Extreme Ownership; We all are Leaders!

This is a blog from my recent podcast with my Amigo who is known as Agile Maven.

How many of you have read this book “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win” by Jocko Willink & Leif Babin?

We did a little ping-pong conversation between us about the excerpts of the book and how we draw parallels to the Agile principles that was crafted by seventeen software authors in 2001.

Here is my attempt to write these comparisons between Extreme Ownership principles and Agile principles for our readers. I would leave it to you to interpret on how these principles relate to your professional and personal lives.

The book is authored by two Ex-US Navy Seals who narrate different situations that they have come across during their service and how important it is for one to be an effective leader to overcome those situations and be on the right side of the result at the end of the day.

The book explains 12 extreme principles of Extreme Ownership which is nicely categorised into three parts:

1) Winning the War Within

2) The Laws of Combat

3) Sustaining Victory

Before I go down the route to interpret my comparison between these 12 principles and Agile principles, let me pen down my understanding of what ‘Extreme Ownership’ is.

The term Extreme Ownership basically means Leadership as something that is applicable to every layer, every person, every hierarchy within a troop or a military group, and not just about the top layer of the group.

They go further ahead to explain Extreme Ownership as each person’s responsibility and accountability and not just one person who is the head of the group. They must take their own decisions for the better good of the group or the community or perhaps, even a country.

Talking about everyone becoming a Leader, there are a few more important leadership characteristics that one should know and master such as being humble and controlling your ego as a leader. Dan Rockwell is called as a ‘Leadership Freak’ and he describes 5 practices of a humble leadership.

Those are:

1) Bragging about others.

2) Courageously learn.

3) Turn conversation towards others, rather than a self-centric talk.

4) Raise your hand when it is time for you to take the responsibility and

5) Combine passionate drive with humility.

So, let us get straight to the principles.

Winning the War Within

Extreme Ownership Principle no 1: Extreme Ownership

Leaders must own everything in their world. They cannot go blaming others for their failures. They are responsible for everything – that’s Extreme Ownership. We often have people say, ” It is not my job”. That is where we differentiate between an efficient leader and an inefficient one.

Extreme Ownership Principle no 2: No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders

Teams that are usually driven by their superiors can sometimes slip into this mode of finding excuses that we are not the reason for failure, but we did what our manager told us to. Have you heard that?

This principle talks about leaders not making any excuses for the failures and taking complete ownership of it. The first principle leads us to think everyone’s a leader by taking responsibilities for their failures, which means there are no bad teams. Each one within a team is a leader, there can be only efficient and inefficient leaders but not bad teams.

Extreme Ownership Principle no 3: Believe

This is such an important principle to me. In order to convince and inspire others to accomplish a mission, a leader (you) must be a true believer in the mission. Simon Sinek is a renowned Leadership Speaker, and he says, “There are only 2 ways to influence the human behaviour – manipulate it or inspire it”.

Agile/Scrum teams should believe in what they do, be it sprint goals, or the management team believing in their team delivering value to their customers. This should work both ways – the top-down and the bottom-up. This ties well with Agile principle no.5, “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done.”

Extreme Ownership Principle no 4: Check The Ego

Ego is a big impediment in many ways when you want to become a successful leader. It just wouldn’t allow you to think outside of yourself, which will close those openings that lead you to become an effective leader.

Good and effective leaders control their ego. Agile Maven states “One of the examples how most organisations fuel the ego is during recruitment when we expect a certain number of years of experience for a job. I won’t deny that a certain level of skills is necessary for any job, blanketing it to believe that this comes only from years spent in an industry seems wrong. And this usually fuels the Hippo behaviour during meetings or the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. If we see in a way, the newer generations have access to more information and experience that was ever available to their relatively older generation. So, in theory, the skills of someone who’s spent 15 years in an industry is possibly the same as someone who’s spent 10 years, just because they came 5 years later”.

Now, about controlling ego, it builds on as you gain more success and fame. This is termed as a hubris syndrome by a couple of professors from the Duke University. We all understand when we talk about Leadership, we talk about people. But we also realise people change. So, the rise of ego should be controlled, if you want to be a successful leader.

Laws of Combat

Extreme Ownership Principle no 5: Cover and Move

In simple terms, I would call this as ‘Teamwork’. The book explains this principle by giving a live incident that happened with them. As narrated, two teams in Iraq were in a combat. One deep in the army territory far away from their base, another team on a tower nearby to their base. Team 1 that was deep in the enemy territory successfully came back to their base and were extremely happy with their achievement. However, it did not impress their superiors as ‘Cover and Move’ was not effectively used with Team 2 there.

Likewise, within our business scenario, you may have taken up work items that are not just your team’s responsibility to deliver, but it requires us to collaborate with other teams external to yours, communicate effectively, show the sense of oneness and deliver the solution/product as ONE team.

Extreme Ownership Principle no 6: Simple

This principle needs no explanation. In no means I say it is easy to follow. You may draw a straight line towards one of the Agile principles around simplicity “Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.”

Complex plans, processes, interactions, instructions, practices can only bring a lot of unrest within the team and the members of the team tend to make more mistakes as complexities create confusions.

To be an effective leader, one must keep it simple. Be it communication, laying out processes within the teams, ways of working, coding standards, plans etc.

Extreme Ownership Principle no 7: Prioritize and Execute

I wear the hat of a Product Owner here to explain this principle. In a usual Scrum scenario, the product owner picks up the highest priority items and feeds that into the Dev team, while team works on it to produce Minimum Viable Product (MVP). This is exactly what they mean by ‘Prioritize and Execute’. It is important for any effective leader to prioritize their tasks and execute.

This principle can be practised by anyone within your team, anyone from within your family too. How many of you agree with me when I say there are no better leaders than our parents? We have seen how best they would prioritize the tasks (to do activities) and execute them.

Another example is when you plan to host a few guests at your home. You plan, prioritize the activities, and then execute it to give them a great experience. Is it not?

 Extreme Ownership Principle no 8: Decentralized Command

This extreme principle talks about decentralizing the command and control. Wiki defines ‘Decentralization’ as the process by which the activities of an organization, particularly those regarding planning and decision making, are distributed, or delegated away from a central, authoritative location or group.

How apt is this principle when it comes to Agile ways of working? Agile talks about letting go off command and control. This is required to empower your team members. Allow them to self-organise, let me take their decisions, allow them to experiment, that is when creativity makes its way in.

This principle is so relevant to today’s lean approach and to be on top of the list amidst your competitors. Rather than senior leaders making decisions for the team, the junior leaders or the team members should have the authority to take decisions and be able to get the support of their senior leaders. Agile principle (The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams) supports the same too.

Sustaining Victory

Extreme Ownership Principle no 9: Plan

Principle no.9 of Extreme Ownership is just the opposite of one of the Agile Manifestos that states, “Responding to Change over Following a plan”. Is that the right interpretation? Let’s look into it.

While all the four Agile Manifestos say while there is value in the items on the right, for Agile to work in the organisations we value the items on the left more. This means, you still need a plan, may not be an upfront plan for say 6 months to 1 year, you still need a plan for small iterations. With no plan, you have no direction to proceed. Agile teams have their planning at different levels. Be it at their Daily Scrum – planning for the next 24 hours, or the sprint planning – planning their work for 1-4 weeklong iterations.

So, plan is important, if you do it for short duration and evolve and build on to it further. While prioritizing and executing them are equally important too for sustainable value delivery.

Extreme Ownership Principle no 10: Leading Up and Down the Chain Of Command

This Extreme Ownership principle talks a wee bit different from Agile principles here. In Agile, we do encourage decisions made by consensus of the team rather than one person taking those decisions. However, Extreme Ownership encourages you to not only lead up, but lead down the chain of command.

To give you an example, if you are sitting in a team meeting and your boss takes a decision on your teams’ behalf, it is important for you to not confront the decision taken. As a responsible Leader, it is important for you to constructively challenge the decision in a safe, conducive environment in a respectable way. That shows you are not revolting against the decision taken, but you would like to understand the reasoning behind the decision taken. That is Leading Up!

The Leading Down is to keep it simple. It can be the communication, can be the processes, structures, the Vision of your team etc. If you want the others to look up to you as an effective Leader, then you got to look at yourself and inspect and adapt every now and then to shape yourself up to deserve the position of an effective Leader. That is Leading Down!

Extreme Ownership Principle no 11: Decisiveness Amid Uncertainty

As most of us know, there is this famous saying ‘Be the change you want to see’ – by M.K Gandhi. This is precisely what we need to do and be. We need to demonstrate those qualities that we expect from our team members. As leaders, it becomes important to walk the talk. This is the best way to get your team members’ trust, and they start believing what you say to them after that.

Not all decisions can wait until everything is in place to make it. There are certain times when you need to go with what you have and that is what the book says about Principle no 11. You may fail or succeed, which is secondary. What is important here is to take that decision with given options to you at that point.

Extreme Ownership Principle no 12: Discipline Equals Freedom -The Dichotomy of Leadership

The authors of this book have authored another book that entirely talks about the dichotomy of leadership. So, what does ‘The Dichotomy of Leadership’ mean?

This means a leader should own everything within the team, but also empowers the team to take appropriate decisions

I’d always like to bring the flavour of a family in all that I do. Think about how a father/mother is to their child. They must give their child that freedom to explore, be creative, make mistakes, learn from it, while they also need to ensure the child is very well disciplined and becomes a great human being in future. Now, this requires a fine balance between those two and if you are a father or a mother reading this, you probably would be agreeing with me.

This is what the principle no 12 talks about a leader needing to find the equilibrium in the dichotomy of many qualities that are demonstrated.

Another point the authors make here is, if you are a leader and ready to lead, you should also be ready to follow. Which means, if your team has a better suggestion, idea, that works for the team, then you as a leader should be ready to follow that, if it is better suited to your team. This way, you walk the talk, show your team that you are ready to accept feedback and open to ideas with less or no criticism.

All these 12 Extreme principles are my interpretation of reading this book “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win” by Jocko Willink & Leif Babin. You may have different perspective to it.



Sri (Your Agile Amigo)


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