Jocko Willink, a former Navy SEAL and best-selling author, served in the military for 20 years. Jocko has had a variety of leadership positions, from commanding SEAL Team 3’s “Task Unit Bruiser” in war to training future SEALs as an instructor. He has worked under conditions so harsh that most people in the IT industry would have a hard time imagining them.
“You’re going to have things go wrong on a battlefield, just like you’re going to have things go wrong in business,” Jocko added. But here’s the thing: you can learn a lot from Jocko’s experiences, even if you can’t connect to all he’s gone through. Regardless of whether they are troops or civilians, the best leaders accept responsibility for their challenges.
Jocko has developed a unique capacity to recognize the attributes that create a successful leader and the ability to condense and express those qualities to others throughout the years.
His philosophy is based on four fundamental principles:
Take full responsibility for your actions. Make the decision that you will not make excuses or blame others or things for your issues.
For several years, Jocko has been practicing – and teaching to military and commercial leaders alike – the notion of extreme ownership. When an issue happens, extreme ownership is about not making excuses or blaming anyone or anything else. Instead, the emphasis is on taking personal responsibility for the situation and holding oneself accountable for its resolution.
When teams are confronted with problems, challenges, or bad outcomes, however, there is often a lot of finger-pointing. No one wants to take responsibility and stand up. And this has a negative ripple effect throughout your team. Jocko put it this way:
When I point my finger at you or you, or I point my finger at anyone in this room, and I start blaming you for something [that’s] gone wrong, what’s your reaction? We get defensive. And we start pointing the fingers back and pointing the fingers at someone else. And pretty soon what we have is everyone on the team is pointing fingers at each other. No one is taking ownership of the problems and, therefore, the problems don’t get solved. That team is never going to perform well.
While the concept of extreme ownership may appear straightforward, Jocko claims that the most challenging element is understanding that it’s all about you, not your teammates.
Keep in mind that discipline equals freedom. Do you wish you had more spare time? The solution is to be more conscientious about how you handle your time.
At first look, the equation “discipline = freedom” may appear as an oxymoron or a paradox. After all, aren’t discipline and liberty opposed?
Discipline, according to Jocko, is adhering to “a rigid, planned manner of doing things,” whereas freedom entails doing anything we choose. So, how do you get from one to the other? Jocko used the example of free time in his talk to demonstrate how “discipline = freedom” works:
Of course, everybody wants free time. More free time is better. How do you get more free time? The way you get more free time is by having more disciplined time management. That’s how you get more free time.
So, if you want more free time, you’ve got to wake up earlier. You’ve got to prepare a schedule. You’ve got to stay to that schedule. You’ve got to stop doing things that waste your time, like clicking on the next YouTube video, right? You’ve already watched 14 of them. You don’t need to watch another video of a cat. You don’t need to.
“The more discipline you have in your life, the more freedom you’re going to have in your life,” Jocko concludes. This is true not only for individuals but also for groups.
Action is the default setting. Set things in motion. Take control of the situation. Move quickly. Strive towards your objectives with vigor (but not toward your teammates).
Default to action has been one of Drift’s fundamental values since the company’s inception. Instead of passively waiting for things to change or an issue to be solved, you should take charge of the situation. Alternatively, as Jocko phrased it:
You got to be aggressive. Default aggressive. That’s got to be your default mode – to get aggressive and get problems solved. That problem’s not going to solve itself…
If you drop the ball with a client, can you just hide from them? That problem’s not going to get better. It’s going to get worse. So you need to make things happen. You need to move fast. You need to take that initiative. You need to be aggressive.
To be clear, Jocko does not advocate being combative with your teammates since this serves to suffocate relationships and intensify difficulties. Jocko used the following example of threatening to terminate someone to keep them in line:
If I’m like, ‘Vitus, if you don’t do what I tell you, I’m going to fire you.’ Does that help build the relationship we were working on? Not at all. In fact, he doesn’t even want to work for me.
It’s not about “being violent towards your folks” for Jocko when he defaults to aggression. Instead, it’s “about being aggressive in pursuing your goals, solving issues, and completing your mission.”
Maintain a healthy ego. When you believe you have all the answers, you stop listening to others and stagnate your growth.
What is the single most important quality a leader must possess? Jocko has a simple answer to the question:
As Jocko noted, the Navy SEALs who were fired from leadership roles during his time in the service were fired for lack of humility, not for lack of abilities or experience:
Think about what it does to your brain if you lack humility. If you lack humility, you don’t listen to anybody else. You don’t listen to your subordinates. What do they know? You don’t listen to your peers because you do it better than them. You don’t even listen to your boss anymore, because you’re like, ‘Aw, my boss is up in that ivory tower. They don’t know what’s going on down here.’
So you don’t listen to anybody. And when you don’t listen to anybody, your team can’t adopt any new methodology or any new technology. You just stay stagnant.
The solution is to remain modest. You must keep your ego in check. It’s critical not only for your personal development but also for the success of your team and organization. Because, as Jocko pointed out, a lack of humility is a weakness that your competitors might exploit:
The other thing that happens if you’re not humble is you don’t respect your enemy. You don’t respect your competitors. And when you don’t respect your competitor, guess what happens? You start cutting corners. You stop preparing as much. You don’t train as hard. And when you don’t train and you don’t prepare and you cut corners, guess what happens? You get caught.
Finally, you must be able to “look in the mirror and do a good, solid, tough appraisal of yourself” to be a successful leader. Because if you can’t find places where you (or your company) can improve, your growth will be stifled. And, in the words of Jocko, “the minute you stop improving and don’t try to get better, that’s when you start going backward.”