The Street Smart Law Blog

Writing 2
  • Frederick L Shelton

Book Review: "Extreme Ownership: How the US Navy SEALs Lead and Win" by Jocko Willink

Don’t make excuses. Don’t blame anyone – including your boss, your subordinates, the economy, COVID, politicians or cat videos.

There are no bad teams, only bad leaders. Own your success and just as importantly, own your failures.

There. You’ve now read the book “Extreme Ownership” by Jocko Willink.

This is a book anyone who is or wants to be a leader, should read. This is definitely a book every lawyer should read (or listen to, which is what I do with most books).

Most people defend themselves, when they make a mistake. They make excuses, they blame others and so on. Lawyers are actually trained to blame others on behalf of their clients. Jocko teaches us the importance of saying "I made that mistake. I own it." One reason that's so important is that as long as we make excuses or blame, we're likely to repeat our mistakes. Extreme Ownership stops that pattern.

"There are no bad teams, just bad leaders. There are no bad associates, just bad partners."

This book teaches why we should embrace Extreme Ownership and provides anecdotes to illustrate the reasoning behind why that concept is critical to becoming a good leader.

One of my favorite anecdotes comes early in the book. Six teams of SEAL trainees are competing. One team is consistently in first place. One is consistently in last place. When the leader of the poorly performing team is questioned, he blames the luck of the draw. He just got the worst performers in the group.

Jocko gives him the team that is consistently performing the best. He gives the losing team to the officer whose team was always winning. While the best team still performs well, the worst team is tied with them or even beats them, consistently.

There are no bad teams, just bad leaders. There are no bad associates, just bad partners.

The worst leaders are what Jocko calls the “Tortured Genius”. They’re easy to spot. They blame everyone but themselves for anything that goes wrong. They fire anyone who dares to disagree with them. They are prone to anger or other emotional outburst. We’ve all seen these types in our work lives and in politics.

But the more subtle type of leadership and success flaws are harder to spot. They avoid ownership with excuses like these:

“I shouldn’t have done that BUT….” (Get rid of your buts!)

“It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have hired that person for that job.” (Passive aggressive blaming)

“My boss didn’t give me the resources or training or whatever.” (It’s YOUR job to pro-actively go to the boss and point out resources or training you need)

"They just don't understand my methods" (blaming employees, trainees or students for being a horrible teacher)

I've seen all of the above. I know a law professor at UNLV who won't tell his students what they did wrong on their assignments or how to improve for the next time. Good thing he's in Academia. Could you imagine a partner at a major law firm, who wouldn't tell his associates what they did wrong or how to become better lawyers? Poor leadership is everywhere but fortunately, real leaders are readers. And they read books like Extreme Ownership.

The Downsides:

I love anecdotes. But I don’t love them as much as Jocko likes telling war stories. It’s like when you go to a seminar and most of it is theory, anecdotes etc. and you’re hungry for something practical and applicable.

About two thirds or more of each chapter is military anecdotes. The remaining third is a mixture of business anecdotes and the actual leadership principle being demonstrated and taught. With that being the case, you might wonder why this book is so wildly successful. The answer is simple. If you want the most interesting anecdotes imaginable, talk to a former US Navy SEAL. There’s a mystery and magic to the SEALs that exploded after their raid on the Bin Laden compound. While Pathfinders, Green Berets and Pararescue are all as bad ass as they come, the publicity and mystique surrounding the SEALs is undeniable. And for good reason.

The Takeaway:

As long as you don’t mind – or even enjoy, lots of really interesting military anecdotes, this book is great. Even if that’s not your cup of tea, it’s still good. I give it an 8.0 on a scale of 1 – 10 for Business Reading.

Frederick Shelton