s because you’re not sufficiently helping them get things done; if your boss is constantly demanding updates and micro-managing, perhaps you’re not providing proactive enough upstream communication; and if you’re caught flat-footed by an unforeseen move by a competitor or in the market, maybe you didn’t deeply enough consider and prepare contingency plans.

Blaming everyone around you is a common default – in the business world, and the world as a whole.  Jocko and Leif make a strong case for taking the opposite approach – pointing the finger at yourself first, then building positive strategies and responses based firmly in the belief that the buck, at all times, stops with you.

As compared to Scaling Up or Lean Startup, the book falls short in providing a specific, actionable business road map.  But it’s also much broader in focus than either of those two.  While they’re only useful if you’re starting and quickly growing a company, <i>Extreme Ownership</i> is applicable to basically everyone.

In summary: Extreme Ownership – two thumbs up, and definitely worth the read.