Krzysztof Witczak

Extreme Ownership

May 30, 2020

I really enjoy watching TED conferences from time to time. Whenever this event happens in my city, I intentionally force my laziness to step away for a second and I even attend TED myself! I’ve seen plenty of good talks, but I would give a lot to see Jocko Willink in action with my bare eyes. If you didn’t see his short lecture, now is the time to catch up in the queue of awesomeness. Trust me, these 14 minutes are worth it.

That was my first ever encounter with this individual and indeed, I was impressed. From the first couple of seconds, you somehow immediately know, that people will be silent during his talk. They won’t dare to whisper. His face looks like typical, badass soldier face from any computer war game. The way he talks, the way he moves. He had seen a lot of bad shit, he radiates with it. Just read the comments under the youtube movie, and you’ll know what my point is.

The Book

A couple of years since this talk I finally got my hands on the book written by Jocko. The intense situation described in the TED talk happens to be a story from one of the first, opening chapters. I’ve read the book in just a couple of days - which is really fast for me.

Extreme Ownership book cover

I truly enjoyed its consistent structure. All of the twelve chapters contains:

  1. A military story, where a moral emerges.
  2. The rule, in short, taken out from the military experience.
  3. An example of the rule implementation in business.

And they are grouped into three larger sections:

  1. Winning the War Within - how to become a leader.
  2. Laws of Combat - how to work as a team,
  3. Sustaining Victory - how to plan and strategize as a leader.

I personally enjoyed the first section the most and I believe it brings the most value out of the book. However, the two other chapters are still good and worth reading.

Ownership - the most important rule

The first chapter explains really well what this book is all about. It shows you in detail, that most of the time when you start blaming others… you should look at yourself instead.

It’s so easy to tell yourself that someone below or above you in the chain of command (that’s right, I’m going to use these terms now) did something wrong. When things turn out to go terribly wrong, how easily and quickly we can spot ten or more reasons, where someone else failed! In case of a business project, that may mean Josh failed to deliver a feature on time, Andrew misunderstood the requirements, or Cindy didn’t catch the bug during a code review. What a convenient view of the world.

Now imagine huge, disappointed Jocko’s face in the middle of your view, yelling: EXCUSES! Maybe Josh failed to deliver a feature on time because you wrote crappy documentation or didn’t answer his questions on time? Andrew misunderstood something, and you didn’t notice? Or maybe you did, but ignored it? “He should know that by now!“. What kind of a leader are you? You must be 100% sure that everyone understands the goal, that’s your damn job, sir! What about Cindy? Do you really expect she will find every nasty ugly bug in anyone’s code? Do you?

Whenever you’ll try to raise your voice and say “well, actually… ” forget about this! If Jocko was able to make his team successful on deadly tracks of Ar-Ramadi and take full ownership of everyone’s action, including the death of his soldiers and friends - you cannot do it, while sitting in the calm, warm seat in front of your desk?

You must own everything in your world. There is no one else to blame.
Jocko Willink

That’s right - as a leader, we need to stand up and take responsibility for our team and our mission. If we don’t, they will never treat us with respect or simply trust us. We always need to take full ownership over the mission success - with this mindset we can clearly notice, that instead of requesting more from the others, we immediately start to require the most out of ourselves.

“There are no bad teams, only bad leaders”

Have you seen a movie Coach Carter? I’m pretty sure that in most cases, any coach that would be introduced to such squad, would probably try out at first, but then, as soon as they notice that team members cause so much trouble as in the movie, they would simply say “well, it’s not worth it, they clearly don’t care, so why should I?“.

It’s easy to say that statement and many teachers or coaches would fail in bringing the mentioned team to a shining glory… but not Coach Carter. Don’t you think that Coach Carter could enter any other team and make it waaaay better? That’s right - he probably would. Every team has potential, and your job - as a leader - is to dig into it and bring it back to the daylight.

The book describes the example of Navy Seals rower teams. Their objective was simple - to swim a distance as quickly as possible. In the end, it was quite easy to find the best and the worst teams. Then, a leader of the best team switched his place with a leader of the worst team. As you can imagine, the leader of the best team was able to coach the worst team and make them better with every single course. After a while, they were winning the race. That proved that a great leader will always make his team shine, instead of blaming them for his failures.

Navy Seals rower teams (Business Insider)

You need to believe

How many times have you been sitting in a company kitchen, whispering, and looking from time to time into a door, afraid that your boss will come and hear your toxic gossip?

Many times we’re pretty sure, that our boss or a leader is just a dummy bum who became our superior by mare accident. Sometimes, we cannot understand the decision made by the boss and we initially start to spawn theories, discuss this with our teammates (because that’s easier to do) and we quickly re-assure ourselves that the decision is weird, pointless and probably just plain stupid. Days fly by, we’ve talked already with ten people and we all agree that our boss has a drinking problem or worse, that’s the only possible reason for all of this.

Instead of doing all of that, we should just ask our boss directly about our doubts. With a short (but not easy) conversation, we would get all of the necessary context and understand why a given decision was made. It sounds so simple, but we actually never do that!

Do you really think your boss wants you or your company to fail?

You should always realize, that you all play in the same team and have a common goal. By spreading your doubts first with other teammates, creating a toxic environment, you make it less likely that everyone will unite and achieve the desired goal. Before you do that - just speak with your boss first. Understand. If that’s not possible right now, ask yourself the question from above, and believe there is a context that you’re probably missing. Get the details as soon as you can. The other byproduct of this action is that your boss will quickly realize that the goal or decision motive was not explained correctly to your team, and he or she needs to do a better job! It may not be obvious, and if you’re a boss already, you’ll certainly know this by now. If only our people would tell us they don’t understand something or don’t agree with our plan… but no, usually they are just afraid to speak up.

That brings another topic - if you create an environment where people try to speak up but you immediately kill the discussion, they’ll stop doing it. They won’t give you any further feedback, and it’s gonna be your fault.

Leading up and down the chain of command

Imagine you need to finish your task really quickly because you’re behind the deadline already and slack notification shows up. It’s your leader. You feel the heat already, the heart starts pounding a little faster. She asks you:

Hey, could you quickly send me a report of logged hours from the last month? Need this asap, sorry to disturb you!

Well, you’re screwed. Creating that report will take probably 30 or 45 minutes and you don’t have that time. She knows that for sure, she even said sorry, so why she bothers you with that stupid report? Couldn’t that be automated, or maybe someone else could do it? Jesus…

This relates to the previous two points I’ve mentioned.

First - take ownership of this situation. It’s your fault, no one else, that you are delayed with the task, it was certainly possible to prevent it somehow. You also know that she wants that report every single month and you always do it on the last possible day!

Secondly - understand why she needs that hourly report. If you do, it may turn out, that she needs to send it before a specific day for accounting reasons, so customer will receive a bill of your hours, so they can charge the customer and you’ll receive payment before the 10th of the month without the delay. Even your boss hates it, hates even to ask you for it, but it’s necessary for the business to operate.

So what you can do about it? Maybe fill up the file every day near the end of your day. However, that’s still not ideal. If you’ll invest more time, you may figure out that your boss is the only person responsible for these hours, and maybe she’s not too tech-savvy or didn’t thought about automating this procedure for real. Probably none of the irritated workers even bothered to help her, instead, everyone just whined. You browse the web and find a time record app for windows, which has a feature of exporting what you’ve been doing for a given day. With it, you can export in 2 minutes report from the whole month, maybe remove few facebook logs here and there, and it’s done. Share it with your boss and instruct how to use it - you’ve just saved a lot of everyone’s time. People start to joke around that you may become a CEO one day.


Extreme Ownership is a great book that shows you that “the hard way” is the only way, if you aspire to be a great leader. Every time you’ll try to blame someone else, avoid the responsibility, you will diverge even more from the right path… and people will notice. And when they do, it won’t be easy to gain their respect back.

That applies in military, business, and also in your personal life.

Highly recommended!

The Book

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win - it’s not affiliate link!

Other Resources