Book Notes: Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win

Extreme Ownership


  • Preparation before operations to handle the unexpected
  • Establish procedural guidelines based on novel situations that emerge in practice
  • Context: battle of Ramadi, Iraq, 2006
  • Jocko: led Seal Team Three, Task Unit Bruiser as task unit commander. Leif involved in Charlie Platoon. Returning from combat, Jocko was in charge of all West Coast SEAL teams and Leif ran the SEAL Junior Officer Training Course
  • Extreme Ownership: Leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame.

Part 1: Winning the War Within

Extreme Ownership

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.

This means taking ownership over everything that impacts the mission. I’d subordinates aren’t doing what they should, the leader must explain the strategic mission, develop the tactics, and securing the training and resources necessary. If individuals are not performing at the level required, they must be coached up and mentors. However, mission and team come first, and a difficult decision must be made to terminate them and hire those who can get the job done.

Total responsibility for failure is a difficult thing to accept, and taking ownership when things going wrong requires extraordinary humility and courage. But doing just that is an absolute necessity to learning, growing as a leader, and improving a team’s performance. Leaders must set ego aside. Such a leader does not take credit for the team’s successes but bestows that honor upon junior leaders and members.

With Extreme Ownership, you must remove individual ego and personal agenda. It’s all about the mission. How can you best get your team to most effective excite the plan in order to accomplish the mission?

No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders

Leadership is the single greatest factor in any teams performance. Whether a team succeeds or fails is all up to the leader. The leaders attitude sets the tone for the entire team. The leader drives performance - or doesn’t. And this applies not just to the most senior leader of an overall team, but to the junior leaders of teams within the team.

One thing I didn’t quite get: there was a section on “carrying along mentally weak performers”. But, the focus is on the mission at hand, which for the boat crews was completing hell week and trying to win races. Did those performers not participate? Afterward, the leader Leif insinuated that he talked to other people on the boat crew and they realized there were mentally weak people that they didn’t think were up to the standards. That does not seem like proper leadership - that seems like pointing fingers and casting blame, even when the boat crew as a whole performed well.

It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate.

Leaders should never be satisfied. They must always strive to improve, and they must build that mindset into the team. They must face the facts through a realistic, brutally honest assessment of themselves and their teams performance. Identifying weaknesses, good leaders seek to strengthen them. The best teams are constantly looking to improve and push standards higher.


In order to convince and inspire others to follow and accomplish a mission, a leader must be a true believer in the mission. Even when others doubt and question the amount of risk, the leader must believe in the greater cause. If a leader does not believe, they will hit take the risks required to overcome the inevitable challenges necessary to win.

A leader must ask the question why? Why are we being asked to do this? When an order comes in. Deconstruct the situation, analyze the strategic picture, and come to a conclusion. If one can’t be reached, ask your the chain of command until they understand why.

Check the Ego

Ego clouds and disrupts everything: the planning process, the ability to take good advice, the ability to accept constructive criticism. It can even stifle someone’s sense of self-preservation. Ego can be a good thing - it drives the most successful people to be the best. However, it can prevent us from seeing the world as it is and can become destructive.

When personal agendas become more important than the team and the overarching mission’s success, performance suffers and failure ensues. We must operate with humility.

Part 2: Laws of Combat

Cover and Move

Simply comes down to teamwork: smaller teams within teams can become so focused on their own task that they lose the greater meaning of the mission. Teams might then start to compete with each other, or animosity develops when obstacles occur.


Keep things simple. Start simple. Complexity is to be avoided at all costs when it can. It leads to miscommunication, difficult situations, and higher chance of failure. Simple, not easy.

Prioritize and Execute

The greatest of challenges can overwhelm leaders. That risks failing at all of them. What a leader must do is step back from the emotional reaction and determine the highest priority from the team. Rapidly direct the team to marshal resources. Then, determine the next priority and so on.

Relax, look around, make a call.

Decentralized Command

No single person has the cognitive ability, physical presence, or knowledge of everything to enable them to effectively control every maneuver, every position, or personally manage every person. Decentralized command allows junior leaders to lead from a tactical standpoint while others can take a strategic look at the situation.

Junior leaders must be empowered to make decisions on key tasks necessary to accomplish the mission in the most effective and efficient manner possible. Teams within teams are organized for maximum effectiveness for a particular mission. Every tactical-level team leader must understand not just what to do but why they are doing it?

Junior leaders or team members do not operate on their own program; that results in chaos. Instead, junior leaders must understand what is in the scope of their responsibilities. They must communicate outside their authority to make recommendations, and also pass critical information up the chain so senior leadership can make informed strategic decisions. Junior leaders must be proactive rather than reactive.

Senior leaders must trust their junior leaders, and junior leaders must be able to feel that trust to confidently execute.

When leaders try to take on too much, operations can quickly dissolve into chaos. To fix this is to empower frontline leaders through decentralized command.

Part 3: Sustaining Victory


The best teams employ constant analysis of their tactics and measure their effectiveness so that they can adapt their methods and implement lessons learned for future missions. Analysis addresses the following: what went right? What went wrong? How fan we adapt our tactics to make us even more effective and increase our advantage?

A checklist for planning includes the following:

  • analyze the mission: understand the intent and end goal
  • Identify personnel, assets, resources, and time available
  • Decentralize planning process
  • Determine specific course of action
  • Employees key leaders to develop the plan for the selected course of action
  • Plan for likely contingencies through each phase of the operation
  • Mitigate risks that can be controlled as much as possible
  • Delegate portions of the plan and brief to key junior leaders
  • Continually check and question the plan against emerging information to ensure it still fits the situation
  • Brief the plan to all participants and supporting assets
  • Conduct post-operational debrief after execution

Leading Up and Down the Chain of Command

Leaders posses insight into the bigger picture and strategy, even when they are immersed in the planning of tasks, projects, and operations. This information is not automatically translated to junior members of the team, who are usually focused on their specific task implementation. They do not need the full insight or knowledge of senior leaders, but it is still critical they have an understanding of others roles, and how the mission contributes to big picture success.

This is often not intuitive or obvious to rank-and-file as leaders expect. Leaders must continually communicate with team members about their role in the overall mission. Saying something once does not make it so. Leaders need to communicate the bigger picture in a clear, concise way that team members can understand.

Leaders need to lead up the chain as well. The leaders above have more strategic overview, and are also not mind readers with the details, plans, and daily activities of the team - that must be communicated to them.

Leading up the chain requires tactful engagement with immediate bosses to obtain the decisions and support necessary to enable your team to accomplish its mission and win. It takes more more savvy and skill, as the leader cannot fall back on positional authority. Leaders must also understand that their superiors are allocating with limited resources, and that the team may not be the current priority or senior leadership has decided to go a different direction.

Decisiveness and Uncertainty

Leaders cannot be paralyzed by fear - that results in inaction. It is critical to act decisively amid uncertainty, to make the best decisions based in only the immediate information available. There is no 100% right solution. The picture is never complete. Be ready to make decisions promptly. Then be ready to adjust those decisions quickly based on evolving situations and new information.

Discipline Equals Freedom

The first discipline test is one of willpower in the morning: when your alarm clock goes off. Do you get out of bed, or lie back in comfort? Getting up early makes more time for you to work on what you want, to train, to improve. You are making time for yourself.

Discipline is a battle against taking g the easy road. Discipline demands control and asceticism, but it results in freedom. You have more free time. Your time is more effective. Discipline makes things more flexible, adaptable, and efficient. We can work within the framework of our disciplined procedures.

However, for some teams imposed discipline can be restrictive, inhibiting leaders and teams ability to make decisions and think freely.

As in all things with leadership, there must be a balance between two forces that could be considered opposites. Here, it is discipline and freedom. But, discipline can be a pathway to freedom.