Extreme Ownership: Taking Responsibility to Improve

Extreme Ownership is a concept I first read about in the book of the same name by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin (you can read my summary and notes here).

The book details examples of the concept and how they were learned, practiced, and taught, first in combat, and then in the corporate world.

The main takeaway can be summarized in two quotes from the book:

  1. "Leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame.”

  2. "If someone isn’t doing what you want or need them to do, look in the mirror first and determine what you can do to better enable this."

Basically: there is always something you can do to affect the outcome of a situation, so figure out how to do it.

Internalizing that concept causes a powerful change in how you perceive situations.  As humans, we generally spend a lot of time trying to determine who is to blame, and for how much (or avoiding blame altogether), instead of seeking solutions.

It wasn’t until I read another book, Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) (book notes and summary here), that I truly understood why the concept of Extreme Ownership was so powerful.

Cognitive Dissonance and Self-Justification

Mistakes Were Made is all about cognitive dissonance and self-justification:  

In short, cognitive dissonance is “a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent” (ex: I lose my breath on stairs but believe I’m fit).

Self-justification typically manifests itself in “the little lies to ourselves that prevent us from even acknowledging that we made mistakes or foolish decisions.” (ex: I'd be more fit but my job is very busy right now, I'll get to it soon).

As humans, we will do all kinds of things to reduce cognitive dissonance, from changing memories, to ignoring logic, to fighting with a significant other.  And for good reason - it helps keep our self-esteem high, to be happy, and to forget bad things.

But when we’re trying to improve, whether it be in relationships, professional life, or otherwise, we have to reduce or get rid of self-justification and be realistic, and that’s where Extreme Ownership comes in.

Extreme Ownership is the Short Circuit

Extreme Ownership allows us to skip the self-justification step in examining decisions.  Instead of trying to assess our own role, or determine who is at fault, we just assume blame.  We assume we could have done something differently, somehow improved the outcome.

So instead of wasting time on finding blame, we can skip to the good questions and figure out how to improve:

  • How could I have better prepared for this situation?

  • What behaviour could I have changed before, during, and after this happened?

  • How could I have communicated better?

Taking Responsibility Daily

You can control and change adverse situations you face every day:

  • Your team isn’t getting enough work done?  

    • How can you train them more effectively?

  • The project you were in charge of got derailed by a team member?

    • How could you have caught it earlier?  Prepared for setbacks?

  • You missed a deadline?

    • How can you better plan in future?

  • You’re working too many hours?

    • How can you document your contributions so you can ask for a raise?  How can you train your team and delegate better to free up your time?

Extreme Ownership is a shortcut to becoming more objective, improving faster, and making changes to improve your own life.  

“Extreme Ownership requires leaders to look at an organization’s problems through the objective lens of reality, without emotional attachments to agendas or plans. It mandates that a leader set ego aside, accept responsibility for failures, attack weaknesses, and consistently work to a build a better and more effective team.” (from Extreme Ownership)

So the next time you’re faced with a sub-standard outcome, a failure, or even a success, “look in the mirror first and determine what you can do...”

Read my notes and summary of Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win here.

Read my notes and summary of Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) here.