Extreme Ownership: No bad teams, only bad leaders

Extreme Ownership is full of memorable stories and much more advice on leadership than I will cover in this blog post. I recommend you grab a copy of the book or check out the authors’ Muster events in a city near you to learn much more about Extreme Ownership.

And now for my takeaway…

Leadership pointers from Navy Seals, what could it offer? Sage advice and a few argument starters in my experience. In 1:1s with my team members we covered a few quotes from the book and debated their merit. When the dust settled, it was clear to me what was valuable in this book’s approach to leadership. Read on to learn about Extreme Ownership and how you can identify it in action.

Extreme Ownership

A number of agreeable tidbits were in the beginning of this book. Such as:

“most people want to be part of a winning team. Yet, they often don’t know how, or simply need motivation and encouragement. Teams need a forcing function to get the different members working together to accomplish the mission and that is what leadership is all about.”

And this:

“Every leader and every team at some point or time will fail and must confront that failure. … For leaders, the humility to admit and own mistakes and develop a plan to overcome them is essential to success. The best leaders are not driven by ego or personal agendas. They are simply focused on the mission and how best to accomplish it.”

But soon the book dove into conversation igniters like this:

“On any team, in any organization, all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader. The leader must own everything in his or her world. There is no one else to blame. The leader must acknowledge mistakes and admit failures, take ownership of them, and develop a plan to win.”

All responsibility for success and failure? On the leader? This would usually get some raised eyebrows at first and become a sticking point later, so more on this point at the bottom…

Because once we got to the next quote it was full on debate time!

“…one of the most fundamental and important truths at the heart of Extreme Ownership: there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.”

Hmm, no bad teams, only bad leaders? Does that mean only bad leaders have bad teams? Can’t good leaders be unfortunate to work with a dysfunctional team? The book had a few anecdotes about this and it’s reasonable to assume that the best of leaders can take dysfunctional teams and make them successful. But for those leaders that are less than “the best” isn’t it harsh to say they are a bad leader if the team fails?  Typically my partners in discussion would agree that a leader picks the team, builds the team from members they pick, or has the power to dismantle and rebuild if it wasn’t operating successfully as a team. With that precondition: the ability for a leader to adjust the makeup of the team, then this idea that a bad team reflects badly on the leader makes more sense.  Adjusting the makeup of the team can be in response to members continually underperforming, and Extreme Ownership states that this is distinctly what a leader is responsible for.

“When leaders who epitomize Extreme Ownership drive their teams to achieve a higher standard of performance, they must recognize that when it comes to standards, as a leader, it’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate. When setting expectations, no matter what has been said or written, if substandard performance is accepted and no one is held accountable–if there are no consequences–that poor performance becomes the new standard. Therefore, leaders must enforce standards. Consequences for failing need not be immediately severe, but leaders must ensure that tasks are repeated until the higher expected standard is achieved.”

Note that consequences for failing to meet a standard “need not be immediately severe” but raising the team’s standards to an acceptable level is a leader’s responsibility.

The debate then is one of “what if the leader tries many things (so give them credit for trying) but the team just always suffers from some other setback internally or some other external factor?” — according to the book, if the team continues to to fail beyond some threshold (whether it be time or cost to the organization) then that’s a failure of leadership – and that failure of leadership can extend all the way up the chain as leaders are responsible for holding other leaders accountable and “must ensure that tasks are repeated until the higher expected standard is achieved.”

What about the reverse? What if we said “there are no good teams, only good leaders”? It was easy to conclude with my team members that this is simply False. We don’t believe in a grand puppet master guiding lemmings to success in our business, and good teams can excel even in the absence of good leadership. Indeed, we believe great teams can excel for a time even when they are hampered with bad leadership.

So the big sticking point was still this quote from Extreme Ownership:

“all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader”

We don’t believe in a puppet master, so how can all responsibility for success and failure rest with the leader? Maybe we now agree that continued failure beyond some threshold does fully rest with the leader. But all responsibility for success resting with the leader sounds like puppet-master doublespeak!

And the book double-downs (and not the lovely KFC style) on this idea of success resting on the leader’s shoulders:

“The only meaningful measure for a leader is whether the team succeeds or fails. For all the definitions, descriptions, and characterizations of leaders, there are only two that matter: effective and ineffective. Effective leaders lead successful teams that accomplish their mission and win. Ineffective leaders do not.”

The only meaningful measure for a leaders is whether the team succeeds, effective leaders lead successful teams that accomplish their mission and win – consistently. Is that fair to the team? The leader is effective if the team succeeds and all responsibility for success rests with the leader? What about the team’s effectiveness and responsibility?

It might be easy to read that last quote and imagine leaders’ egos expand an order of magnitude in response. If their teams are delivering and they believe this book’s message then why wouldn’t they take all the credit for success? But that’s not how I interpreted the book, nor how the authors wanted it to be interpreted as far as I can tell. Reading this makes it clear that ego and grand puppet-master delusions are not what we want in leaders:

“Ego clouds and disrupts everything: the planning process, the ability to take good advice, and the ability to accept constructive criticism. It can even stifle someone’s sense of self-preservation. Often, the most difficult ego to deal with is your own. Everyone has an ego. Ego drives the most successful people in life — in the SEAL Teams, in the military, in the business world. They want to win, to be the best. That is good. But when ego clouds our judgement and prevents us from seeing the world as it is, then ego becomes destructive. When personal agendas become more important than the team and the overarching mission’s success, performance suffers and failure ensues. Many of the disruptive issues that arise within any team can be attributed directly to a problem with ego. Implementing Extreme Ownership requires checking your ego and operating with a high degree of humility. Admitting mistakes, taking ownership, and developing a plan to overcome challenges are integral to any successful team. Ego can prevent a leader from conducting an honest, realistic assessment of his or her own performance and the performance of the team.”

Ego can prevent an honest, realistic assessment of a leader’s performance in the team. And great teams can excel for a time even with poor leadership – which may be why the authors say over and over: “check your ego.”

Teams don’t consistently succeed because their leader is some grand puppet-master carrying them over the finish line. Teams consistently succeed because they are filled with a sense of ownership over the mission and outcome. The greatest teams are filled with leaders (every member of the team exhibits leadership) and everyone feels responsibility for success and failure – they all want to see the team succeed.

When your teammates look in the mirror and say “if the team is failing I’m responsible for stepping in, helping out, and pushing them” just like you do – then you know you’re on a team that embraces Extreme Ownership. Anyone can become a leader, everyone can embrace ownership and feel responsible. And when you’re surrounded by people that want to succeed like you, that take ownership like you, and feel responsible for failures like you – then you’re bound to be in a high-performing or up-and-coming team.

There are no rock star leaders. No puppet-masters. But a culture of Extreme Ownership starts with at least one person somewhere exhibiting the qualities of leadership – taking responsibility for things that others will not.

So “all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader” may be true from that first leader’s perspective as they take responsibility for the tasks at hand that others have not, but maturity in leadership and team culture comes when everyone is a leader and everyone feels they also have responsibility for the success and failure of the team.

And that’s what I’ve learned from Extreme Ownership.

Extreme Ownership is a fantastic book for anyone wishing to be a better leader and build successful teams.

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