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What we can learn from Navy SEALS about business and leadership

What we can learn from Navy SEALS about business and leadership

What it actually entails to be an extraordinary leader is pretty vague and difficult to describe. Even though we’ve touched on the subject and researched quite a bit, I could image it is still a bit hard to apply for us #careerlions. As I am personally interested in the subject and to put things in perspective, I’ve turned to Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. Extreme Ownership is a concept about leadership that Willink and Leif introduce in their book. These guys are not your average authors (google their pictures if you don’t believe me) as Willink and Babin are two former Navy SEAL officers who were on assignment in one of the most dangerous environments in the world, the battle of Ramadi during the Iraq war.

To illustrate the principles, Willink and Babin documented their experiences in combat and situations of life and death during the Iraq war. While these situations are not comparable to the daily work environment most of us are dealing with, the principles that are elaborated on in the book underline the importance of great leadership in any situation. Reading it should make challenges at the office seem like child’s play. Therefore, I would like to introduce you to my favourite principles from the book (which is a great reminder for myself at the same time).


Combat, like anything in life, has inherent layers of complexity. Simplifying as much as possible is crucial to success. Especially for us engineers, this one is actually harder to realize in practice than it just might seem. We credit ourselves for being smart, which can carry on too much by overcomplicating things. As Steve Jobs said: “Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Prioritize and execute

Prioritize and execute are concepts we’ve come across in the principles of Scrum (link to article). And while priorities can shift, the most important thing here is to communicate this. To implement prioritize and execute a leader must:

  • Evaluate the highest priority problem,
  • Lay out the prioritization in simple, clear, and concise terms to the team,
  • Develop and determine a solution, seek input from key leaders, and from the team where possible, and
  • At the same time don’t let the focus on one priority cause target fixation. Adaptability should be maintained to see other problems developing and shift when needed.

Decentralized command

Human beings are generally not capable of managing more than six to ten people. This is called the span of control. This group of people is the maximum amount as it if not desirable to be micromanaging. Therefore, do not execute everything on your own, but decentralize. As a leader of this group, it is your responsibility to make sure the message comes across loud and clear. Any noise in communication has to be owned by the leader. This principle underlines the importance of simplicity to make sure things will not get confused.

Discipline equals freedom

Discipline is the only real difference between being good and being exceptional. Intrinsic self-discipline is a matter of personal will and actually starts by immediately getting up in the morning when your alarm clock goes off (the first time, cause let’s be real, who doesn’t like to snooze). My two simple actions to improve self-discipline are getting to the office before 8 o’clock and stop snoozing in the morning. Even the distance to the office I work at that day, which varies between 0 to 200 kilometer, shouldn’t be an obstacle. I do not guarantee I will get up as early at 4.30 in the morning as Jocko does though. Discipline results into freedom as you keep a strict and high standard for the simple things in life, like getting up, and gives you more time and freedom for other matters. Ever experienced being stressed out on Sunday, paralyzed on what to actually do with your free time? That is exactly what this principle should cancel out.

Dichotomy of leadership

The closing chapter of the book Extreme Ownership describes that great leadership is all about finding the right balance in dichotomous fields. Examples mentioned in the book are:

  • Personality wise: Confident but not cocky, courageous but not foolhardy, competitive but a gracious loser, attentive to details but not obsessed by them, strong but have endurance, a leader and a follower, humble not passive, aggressive not overbearing, quiet not silent, calm but not robotic, logical but not devoid of emotions.
  • Close with the troops (or teams) but not so close that one becomes more important than another or more important than the good of the team.
  • The ability to execute Extreme Ownership, while exercising Decentralized Command.

Sounds simple summed up like this, but if you really think about it, it is actually really hard to put into practice. Therefore, if you are interested in a different leadership approach than any other business book you’ve read before, give this book a chance. I know I definitely will be re-reading this book over and over again. What do you think of this outstanding approach towards leadership? How do you express ownership in your job? Let us know in the comments below! Jocko Willink shares more of his experiences with the subject on his podcast.

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