THE MALA’AB DISTRICT, RAMADI, IRAQ: FOG OF WAR
The early morning light was dimmed by a literal fog of war that filled the air: soot from tires the insurgents had set alight in the streets, clouds of dust kicked up from the road by U.S. tanks and Humvees, and powdered concrete from the walls of buildings pulverized by machine gun fire. As our armored Humvee rounded the corner and headed down the street toward the gunfire, I saw a U.S. M1A2 Abrams tank in the middle of the road up ahead, its turret rotated with the huge main gun trained on a building at almost point-blank range. Through the particle-filled air, I could see a smoky-red mist, clearly from a red smoke grenade used by American forces in the area as a general signal for “Help!”
My mind was racing. This was our first major operation in Ramadi and it was total chaos. Beyond the literal fog of war impeding our vision, the figurative “fog of war,” often attributed to Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz,1 had descended upon us, and it was thick with confusion, inaccurate information, broken communications, and mayhem. For this operation, we had four separate elements of SEALs in various sectors of this violent, war-torn city: two SEAL sniper teams with U.S. Army scout snipers and a contingent of Iraqi soldiers, and another element of SEALs embedded with Iraqi soldiers and their U.S. Army combat advisors assigned to clear an entire sector building by building. Finally, my SEAL senior enlisted advisor (a noncommissioned officer) and I rode along with one of the Army company commanders. In total, about three hundred U.S. and Iraqi troops—friendly forces—were operating in this dangerous and hotly contested neighborhood of eastern Ramadi known as the Mala’ab District. The entire place was crawling with muj (pronounced “mooj”), as American forces called them. The enemy insurgent fighters called themselves mujahideen, Arabic for “those engaged in jihad,” which we shortened for expediency. They subscribed to a ruthless, militant version of Islam and they were cunning, barbaric, and lethal. For years, the Mala’ab had remained firmly in their hands. Now, U.S. forces aimed to change that.
The operation had kicked off before sunrise, and with the sun now creeping up over the horizon, everyone was shooting. The myriad of radio networks (or nets) used by the U.S. ground and air units exploded with chatter and incoming reports. Details of U.S. and Iraqi troops wounded or killed came in from different sectors. Following them were reports of enemy fighters killed. U.S. elements tried to decipher what was happening with other U.S. and Iraqi units in adjacent sectors. U.S. Marine Corps ANGLICO (Air-Naval Gunfire Liaison Company) teams coordinated with American attack aircraft overhead in an effort to drop bombs on enemy positions.
Only a few hours into the operation, both of my SEAL sniper elements had been attacked and were now embroiled in serious gunfights. As the element of Iraqi soldiers, U.S. Army Soldiers, and our SEALs cleared buildings across the sector, they met heavy resistance. Dozens of insurgent fighters mounted blistering attacks with PKC2 Russian belt-fed machine guns, deadly RPG-7 shoulder-fired rockets, and AK-47 automatic rifle fire. As we monitored the radio, we heard the U.S. advisors with one of the Iraqi Army elements in advance of the rest report they were engaged in a fierce firefight and requested the QRF (Quick Reaction Force) for help. This particular QRF consisted of four U.S. Army armored Humvees, each mounted with an M2 .50-caliber heavy machine gun, and a dozen or so U.S. Soldiers that could dismount and render assistance. Minutes later, over the radio net, one of my SEAL sniper teams called for the “heavy QRF,” a section (meaning two) of U.S. M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tanks that could bring the thunder with their 120mm main guns and machine guns. That meant my SEALs were in a world of hurt and in need of serious help. I asked the U.S. Army company commander we were with to follow the tanks in, and he complied.
Our Humvee rolled to a stop just behind one of the Abrams tanks, its huge main gun pointed directly at a building and ready to engage. Pushing open the heavy armored door of my vehicle, I stepped out onto the street. I had a gut feeling that something was wrong.
Running over to a Marine ANGLICO gunnery sergeant, I asked him, “What’s going on?”
“Hot damn!” he shouted with excitement. “There’s some muj in that building right there putting up a serious fight!” He pointed to the building across the street, his weapon trained in that direction. It was clear he thought these muj were hard-core. “They killed one of our Iraqi soldiers when we entered the building and wounded a few more. We’ve been hammering them, and I’m working to get some bombs dropped on ’em now.” He was in the midst of coordinating an airstrike with U.S. aircraft overhead to wipe out the enemy fighters holed up inside the building.
I looked around. The building he pointed to was riddled with bullet holes. The QRF Humvees had put over 150 rounds from a .50-caliber heavy machine gun into it and many more smaller caliber rounds from their rifles and light machines. Now the Abrams tank had its huge main gun trained on the building, preparing to reduce it to rubble and kill everyone inside. And if that still didn’t do the job, bombs from the sky would be next.
But something didn’t add up. We were extremely close to where one of our SEAL sniper teams was supposed to be. That sniper team had abandoned the location they had originally planned to use and were in the process of relocating to a new building when all the shooting started. In the mayhem, they hadn’t reported their exact location, but I knew it would be close to the point where I was standing, close to the building the Marine gunny had just pointed to. What really didn’t add up was that these Iraqi soldiers and their U.S. advisors shouldn’t have arrived here for another couple of hours. No other friendly forces were to have entered this sector until we had properly “deconflicted”—determined the exact position of our SEAL sniper team and passed that information to the other friendly units in the operation. But for some reason there were dozens of Iraqi troops and their U.S. Army and Marine combat advisors in the area. It made no sense to me.
“Hold what you got, Gunny. I’m going to check it out,” I said, motioning toward the building on which he had been working to coordinate the airstrike. He looked at me as if I were completely crazy. His Marines and a full platoon of Iraqi soldiers had been engaged in a vicious firefight with the enemy fighters inside that house and couldn’t dislodge them. Whoever they were, they had put up one hell of a fight. In the gunny’s mind, for us to even approach that place was pretty much suicidal. I nodded at my senior enlisted SEAL, who nodded back, and we moved across the street toward the enemy-infested house. Like most of the houses in Iraq, there was an eight-foot concrete wall around it. We approached the door to the compound, which was slightly open. With my M4 rifle at the ready, I kicked the door the rest of the way open only to find I was staring at one of my SEAL platoon chiefs. He stared back at me in wide-eyed surprise.
“What happened?” I asked him.
“Some muj entered the compound. We shot one of them and they attacked—hard-core. They brought it.” I remembered what the gunny had just told me: one of their Iraqi soldiers had been shot when he entered the compound.
At that moment, it all became clear. In the chaos and confusion, somehow a rogue element of Iraqi soldiers had strayed outside the boundaries to which they had been confined and attempted to enter the building occupied by our SEAL sniper team. In the early morning darkness, our SEAL sniper element had seen the silhouette of a man armed with an AK-47 creep into their compound. While there were not supposed to be any friendlies in the vicinity, there were many enemy fighters known to be in the area. With that in mind, our SEALs had engaged the man with the AK-47, thinking they were under attack. Then all hell broke loose.
When gunfire erupted from the house, the Iraqi soldiers outside the compound returned fire and pulled back behind the cover of the concrete walls across the street and in the surrounding buildings. They called in reinforcements, and U.S. Marines and Army troops responded with a vicious barrage of gunfire into the house they assumed was occupied by enemy fighters. Meanwhile, inside the house our SEALs were pinned down and unable to clearly identify that it was friendlies shooting at them. All they could do was return fire as best they could and keep up the fight to prevent being overrun by what they thought were enemy fighters. The U.S. Marine ANGLICO team had come very close to directing airstrikes on the house our SEALs were holed up in. When the .50-caliber machine gun opened up on their position, our SEAL sniper element inside the building, thinking they were under heavy enemy attack, called in the heavy QRF Abrams tanks for support. That’s when I had arrived on the scene.
Inside the compound, the SEAL chief stared back at me, somewhat confused. He no doubt wondered how I had just walked through the hellacious enemy attack to reach his building.
“It was a blue-on-blue,” I said to him. Blue-on-blue—friendly fire, fratricide—the worst thing that could happen. To be killed or wounded by the enemy in battle was bad enough. But to be accidently killed or wounded by friendly fire because someone had screwed up was the most horrible fate. It was also a reality. I had heard the story of X-Ray Platoon from SEAL Team One in Vietnam. The squads split up on a night patrol in the jungle, lost their bearings, and when they bumped into each other again in the darkness, they mistook each other for enemy and opened up with gunfire. A ferocious firefight ensued, leaving one of their own dead and several wounded. That was the last X-Ray Platoon in the SEAL Teams. Henceforth, the name was banished. It was a curse—and a lesson. Friendly fire was completely unacceptable in the SEAL Teams. And now it had just happened to us—to my SEAL task unit.
“What?” the SEAL chief asked with utter disbelief.
“It was a blue-on-blue,” I said again, calmly and as a matter of fact. There was no time to debate or discuss. There were real bad guys out there, and even as we spoke, sporadic gunfire could be heard all around as other elements engaged insurgents in the vicinity. “Now what do ya got?” I asked, needing to know his status and that of his men.
“One SEAL fragged in the face—not too bad. But everyone is rattled. Let’s get them out of here,” replied the chief.
An armored personnel carrier (APC)3 had arrived with the heavy QRF and was sitting out front. “There’s an APC out front. Get your boys loaded up,” I told him.
“Roger,” said the chief.
The SEAL chief, one of the best tactical leaders I’d ever known, quickly got the rest of his SEALs and other troopers down to the front door. They looked more rattled than any human beings I had ever seen. Having been on the receiving end of devastating .50-caliber machine gun rounds punching through the walls around them, they had stared death in the face and did not think they would survive. But they quickly got it together, boarded the APC, and left for the nearby U.S. forward operating base—except the SEAL chief. Tough as nails and ready for more, he stayed with me, unfazed by what had happened and ready for whatever came next.
I made my way back over to the Marine ANGLICO gunny. “The building is clear,” I told him.
“Roger that, Sir,” he replied, looking surprised as he quickly reported it on the radio.
“Where’s the captain?” I asked, wanting to find the U.S. Army company commander.
“Upstairs, here,” he replied motioning toward the building we were in front of.
I walked upstairs and found the company commander hunkered down on the roof of a building. “Everyone OK?” he asked.
“It was a blue-on-blue,” I replied bluntly.
“What?” he asked, stunned.
“It was a blue-on-blue,” I repeated. “One Iraqi soldier KIA,4 a few more wounded. One of my guys wounded, fragged in the face. Everyone else is OK, by a miracle.”
“Roger,” he replied, stunned and disappointed at what had transpired. No doubt, as an outstanding leader himself, he felt somewhat responsible. But having operated in this chaotic urban battlefield for months alongside Iraqi soldiers, he knew how easily such a thing could happen.
But we still had work to do and had to drive on. The operation continued. We conducted two more back-to-back missions, cleared a large portion of the Mala’ab District, and killed dozens of insurgents. The rest of the mission was a success.
But that didn’t matter. I felt sick. One of my men was wounded. An Iraqi soldier was dead and others were wounded. We did it to ourselves, and it happened under my command.
When we completed the last mission of the day, I went to the battalion tactical operations center where I had my field computer set up to receive e-mail from higher headquarters. I dreaded opening and answering the inevitable e-mail inquiries about what had transpired. I wished I had died out on the battlefield. I felt that I deserved it.
My e-mail in-box was full. Word had rapidly spread that we had had a blue-on-blue. I opened an e-mail from my commanding officer (CO) that went straight to the point. It read: “SHUT DOWN. CONDUCT NO MORE OPERATIONS. INVESTIGATING OFFICER, COMMAND MASTER CHIEF, AND I ARE EN ROUTE.” In typical fashion for a Navy mishap, the CO had appointed an investigating officer to determine the facts of what happened and who was responsible.
Another e-mail from one of my old bosses stationed in another city in Iraq, but privy to what was happening in Ramadi, read simply, “Heard you had a blue-on-blue. What the hell?”
All the good things I had done and the solid reputation I had worked hard to establish in my career as a SEAL were now meaningless. Despite the many successful combat operations I had led, I was now the commander of a unit that had committed the SEAL mortal sin.
A day passed as I waited for the arrival of the investigating officer, our CO, and command master chief (CMC), the senior enlisted SEAL at the command. In the meantime, they directed me to prepare a brief detailing what had happened. I knew what this meant. They were looking for someone to blame, and most likely someone to “relieve”—the military euphemism for someone to fire.
Frustrated, angry, and disappointed that this had happened, I began gathering information. As we debriefed, it was obvious there were some serious mistakes made by many individuals both during the planning phase and on the battlefield during execution. Plans were altered but notifications weren’t sent. The communication plan was ambiguous, and confusion about the specific timing of radio procedures contributed to critical failures. The Iraqi Army had adjusted their plan but had not told us. Timelines were pushed without clarification. Locations of friendly forces had not been reported. The list went on and on.
Within Task Unit Bruiser—my own SEAL troop—similar mistakes had been made. The specific location of the sniper team in question had not been passed on to other units. Positive identification of the assumed enemy combatant, who turned out to be an Iraqi soldier, had been insufficient. A thorough SITREP (situation report) had not been passed to me after the initial engagement took place.
The list of mistakes was substantial. As directed, I put together a brief, a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation with timelines and depictions of the movements of friendly units on a map of the area. Then I assembled the list of everything that everyone had done wrong.
It was a thorough explanation of what had happened. It outlined the critical failures that had turned the mission into a nightmare and cost the life of one Iraqi soldier, wounded several more, and, but for a true miracle, could have cost several of our SEALs their lives.
But something was missing. There was some problem, some piece that I hadn’t identified, and it made me feel like the truth wasn’t coming out. Who was to blame?
I reviewed my brief again and again trying to figure out the missing piece, the single point of failure that had led to the incident. But there were so many factors, and I couldn’t figure it out.
Finally, the CO, the CMC, and the investigating officer arrived at our base. They were going to drop their gear, grab some food at the chow hall, and then we would bring everyone together to debrief the event.
I looked through my notes again, trying to place the blame.
Then it hit me.
Despite all the failures of individuals, units, and leaders, and despite the myriad mistakes that had been made, there was only one person to blame for everything that had gone wrong on the operation: me. I hadn’t been with our sniper team when they engaged the Iraqi soldier. I hadn’t been controlling the rogue element of Iraqis that entered the compound. But that didn’t matter. As the SEAL task unit commander, the senior leader on the ground in charge of the mission, I was responsible for everything in Task Unit Bruiser. I had to take complete ownership of what went wrong. That is what a leader does—even if it means getting fired. If anyone was to be blamed and fired for what happened, let it be me.
A few minutes later, I walked into the platoon space where everyone was gathered to debrief. The silence was deafening. The CO sat in the front row. The CMC stood ominously in the back. The SEAL that had been wounded—fragged in the face by a .50-caliber round—was there, his face bandaged up.
I stood before the group. “Whose fault was this?” I asked to the roomful of teammates.
After a few moments of silence, the SEAL who had mistakenly engaged the Iraqi solider spoke up: “It was my fault. I should have positively identified my target.”
“No,” I responded, “It wasn’t your fault. Whose fault was it?” I asked the group again.
“It was my fault,” said the radioman from the sniper element. “I should have passed our position sooner.”
“Wrong,” I responded. “It wasn’t your fault. Whose fault was it?” I asked again.
“It was my fault,” said another SEAL, who was a combat advisor with the Iraqi Army clearance team. “I should have controlled the Iraqis and made sure they stayed in their sector.”
“Negative,” I said. “You are not to blame.” More of my SEALs were ready to explain what they had done wrong and how it had contributed to the failure. But I had heard enough.
“You know whose fault this is? You know who gets all the blame for this?” The entire group sat there in silence, including the CO, the CMC, and the investigating officer. No doubt they were wondering whom I would hold responsible. Finally, I took a deep breath and said, “There is only one person to blame for this: me. I am the commander. I am responsible for the entire operation. As the senior man, I am responsible for every action that takes place on the battlefield. There is no one to blame but me. And I will tell you this right now: I will make sure that nothing like this ever happens to us again.”
It was a heavy burden to bear. But it was absolutely true. I was the leader. I was in charge and I was responsible. Thus, I had to take ownership of everything that went wrong. Despite the tremendous blow to my reputation and to my ego, it was the right thing to do—the only thing to do. I apologized to the wounded SEAL, explaining that it was my fault he was wounded and that we were all lucky he wasn’t dead. We then proceeded to go through the entire operation, piece by piece, identifying everything that happened and what we could do going forward to prevent it from happening again.
Looking back, it is clear that, despite what happened, the full ownership I took of the situation actually increased the trust my commanding officer and master chief had in me. If I had tried to pass the blame on to others, I suspect I would have been fired—deservedly so. The SEALs in the troop, who did not expect me to take the blame, respected the fact that I had taken full responsibility for everything that had happened. They knew it was a dynamic situation caused by a multitude of factors, but I owned them all.
The U.S. Army and U.S. Marine conventional commanders took the debrief points as lessons learned and moved on. Having fought in Ramadi for an extended period of time, they understood something we SEALs did not: blue-on-blue was a risk that had to be mitigated as much as possible in an urban environment, but that risk could not be eliminated. This was urban combat, the most complex and difficult of all warfare, and it was simply impossible to conduct operations without some risk of blue-on-blue. But for SEALs accustomed to working in small groups against point targets, fratricide should never happen.
A very senior and highly respected SEAL officer, who before joining the Navy had been a U.S. Marine Corps platoon commander in Vietnam at the historic Battle of Hue City, came to visit our task unit shortly after the incident. He told me that many of the Marine casualties in Hue were friendly fire, part of the brutal reality of urban combat. He understood what we had experienced and just how easily it could happen.
But, while a blue-on-blue incident in an environment like Ramadi might be likely, if not expected, we vowed to never let it happen again. We analyzed what had happened and implemented the lessons learned. We revised our standard operating procedures and planning methodology to better mitigate risk. As a result of this tragic incident, we undoubtedly saved lives going forward. While we were mistakenly engaged by friendly elements again many times during the rest of the deployment, we never let it escalate and were always able to regain control quickly.
But the tactical avoidance of fratricide was only part of what I learned. When I returned home from deployment, I took over Training Detachment One, which managed all training for West Coast SEAL platoons and task units in preparation for combat deployments. I set up scenarios where blue-on-blue shootings were almost guaranteed to happen. When they did, we, the training cadre, explained how to avoid them.
But more important, the commanders in training could learn what I had learned about leadership. While some commanders took full responsibility for blue-on-blue, others blamed their subordinates for simulated fratricide incidents in training. These weaker commanders would get a solid explanation about the burden of command and the deep meaning of responsibility: the leader is truly and ultimately responsible for everything.
That is Extreme Ownership, the fundamental core of what constitutes an effective leader in the SEAL Teams or in any leadership endeavor.
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.
The best leaders don’t just take responsibility for their job. They take Extreme Ownership of everything that impacts their mission. This fundamental core concept enables SEAL leaders to lead high-performing teams in extraordinary circumstances and win. But Extreme Ownership isn’t a principle whose application is limited to the battlefield. This concept is the number-one characteristic of any high-performance winning team, in any military unit, organization, sports team or business team in any industry.
When subordinates aren’t doing what they should, leaders that exercise Extreme Ownership cannot blame the subordinates. They must first look in the mirror at themselves. The leader bears full responsibility for explaining the strategic mission, developing the tactics, and securing the training and resources to enable the team to properly and successfully execute.
If an individual on the team is not performing at the level required for the team to succeed, the leader must train and mentor that underperformer. But if the underperformer continually fails to meet standards, then a leader who exercises Extreme Ownership must be loyal to the team and the mission above any individual. If underperformers cannot improve, the leader must make the tough call to terminate them and hire others who can get the job done. It is all on the leader.
As individuals, we often attribute the success of others to luck or circumstances and make excuses for our own failures and the failures of our team. We blame our own poor performance on bad luck, circumstances beyond our control, or poorly performing subordinates—anyone but ourselves. Total responsibility for failure is a difficult thing to accept, and taking ownership when things go 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.
Extreme Ownership requires leaders to look at an organization’s problems through the objective lens of reality, without emotional attachments to agendas or plans. It mandates that a leader set ego aside, accept responsibility for failures, attack weaknesses, and consistently work to build a better and more effective team. Such a leader, however, does not take credit for his or her team’s successes but bestows that honor upon his subordinate leaders and team members. When a leader sets such an example and expects this from junior leaders within the team, the mindset develops into the team’s culture at every level. With Extreme Ownership, junior leaders take charge of their smaller teams and their piece of the mission. Efficiency and effectiveness increase exponentially and a high-performance, winning team is the result.
APPLICATION TO BUSINESS
The vice president’s plan looked good on paper. The board of directors had approved the plan the previous year and thought it could decrease production costs. But it wasn’t working. And the board wanted to find out why. Who was at fault? Who was to blame?
I was brought on by the company to help provide leadership guidance and executive coaching to the company’s vice president of manufacturing (VP). Although technically sound and experienced in his particular industry, the VP hadn’t met the manufacturing goals set forth by the company’s board of directors. His plan included the following: consolidate manufacturing plants to eliminate redundancy, increase worker productivity through an incentivized bonus program, and streamline the manufacturing process.
The problem arose in the plan’s execution. At each quarterly board meeting, the VP delivered a myriad of excuses as to why so little of his plan had been executed. After a year, the board wondered if he could effectively lead this change. With little progress to show, the VP’s job was now at risk.
I arrived on scene two weeks before the next board meeting. After spending several hours with the CEO to get some color on the situation, I was introduced to the VP of manufacturing. My initial assessment was positive. The VP was extremely smart and incredibly knowledgeable about the business. But would he be open to coaching?
“So, you’re here to help me, right?” the VP inquired.
Knowing that, due to ego, some people bristle at the idea of criticism and coaching no matter how constructive, I chose to take a more indirect approach.
“Maybe not so much here to help you, but here to help the situation,” I answered, effectively lowering the VP’s defenses.
In the weeks leading up to the board meeting, I researched and examined the details of why the VP’s plan had failed and what had gone wrong, and I spoke to the VP about the problems encountered in the plan’s execution. He explained that the consolidation of manufacturing plants had failed because his distribution managers feared that increasing the distance between plants and distribution centers would prevent face-to-face interaction with the manufacturing team and reduce their ability to tweak order specifics. They surmised it would also inhibit their ability to handle rush-order deliveries. The VP dismissed his distribution managers’ concerns as unfounded. In the event the need arose to adjust orders or customize, a teleconference or videoconference would more than suffice.
The VP also explained why the incentivized bonus structure hadn’t been put in place. Each time his plant managers and other key leaders were presented with the rollout plan, they pushed back with concerns: the employees wouldn’t make enough money; they would leave for jobs with higher base salaries that didn’t require minimum standards; recruiters would capitalize on the change and pull skilled workers away. When the VP pushed the manufacturing managers harder, they teamed up with the sales managers. The two groups opposed the VP’s plan, claiming it was the company’s reputation for skilled manufacturing that kept business coming in, and such a change would put the business at risk.
Finally, when it came to the VP’s plan to streamline the manufacturing process, the pushback was universal and straight from the classic mantra of antichange: “We have always done it this way;” and “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
“What does the board think of these reasons?” I asked, as we discussed the upcoming annual board meeting.
“They listen, but I don’t think they really understand them. And they have been hearing the same reasons for a while now, so I think they are getting frustrated. I don’t know if they believe them anymore. They sound like …”
“Excuses?” I finished the sentence for the VP, knowing the word itself was a big blow to his ego.
“Yes. Yes, they sound like excuses. But these are real and legitimate,” insisted the VP.
“Could there be other reasons your plan wasn’t successfully executed?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” the VP answered. “The market has been tough. New technology advancements have taken some time to work through. Everyone got focused on some products that never really amounted to much. So, yes, there are a host of other reasons.”
“Those all may be factors. But there is one most important reason why this plan has failed,” I said.
“What reason is that?” the VP inquired with interest.
I paused for a moment to see if the VP was ready for what I had to tell him. The impact would be uncomfortable, but there was no way around it. I stated it plainly, “You. You are the reason.”
The VP was surprised, then defensive. “Me?” he protested. “I came up with the plan! I have delivered it over and over. It’s not my fault they aren’t executing it!”
I listened patiently.
“The plant managers, the distribution and sales teams don’t fully support the plan,” he continued. “So how am I supposed to execute it? I’m not out there in the field with them. I can’t make them listen to me.” The VP’s statements gradually became less emphatic. He soon realized what he was saying: he was making excuses.
I explained that the direct responsibility of a leader included getting people to listen, support, and execute plans. To drive the point home, I told him, “You can’t make people listen to you. You can’t make them execute. That might be a temporary solution for a simple task. But to implement real change, to drive people to accomplish something truly complex or difficult or dangerous—you can’t make people do those things. You have to lead them.”
“I did lead them,” the VP protested. “They just didn’t execute.”
But he hadn’t led them, at least not effectively. The measure of this was clear: he had been unsuccessful in implementing his plan.
“When I was in charge of a SEAL platoon or a SEAL task unit conducting combat operations, do you think every operation I led was a success?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No.”
“Absolutely not,” I agreed. “Sure, I led many operations that went well and accomplished the mission. But not always. I have been in charge of operations that went horribly wrong for a number of reasons: bad intelligence, bad decisions by subordinate leadership, mistakes by shooters, coordinating units not following the plan. The list goes on. Combat is a dangerous, complex, dynamic situation, where all kinds of things can go sideways in a hurry, with life and death consequences. There is no way to control every decision, every person, every occurrence that happens out there. It is just impossible. But let me tell you something: when things went wrong, you know who I blamed?” I asked, pausing slightly for this to sink in. “Me,” I said. “I blamed me.”
I continued: “As the commander, everything that happened on the battlefield was my responsibility. Everything. If a supporting unit didn’t do what we needed it to do, then I hadn’t given clear instructions. If one of my machine gunners engaged targets outside his field of fire, then I had not ensured he understood where his field of fire was. If the enemy surprised us and hit us where we hadn’t expected, then I hadn’t thought through all the possibilities. No matter what, I could never blame other people when a mission went wrong.”
The VP contemplated this. After a thoughtful silence, he responded, “I always thought I was a good leader. I’ve always been in leadership positions.”
“That might be one of the issues: in your mind you are doing everything right. So when things go wrong, instead of looking at yourself, you blame others. But no one is infallible. 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 effectively execute the plan in order to accomplish the mission?” I continued. “That is the question you have to ask yourself. That is what Extreme Ownership is all about.”
The VP nodded, beginning to grasp the concept and see its effectiveness.
“Do you think that every one of your employees is blatantly disobedient?” I said.
“No,” the VP said.
“If so, they would need to be fired. But that doesn’t seem to be the situation here,” I continued. “Your people don’t need to be fired. They need to be led.”
“So what am I doing wrong as a leader?” asked the VP. “How can I lead them?”
“It all starts right here with you,” I said. “You must assume total ownership of the failure to implement your new plan. You are to blame. And that is exactly what you need to tell the board.”
“Tell the board that? Are you serious?” the VP asked in disbelief. “I don’t mind taking a little blame, but this is not all my fault.” Though beginning to see the light, he still resisted the idea of taking total responsibility.
“In order to execute this plan, in order to truly become an effective leader, you have to realize and accept total responsibility,” I said. “You have to own it.”
The VP was not yet convinced.
“If one of your manufacturing managers came to you and said, ‘My team is failing,’ what would your response be? Would you blame their team?” I asked.
“No,” the VP admitted.
I explained that as the officer in charge of training for the West Coast SEAL Teams, we put SEAL units through highly demanding scenarios to get them ready for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. When SEAL leaders were placed in worst-case-scenario training situations, it was almost always the leaders’ attitudes that determined whether their SEAL units would ultimately succeed or fail. We knew how hard the training missions were because we had designed them.
In virtually every case, the SEAL troops and platoons that didn’t perform well had leaders who blamed everyone and everything else—their troops, their subordinate leaders, or the scenario. They blamed the SEAL training instructor staff; they blamed inadequate equipment or the experience level of their men. They refused to accept responsibility. Poor performance and mission failure were the result.
The best-performing SEAL units had leaders who accepted responsibility for everything. Every mistake, every failure or shortfall—those leaders would own it. During the debrief after a training mission, those good SEAL leaders took ownership of failures, sought guidance on how to improve, and figured out a way to overcome challenges on the next iteration. The best leaders checked their egos, accepted blame, sought out constructive criticism, and took detailed notes for improvement. They exhibited Extreme Ownership, and as a result, their SEAL platoons and task units dominated.
When a bad SEAL leader walked into a debrief and blamed everyone else, that attitude was picked up by subordinates and team members, who then followed suit. They all blamed everyone else, and inevitably the team was ineffective and unable to properly execute a plan.
Continuing, I told the VP, “In those situations, you ended up with a unit that never felt they were to blame for anything. All they did was make excuses and ultimately never made the adjustments necessary to fix problems. Now, compare that to the commander who came in and took the blame. He said, ‘My subordinate leaders made bad calls; I must not have explained the overall intent well enough.’ Or, ‘The assault force didn’t execute the way I envisioned; I need to make sure they better understand my intent and rehearse more thoroughly.’ The good leaders took ownership of the mistakes and shortfalls. That’s the key difference. And how do you think their SEAL platoons and task units reacted to this type of leadership?”
“They must have respected that,” the VP acknowledged.
“Exactly. They see Extreme Ownership in their leaders, and, as a result, they emulate Extreme Ownership throughout the chain of command down to the most junior personnel. As a group they try to figure out how to fix their problems—instead of trying to figure out who or what to blame. For those on the outside looking in, like our training group—or the board in your case—the difference is obvious.”
“And that is how I appear to the board right now—blaming everyone and everything else,” the VP recognized.
“There is only one way to fix it,” I told him.
For the next several days, I helped the VP prepare for the board meeting. At times, he slipped back into defensiveness, not wanting to accept blame. He felt in many ways that his knowledge exceeded that of many members of the board—and he was probably right. But that didn’t change the fact that he was the leader of a team that was failing its mission. As we rehearsed the VP’s portion of the board presentation, I was unconvinced that he truly accepted total responsibility for his team’s failures. I told him that bluntly.
“I’m saying exactly what you told me to say,” the VP retorted. “The reason that this mission was unsuccessful was my failure as a leader to force execution.”
“That’s the problem,” I said. “You are saying it, but I’m not convinced you believe it. Look at your career. You have accomplished amazing things. But you certainly aren’t perfect. None of us are perfect. You are still learning and growing. We all are. And this is a lesson for you: if you reengage on this task, if you do a stern self-assessment of how you lead and what you can do better, the outcome will be different. But it starts here. It starts at the board meeting when you go in, put your ego aside, and take ownership for the company’s failure here. The board members will be impressed with what they see and hear, because most people are unable to do this. They will respect your Extreme Ownership. Take personal responsibility for the failures. You will come out the other side stronger than ever before,” I concluded.
At the board meeting, the VP did just that. He took the blame for the failure to meet the manufacturing objectives and gave a solid no-nonsense list of corrective measures that he would implement to ensure execution. The list started with what he was going to do differently, not about what other people needed to do. Now, the VP was on his way to Extreme Ownership.
Copyright © 2015, 2017 by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin