We live in a time of extreme complexity and uncertainty. In order to stay competitive in the business world, you’re constantly having to adapt and change. As a leader in this environment, you’re often forced to make decisions when you don’t have all the information that you need.
Yet the complexity and uncertainty of the marketplace doesn’t compare to that of war. On the battlefield, things happen fast and officers and soldiers on the ground have to make life or death decisions in a matter of seconds. How do they do it? And is there anything that civilians can learn from members of the military on how to lead and make better decisions in a fast-changing environment?
My guest today has written a book on this very topic. His name is Jocko Willink, and he’s a retired Navy SEAL officer who not only led a SEAL team during the Battle of Ramadi but also developed a leadership training program for the SEALs. He now spends his time teaching business executives the battle-tested leadership skills that helped him during his time in combat. Jocko has distilled these leadership lessons in his book Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win.
Today on the show, Jocko and I discuss what extreme ownership is and why every leader needs to develop it, how to plan and make decisions in uncertain environments, and why discipline equals freedom. If you’re a leader in any capacity, you’re going to get a lot out of this show. It’s a kick in the pants.
- Jocko’s experience as a SEAL in Ramadi
- The leadership training that Jocko created and what leadership training was like in the SEALs before Jocko developed his protocols
- What makes a SEAL a SEAL
- How Jocko transitioned from a SEAL officer to a business consultant
- What Extreme Ownership is and why a leader needs to develop it
- What it means to take “extreme ownership”
- The gut-check moment in Jocko’s SEAL career where he had to practice extreme ownership
- What keeps leaders from embracing extreme ownership
- How to overcome the fear of firing someone when it’s for the good of the team
- What “Commander’s Intent” is and why it’s vital for a leader to communicate it clearly
- Why a leader should develop “Decentralized Command” in their organization
- Using the OODA Loop for making decisions in times of uncertainty
- How to plan like a SEAL
- The benefit of planning even when things don’t end up going according to plan
- How to “lead up” the chain of command
- Why discipline equals freedom
- Jocko’s sleep schedule
- How leaders can create a culture of discipline in their organization
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- Battle of Ramadi
- Echelon Front
- Dean Lister
- Jocko’s MMA Gym
- Leif Babin
- How to fire someone
- Commander’s Intent
- John Boyd
- The OODA Loop
- SMEAC Planning
- Jocko on where discipline comes from
- How to become an early riser
- Up Before the Enemy
- Tim Ferris’ Podcast
Extreme Ownership is one of the best books on leadership that I’ve read. If you lead others in any capacity, it’s essential reading. The chapter on self-discipline alone is worth the price of the book.
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. We live in a time of uncertainty and complexity. Things are constantly changing, whether it’s in business, politics, just life in general. You’re always having to constantly adapt. You’re having to make decisions when you don’t have all the information. The place where this complexity and uncertainty is at its peak is during combat. Things happen fast, and you have to make decisions that are life or death when you don’t have all the information. How do you do that? There’s possibly insights we can get from the men who make these sorts of decisions, and lead other individuals in these sorts of situations, and how we can apply it to our own lives. My guest today has done that.
His name is Jocko Willink. He is a retired Navy SEAL officer, served in Ramadi, and during his time there, he developed a leadership training protocol or program to train other Navy SEAL officers. He taught men how to lead others during times of intense complexity and uncertainty, and he’s written a book on how we can apply those principles from the battlefield to our daily lives, and business, or just in our personal lives. At the end of the show, Jocko and I discuss some of the principles. One of them is extreme ownership, what that is, why every leader needs to develop that. We discuss how to make decisions when you don’t have all the information available to you. At the end, you’re going to realize you’re going to love this part. We talked about self-discipline, and why it’s a vital trait for every leader to develop himself, but also be able to develop in the individuals that he is following.
Great podcast if you are a leader in any sort of capacity. You can get a lot of information. Make sure you take notes, and after the show, make sure you check out our show notes at aom.is/jocko. That’s J-O-C-K-O, where you can find links to resources and information that we talked about during the show, or you can dig deeper into this topic. Without further ado, Jocko Willink and extreme ownership. Jocko Willink, welcome to the show.
Jocko Willink: Glad to be here.
Brett McKay: You have an impressive resume. You’re a successful businessman, run a business consulting firm. Also, own an MMA gym, but you’re also a retired Navy SEAL officer. Can we talk a bit about your curriculum vitae, because I think it’s going to put a lot of our conversation today in context about your book, Extreme Ownership.
Jocko Willink: Sure. As you said, I was in the SEAL teams. I did 20 years in the Navy. I joined the Navy right out of high school, and went through Navy boot camp, went to SEAL training, got done with that, and then showed up at a SEAL team, where I did 20 years. That was pretty much my whole adult life.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and then you served an interesting time. You served before 9-11, so the dead years, right?
Jocko Willink: Yeah, the dry years. No war going on, and it was … We trained hard, and we were motivated, but yeah. There was no war going on, so it was, you didn’t get that experience from combat. I didn’t shoot my gun at the enemy until I’d been in the SEAL teams for 13 years, which is a pretty long time to be training.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and then Afghanistan, Iraq happened. You were part of a unit called Task Unit Bruiser, and you were in Ramadi. What was your involvement there, because that was one of the big flash points in the wars.
Jocko Willink: Yeah, definitely. It was a tipping point as well, and I was the commander of tasking at Bruiser, which is basically two SEAL platoons, and then a bunch of support personnel that support the SEAL platoons. People that do intelligence, people that repair the radios, people that repair the Humvees, people that take care of our weapons. Just basic support like that, and it ends up being about 100 people total in the task unit. We were there helping out the conventional units that were actually in control of Ramadi, were trying to fight for control of Ramadi. Those were the 228, which was a reserve unit out of Pennsylvania, and then they get relieved by the 11AD, the ready first brigade, which is an armored brigade of soldiers, and there was Marines as well.
Brett McKay: While you were there, while you were a SEAL, I though that it was interesting, you talked about in the book, you helped develop leadership training for Navy SEAL officers. I’m curious. What was leadership training like in the SEALs before you and I guess Leif? Leif, Leif, developed your training protocols.
Jocko Willink: Yeah, so when I grew up in the SEAL teams, the leadership training was really basically OJT, on the job training. Guys would show up, and if you were an enlisted guy, as you went through the ranks, you’d learn, and you’d watch, and you’d get the job, and then you’d get the next senior job, and then you’d get the next senior job. By the time that you got to a real leadership position, you should know what you’re doing, and with the officers, and with the officers, they would get counseled and mentored by other officers, and by the senior enlisted guys. While that sometimes works amazingly if you have a super mentor that really knows what they’re doing, but that’s not always the case. You end up with some folks that don’t really know how to lead, and they’re teaching other people their improper leadership techniques. It ends up to be very bad, and so we end up with some SEAL platoons that would have great leadership, and some SEAL platoons that would have not so great leadership.
When I came back from that deployment to Ramadi, which was a very challenging deployment, and was a tough fight. It was very violent, and we had a lot of combat action. When I got back from that deployment, I was really focused on making sure that people knew how to lead, because what we saw on the battlefield was that leadership is the most important thing. I’m not just talking about the guys that were in the leadership positions, like myself as a task unit commander, or Leif, who was a platoon commander, but the squad commanders, and the fire team leaders, and even the new guys that were just leading their little piece of the mission. That’s what we’re talking about, when we’re talking about leadership. It goes throughout the chain of command, and so we wanted to make sure when I got back, we wanted to make sure that the SEALs that were getting ready to deploy into that hellhole had the same leadership capability.
That’s what we did. We really focused on, when I took over … I took over the training for the West Coast SEAL teams, and this is not the training that you see on TV, where guys are carrying boats on their heads, and they’re doing a bunch of push-ups, they’re climbing ropes at an obstacle course. This training is nothing like that. That’s the basic SEAL training, and it really has no meaning, in terms of becoming an actual SEAL. What makes you a SEAL, what makes you a SEAL is being a good tactician on the battle field, understanding how to shoot, move, and communicate, knowing small unit maneuver warfare. That’s what makes a good SEAL, and so that is the course of instruction that I taught, was getting SEAL platoons ready for deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Brett McKay: You basically institutionalized this knowledge that was being passed down.
Jocko Willink: Yes. Yes, and we took it. With the lessons that I had learned from the Vietnam veterans back when I was a new guy in the ’90s, and then I was able to test and confirm in the battle Ramadi, and really crystallize those lessons learned. We just took them, and started passing them down in a more doctrinalized format, so they wouldn’t get lost, and so that the guys could continue to learn them and pass them on without any hiccups, or any loss of knowledge as time goes on.
Brett McKay: You spent 20 years as a SEAL. What did you do after your career as a SEAL ended?
Jocko Willink: I was probably six months from retirement, and I had a guy ask me, that I knew that was the CEO of a company, say, “Hey, can you come and talk to my executives about leadership?” I said, “Sure. No problem.” I went up, and I actually took one of the leadership briefs that I would give the young SEAL leaders, I took one of those, and I declassified it. I took the classified missions out, and I brought it up, and I taught these executives the principles that I had been teaching the SEAL leaders. When I got done with this brief, the CEO of the company came up to me and said, “Hey, I need you to do this for every division I have,” and I said, “Okay. Well, okay, I can do that.” At one of those divisional meetings, the CEO of the parent company was there, and he came up to me and said, “Hey, I want you to come and talk to all my CEOs of the companies that I own.” I said, “Okay. Great.”
Once I went and did that, there was multiple CEOs that now said, “Hey, can you come talk to my company,” and as this started to grow, it was just word of mouth. It took off, and at some point during that, Leif, who I wrote the book with, who was one of the platoon commanders that worked for me in Ramadi, he had left the Navy, and he had started doing similar things with some companies. We just realized that there was a real need out there to get these leadership principles out to the public, and that’s what we started doing. It grew very quickly.
Brett McKay: That’s Echelon Front, right?
Jocko Willink: Yeah. That’s the company. It’s called Echelon Front.
Brett McKay: Right. Besides having that awesome iron in the fire, you decided to start an MMA gym as well. How did that go about? Is it just a passion you had, and you just wanted to make an awesome MMA gym?
Jocko Willink: Actually, the MMA gym I had before Echelon Front. I had that before I retired from the Navy, and all it was was, I’d been training jujitsu and MMA for a long time, and I was good friends and training partners with a guy named Dean Lister, who is a former pride fighter and a former UFC fighter, and multiple time world champ in jujitsu and submission grappling. We had kind of bounced from gym to gym, and none of the gyms at that time really had everything that you would want. There were specific jujitsu gyms. There were specific conditioning, sort of strength and conditioning gyms, and then specific boxing gyms. I like things to be more efficient than that, and so with another SEAL buddy of mine, and with Dean, we got together and said, “Let’s just open a place that has everything that we need, strength and conditioning, jujitsu, boxing, wrestling, moi tai,” and so that’s what we did. We opened this big gym, and it’s been open for, I don’t know, I think about eight years or so.
Brett McKay: No, it looks impressive. I went to the site, did the virtual tour, and it looks awesome.
Jocko Willink: Yeah, it is. It’s an awesome place. It’s a little place of jujitsu heaven.
Brett McKay: Jujitsu heaven. Okay. All this career you’ve had leads up to this book you wrote, Extreme Ownership. It’s about leadership, and you co-authored it with Leif. You highlight the principles you taught other SEAL officers, but also what you’ve been teaching civilian executives in the business world. Yeah, really one of the best books on leadership I’ve read. The first chapter is on extreme ownership, the title of your book. Can you explain what extreme ownership is, and why a leader needs to develop it?
Jocko Willink: We named the book Extreme Ownership because we really found that when we looked at, not only at leaders, but at teams, that were the most successful, we found that the ones that had this attitude of extreme ownership were the ones that did the best, and it’s definitely an attitude that I had. It’s definitely an attitude that our task unit had, which is we’re not going to make excuses. We’re not going to cast blame on anybody else. We’re going to take responsibility and ownership of everything that’s happening in our world. That’s what extreme ownership is. I’m not going to blame anybody. I’m going to take ownership, but I’m going to make things right with all the assets that I have. When you do that, instead of saying, “Oh, well, it wasn’t my fault. It was because we didn’t get the support that we needed, or it’s because I didn’t have the assets that I needed, or it’s because I didn’t get the training that I needed, or it’s because the enemy did something I didn’t expect, or I didn’t have the right people in place.”
All those excuses that you make, no. Just throw those all out the window, take ownership, and make things happen the way they’re supposed to happen.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and so are there any examples from your career as a SEAL, where you saw extreme ownership in action, by yourself, or maybe some other platoon leader you had?
Jocko Willink: The most glaring example is the one that I talk about in the book, and that’s really, I think, the best example I could possibly come up with, and that’s why I used it in the book, which was where we were on a operation, a very complex operation, in a very bad neighborhood, a enemy-controlled neighborhood in southeast Ramadi. A lot of bad things happened, and to make a long story short, there was what’s called a blue-on-blue, or a fratricide, which is when friendly forces kill other friendly forces, which as you can imagine, is the absolute worst possible thing that can happen in war. It was one of my SEALs that actually shot and killed a friendly Iraqi soldier, and then there were several more wounded. One of my SEALs were wounded. There was Army and Marine Corps involved in this. It was a very bad scenario, and there were a lot of things that had happened, a lot of mistakes that were made that led up to this.
As you can imagine, when something like this happens, number one, it’s devastating for moral, and it’s a very serious problem. When it occurred, I immediately, or I was out in the field for the rest of the day. It happened in the early morning, and the rest of the day, I went through conducting further operations. When I got back, we got shut down from operations by my commanding officer, and he said, “Hey, shut down operations. I’m coming out with the investigating officer to see what happened. Put together a brief, so you can tell me what went wrong, and we can settle it.” I’m basically thinking, “Okay, this makes sense that they’re gonna come out and fire someone for this happening.” Right? A friendly soldier’s been killed. Another SEAL’s been wounded. Other friendly soldiers have been wounded. Somebody’s got to pay for this, for lack of a better word. To my mind, that was just, “Someone’s gonna get fired.”
I started putting together the brief, and listed all the mistakes that had been made, and mapped it out, and there were people that moved to the wrong position, and people that didn’t pass radio calls, and Iraqi soldiers that went where they weren’t supposed to go. There was a whole litany of problems that had occurred, and when we got in the … Just as we were getting ready to debrief, finally the commanding officer and the investigating officer show up, and they’re eating lunch, and I’m literally finishing up the brief. I still just couldn’t come to grips with who was actually to blame in this situation, and as I sat there thinking about it, it hit me like a bolt of lightning, that I needed to treat this like I treated everything else in my career, which is, I am the person that’s ultimately responsible for what happens on the battlefield.
We went into the debriefing room, and as I had my whole platoon in there, had the investigating officer, the commanding officer, the command master chief. I got the guy that’s wounded, who’d been shot in the face, in the back of the room with his face bandaged up. I said, “All right, whose fault was this?” I had one guy raise his hand, and say, “It was my fault. I didn’t pass the coordinates on the radio.” I said, “No, it wasn’t your fault.” It was another guy that raised his hand. He said, “You know, I didn’t positively identify the person that I shot, and I should’ve. It’s my fault.” I said, “No, it wasn’t your fault.” This went on a couple more guys, and finally I said, “Listen, this wasn’t your fault. This wasn’t your fault. This wasn’t your fault. There is only one person to blame for this, and that’s me. I’m the commander, and I’m responsible for everything that happens out on the battlefield, and I will tell you this. We will make sure that this never happens again.”
That ownership, of course, this could’ve been the end of my career. This could’ve been, my commanding officer said, “Yup. Okay. It’s your fault. You’re fired.” Instead, he realized that I was a guy that was going to take responsibility for what was happening, and there was plenty of other people to blame. There was plenty of other mistakes that were made, but I took ownership of their mistakes as well. I don’t say just that with lip service. I truly meant, the guy that didn’t pass communications early enough? That’s my fault. I didn’t make it clear to him that it was important that he pass the communications of what their location was before they moved there, what location they were going to before they got there. I didn’t make that clear enough. That’s my fault, and I went right on down the line with that belief.
Taking that ownership, it meant that not only was I trying to solve the problem, but now all of these guys that work for me, that all felt like, hey, they had contributed to the problem, but they took ownership of their problems, and we all took ownership of the problems, the various problems, the various mistakes that had been made, and we made sure that they never happened again. That attitude, when you have it, it is what turns a team into a high performing winning team, because like I said, if I’m blaming everybody else, they’re blaming other people, too. If everyone’s blaming each other for the things that go wrong, then who’s taking responsibility for the problems? The answer is nobody. If no one’s taking responsibility for the problems, then who’s going to solve the problems? The answer is nobody.
Whereas if I’m taking ownership, and I say to you, I say, “Hey, Brett. This is my fault that I didn’t make this clear to you,” you’re going to say, “You know what, Jocko? Actually, I should’ve asked the question, because I’m responsible. When we get out there for that piece of the mission, I should’ve asked the question and made sure it was clear.” Now you’re trying to solve the problem, I’m trying to solve the problem, and now the problem gets solved. When you end up with a whole team like that, that’s when you end up with a team that’s going to win every time.
Brett McKay: It starts with the leader. It’s the trickle down effect.
Jocko Willink: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: Yeah. That’s really hard to do, though. What keeps managers from embracing extreme ownership? How do you check your ego? Like you said, you could’ve shifted the blame to someone else to save your career, your reputation. How do you overcome that fear?
Jocko Willink: Like you said, it’s all ego. That’s the main reason why someone won’t say, “Hey, this problem in this mission, or this situation, this is my fault. I’m the leader. It’s my fault.” Think about it. If my machine gunner makes a mistake and starts shooting in the wrong direction, sure, I can blame it on him, but why is he doing that? He’s doing it because I didn’t make it clear what direction he was supposed to shoot. I didn’t make it clear what his field of fire was. I didn’t make it clear where the limits of his field of fire were. If I failed on all those points, it’s actually my fault. If all I do is blame, and blame, and blame, like I said, no one’s going to take ownership for the problems, and they’re not going to get solved. You got to get rid of your ego, and take the heat, like a leader does. You have to maintain your integrity as a leader.
The other piece of this is, sometimes feel that if I take the blame for it, if I say, “Hey, Brett. This was my fault,” you’re going to say, “That’s right, Jocko. It was your fault.” The reality is, that doesn’t happen. You might get a small percentage of people that are just basically sociopaths, that don’t take the blame for anything, but most people that are part of a team are going to look at you and say, “Hey, you know what? No, it wasn’t your fault. It was my fault. I could’ve stepped up. I could’ve done a better job.” You got to have the confidence in yourself, from a leadership perspective, that when you step up and take ownership of something, people are going to say, “You know what? I respect what he’s saying. I respect that he’s admitting that it was a mistake, and I’m gonna help him, and I’m gonna help the team to do better.”
Brett McKay: Another part of extreme ownership. I think this is hard for a lot of managers. Maybe your experience as an officer in the SEALs can provide some insights on how to deal with this. Let’s say you take extreme ownership, and your team’s suffering. They’re performing not well, and you coach them, you communicate better, you try to solve the problem, but there’s still members on your team who aren’t up to snuff, and it’s causing the whole team to suffer. You come to that decision, you have to let that person go, right? You’ve done all you could, but they’re still not performing the way they need to be. That’s a scary thing for a lot of managers, to say, “Okay, I got to fire this individual before the good of the team.” How do you overcome that fear that a lot of managers might have?
Jocko Willink: First of all, you sort of said it when you said you’ve done everything you can. Most of the times, when I’m working with executives, and it comes time to start firing people, one of the reasons that they don’t feel comfortable with it is because they realize that they themselves, as a leader, have failed to invest in that person, coach them, mentor them, get them up to speed, lay out clearly what the expectations are, explain to them what will happen if they don’t meet those expectations. If you’re my employee, and it’s time for me to fire you, you should know 100% that it’s coming. You should realize that you’ve failed. You should actually step up to me and say, “Hey, Jocko. I realize that I let you down. I’m sorry, and I know that you’re gonna have to let me go.” That’s what you want.
The bottom line, you’re not going to feel like that every time, and then you have to get to a point where you realize that loyalty to the team trumps loyalty to an individual. If you continue to keep low performers on your team, that are actually dragging the team down, you’re failing the whole team, and eventually, the whole team is going to fail. Yes, you have to step up. You have to learn how to overcome that loyalty, that you have to your individuals has got to be overcome by loyalty to team, and you got to take care of the team as a whole.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s probably something you’ve had to deal with a lot as an officer in the SEALs.
Jocko Willink: Yeah. When we had guys, which I had multiple guys throughout my career that wouldn’t be able to perform their duties as a SEAL, then I’d let them go. This doesn’t mean, and I want people to … I don’t want to perpetuate the stereotype that everybody that’s in the military, and every SEAL is this high speed terminator robot that just is a machine, that will do whatever you tell it, because that’s not the case, and you end up with people in your … It’s a bell curve, just like any other organization, and so you got some guys that are on the low end. There’s a difference between a guy that’s on the low end, and a guy that’s going to put the team at risk. When you got a guy at the low end, maybe you have to put them in a specific job that they can handle, or maybe you have to give them duties that are things that are within their capabilities.
They’re not going to step up and do some of the more challenging tasks, but there’s jobs for them. Even in SEAL teams, we have jobs that can be done by a guy that might not be ready for harder challenges yet. That’s your job as a leader, is to make everybody get the best you can out of every single person, but you have to be careful that that idea of taking care of my people, and making sure I get the best out of them, doesn’t cross over to a point where you’re keeping a guy along, keeping a guy there that doesn’t belong there.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you had a great example in the book about a CEO had a friend that he was just really loyal to him, and he finally had to let him go. Even his friend knew it was coming, like you just said. Usually, when you’re about to get fired, you know it’s about to happen, because you knew the expectations that were set for you.
Jocko Willink: Yes.
Brett McKay: It went off without a hitch.
Jocko Willink: Yeah, and in fact, in that case, they actually moved the guy to a … They discontinued the division that he was in, and moved him into another division where he could actually contribute to the company. Yeah. The boss, if he did what he wanted to do for the individual relationship, he would’ve kept him around, but he realized that they were bleeding money, and he couldn’t do that.
Brett McKay: Yeah. There’s a principle you talk about in the book throughout the book, from military leadership, called commander’s intent. What is that? Is that a mission statement, or is it something else?
Jocko Willink: It’s similar to a mission statement, but really the highlight of commander’s intent is to make sure that the troops know why they’re doing what they’re doing. What is the end state that they’re going for? What is the ultimate goal that they’re trying for? What’s so important about that is that is what allows the front line leaders to make decisions on the specific situations that they might be in. If they don’t have that, if they don’t understand why, if you don’t understand what direction they’re supposed to be heading, and what the end state is supposed to look like, they can’t make any adjustments out there on the battlefield. What do they have to do? They have to call you as the boss, and say, “Hey, there’s been this thing that I wasn’t expecting. What should I do now?” Now we’ve got lag, and we’ve got slow reaction time, and that’s when the enemy will get ahead of you.
Brett McKay: Commander’s intent is what allows what you call in the book, decentralized command.
Jocko Willink: Yeah, it’s the most critical piece of decentralized command, is to make sure that people understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. One of the examples that I use all the time, a very simple example, is if you and I were going on a mission, and I said, “Hey, Brett. Once we get this target secure, and we’ve got the building under control, I want you to go to the rooftop and set security.” You say, “Okay, Jocko. Got it.” We go on the mission, we take down the building, we got the target secure, you take your team up to the rooftop to set security. When you get up there, you’re expecting there to be some cover and concealment for your guys, but it turns out that this roof is completely flat. There’s nowhere for you to hide, and you’re just exposed up there.
What do you do? I told you to go up there and set security, so you sit there. You’ve got your team up there, and you’re all exposed to enemy fire, and the enemy can see you very clearly. It’s a horrible situation. If we rewind that, back to the planning phase, and I say, “Hey, Brett. Once we get the target secure, I want you to go to the rooftop, and set security, and the reason why I want you to do that is, I want you to make sure that there’s no enemy coming down this road from the north.” You say, “Okay. Got it, Jocko.” Same thing happens. We go on the mission, we take down the building. The building’s secure. You go to the rooftop. There’s nowhere for you to hide on the rooftop, nowhere for your team to get cover and concealment on the rooftop. You say, “Hey, guys. Come with me.”
You bring them down one floor. You bring them to this room that you saw on the way up, that has north facing windows. You open up the windows. You put your machine gunners in place. You call me up on the radio, and you say, “Hey, Jocko. Went to the rooftoo. There was no cover up there. We moved down to the third floor. I’ve got eyes on the road. It’s covered. We’re good to go.” The only reason you were able to make that decision is because you understood the intent of what your mission was, and so it’s a very simple way of explaining it, but that’s what commander’s intent is, and that’s why commander’s intent is the critical component of decentralized commanding control.
Brett McKay: What messes up executives, in trying to come up with commander’s intent, or explaining commander’s intent?
Jocko Willink: Often times, they don’t explain it at all. Often times, and it happens in the military, and it happens in the civilian world, people are just telling people what to do. I tell you what to do, it only works until what you do has to change a little bit. Of course, in business, in life, in combat, the scenario that you plan for is not going to unfold the way you expect. There are going to be variables that you aren’t going to expect, that are going to be different than what the plan was, and the only way that you can get people to lead in those situations is if they know what the end state is, they know what the goal is, they know what the commander’s intent is. That’s why it’s so critical and so important.
Brett McKay: I imagine a lot of the executives might think, “Oh, it’s a waste of time, right? I had to explain why. They should know why.” I think there’s a lot of assuming going on.
Jocko Willink: Obviously, that’s not a very good idea, and one thing that we learned a pretty tough lesson in Ramadi was, when we looked at how much, and when we talked to the troops, especially even when we got back. When we realized how little our own guys understood what had been happening on a strategic level while we were in Ramadi, we realized we had let them down. That were often times where we weren’t explaining the why good enough to them. We got it to them for maybe a specific mission, but they didn’t really understand the impact of what we were doing overall, and that made it tough to go on mission, after mission, after mission, when your friends, you’re under a constant threat of getting wounded or killed, and you’ve got your friends getting wounded and killed, and you’re not 100% sure of the why. That’s really challenging. Luckily, I just had some brave, brave souls with me that went into the fray day after day.
Brett McKay: Jocko, war is extremely complex. Lots of things going on at the same time. Unpredictability, and business, to a certain extent, too, is also very complex. You have different organizations working on the same project, working on tasks in parallel. This adds in a lot of uncertainty into the mix. As a leader who is expected to make decisive decisions, right, how do you deal with the uncertainty that exists out there?
Jocko Willink: For one thing, obviously you’re never going to know everything. That is not going to happen. You’re not going to have all the intelligence that you need, and even if you had every ounce of intelligence that you needed, there’s still variables that no one can predict. What the market is going to do, what the enemy’s going to do, what the competitors are going to do, what the weather is going to do. With all these variables that you have, first of all, you have to know how to detach from the situation. You can’t get all emotional. You can’t get wound up, or spun up, about what’s happening, or things that aren’t going the way you expect. You have to detach from those emotions, and be able to step back, and look at the broader picture.
Obviously, you’ve got to make a decision. There’s a great technique, and I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this. It’s called the OODA loop. I don’t even think we put it in the book, but it’s-
Brett McKay: No. Okay. I’ve written about the OODA Loop. I love John Boyd.
Jocko Willink: Yeah, so John Boyd, famous Air Force pilot who was pretty much respected and known as the best pilot ever, in modern Air Force. He came up with this thing, with the OODA loop, observe, orient, decide, and act. Really, that’s what you need to do when things are complex, and things are unfolding in front of you. I always say that there’s very few decisions that you need to make 100% at the moment. Of course, they do exist, and decisions like that, you know what you have to do? You have to look with what you have. You have to make a decision. You have to go. That’s it, but most decisions can be slowed down somewhat. You can make an iterative decision that’s smaller to see how it affects the situation, and how the situation continues to unfold.
You observe what’s happening, you orient yourself to it, you decide what you’re going to do, you act, but then you reboot, and you do it again. Observe how that worked, observe how that happened, and then decide what you’re going to do, and then act again. Try and chunk those decisions down a little bit. What can you do? For instance, we need to attack this building. Okay. Do I need to attack the building 100% right now? Maybe I start off by moving troops in vicinity of the building. Then maybe I get snipers to move a little bit closer, and get eyes on. Maybe I stage the assault force in a position where they can assault quickly. I’ve got everything set, but I still haven’t pulled the trigger. Now I can say, “Okay, now we’ve observed the person that we’re actually looking for in the target building. Now I can pull the trigger, and we can execute.”
When I got asked 20 hours ago, “Hey,” or I had to make a decision to hit the target, I didn’t really have to make the decision there. What I did do is put my forces in the correct position, get more intelligence, stage my people in the right spot, let them understand the situation better, so that way when the actual time for the decision comes up, I can pull the trigger and go. By the way, we could’ve observed that place for 48 hours. We never see the person that we’re actually looking for. Let the guys fade away. We come back, and it’s no problem. We haven’t burned the target. I think you sometimes have to gradiate, modulate your decision making process, to just slow it down a little bit, and see what you can do to stage and be ready for an expected or unknown outcome.
Like I said, there are times where you just have to make a decision. Oh, if we’re getting attacked right now, we’re going to flank them. There, my decision’s been made. Punch right and flank them. Done. That’s very easy.
Brett McKay: Jocko, I think a lot of people have this idea of Navy SEALs being the work off the fly, the renegades, et cetera, et cetera, but one thing I was surprised in the book is the amount of planning that goes on for these missions. Can you talk about the checklist you went through as an officer, when you planned even some of the simplest missions. What sort of planning did you do to get ready for that?
Jocko Willink: We absolutely do all the planning that we possibly can. What’s interesting is, if you ask me how long it takes to plan, or if you ask me how much time we spent planning, there’s some missions that we plan for 15 minutes, because as we just talked about, sometimes you get a time-sensitive target, and you just don’t have time to detail planning. Other missions, we plan for weeks, because we find out where the target is, we find out what the mission is, and so we have all this time to plan and prepare. We absolutely would, in those time periods, whether it was 15 minutes or 15 days, we would still do our best to go through a standard checklist of what we had to assess, the intelligence we had to gather, the questions that we had, then how we were going to execute the mission, phase by phase, and we could do this in a very rapid manner, or we could do it in a very deliberate and slow manner.
We basically used one of the oldest planning methodologies in the military, which is SMEAC, and it’s an acronym that stands for situation, mission, enemy, admin and logistics, and command and signal. It just covers the basis of what you’re going to … Sorry, I said enemy, and I meant execution. It just covers what you’re going to do, who you’re facing, what you’re trying to take care of, what assets you have, who’s going to support you, how you’re going to communicate to each other, who’s in charge of the various aspects. It’s a very simple checklist, and when we work with civilian companies, what we do is, we don’t impose this checklist on them, but we use it as a baseline for them to formulate how they’re going to do their repetitive planning activities.
For instance, we’ll have, let’s say a retail company that’s going to be putting retail outlets in various places, and they’re expanding their market. Okay. Let’s look at how we’re going to do that planning. First, you have to identify a location, you have to check the demographics of the location. We go through this whole thing, then we have to figure out what the leases are going to be. They come up with their own checklist, but once they’ve done that, now when they move and they do multiple areas, they’ve got a baseline to go off of, and they don’t miss steps. That’s the main thing that we do with our checklist. We put them in place, that we don’t miss steps.
Brett McKay: Eisenhower has that phrase. Plans are useless, but planning is everything, that idea that once you meet the enemy, the plans often times go out the door. What is the benefit of planning, even if you don’t end up following the plan to the tee when you actually have contact with the enemy?
Jocko Willink: First of all, we would operate … Much of our plan would be in the form of standard operating procedures, so we would have certain standard operating procedures, and all we would have to do is link together various standard operating procedures, and then there is our plan. What’s beautiful about standard operating procedures is if something that you didn’t expect happens, you can just quickly alter and go to a different standard operating procedure, and then adapt from there. The planning and the rehearsal, it allows you to know what you’re planning to do. It gives you a line to deviate from. It gives you an organization structure, and one thing I would always say is, make your organizational structure as flexible as possible. That way, when you get out on the battlefield, and you run into something that you don’t expect, you can very quickly flex.
Again, it gives you a baseline to deviate from, which is very important. If you go out there with no starting point, with no datum from which to begin, you’re going to be in a world of hurt once the complexities hit you.
Brett McKay: Right. I guess that’s like the orient phase of the OODA loop. You’re orienting yourself. It allows you to make decisions on the fly afterwards.
Jocko Willink: Yes.
Brett McKay: Right. You have this idea about leading down the chain of command, which I think we all understand. It’s the hierarchy. You do what the boss says, and then you say that a leader needs to know how to lead up the chain of command. What do you mean by that?
Jocko Willink: First of all, the idea of extreme ownership, which I already discussed about how I was taking the blame for mistakes that my guys made. If my machine gunners shot the wrong way, it was my fault. It does the same way up the chain of command, so in other words, if my boss isn’t giving me the support that I need, he’s not giving me the training that I need, he’s not giving me the equipment that I need. Most people just want to blame their boss. When that happens, I blame myself. That means I didn’t educate my boss. It means I didn’t influence my boss. It means that I didn’t explain to hi in a method that he could clearly understand what it was that I needed. You’ve got to remember that. My boss and me, in combat or in business, we’re going to have the same ultimate goal is going to be aligned. The same ultimate is going to be aligned.
In war, we’re going to kill bad guys and win the war. That’s the goal. In business, we’re going to be profitable. We’re going to have good customer service, and we’re going to be profitable. Whatever those goals might be, we’re going to be aligned, and so if I present something to my boss that’s going to help us kill bad guys and win the war, then why would my boss not give it to me? The only reason he wouldn’t give it to me is if I didn’t explain it to him well enough, or I didn’t make it clear, or I didn’t jump through the little bureaucratic hoops that I’m supposed to jump through in order to get what I need. For me just to say, “Oh, the boss didn’t give it to us. That’s why we failed the mission,” is wrong.
The caveat is, of course this doesn’t mean that you’re always going to get what you want from the boss, because if I ask my boss for a good example, and this would happen on a fairly regular basis, if I say, “Hey, boss. I need air support for tonight. I need a dedicate, multiple aircraft overhead to help us out if we get in trouble.” That’s going to help us kill bad guys and win the war. My boss says, “You can’t have it.” I say, “Well, wait a second, boss. Why can’t I have it?” He says, “Here’s what’s going on. You guys are gonna be very close to your base tonight. I got two other platoons. They’re going out far away from their base. They’re actually going into worse areas. I’m giving them the aircraft that we had, because we had limited assets.”
Okay, now can I argue with that? No. That actually makes sense, and also, now, when my guys, when I go to my guys, and I say, “Hey, listen guys. We have no air support for tonight. I asked the boss. They couldn’t give it to us. Here’s why. There’s other platoons that are going out into a worse area further away from base. They’re getting the air support.” Now my guys understand why the boss is making this decision, because if all I tell my guys is, “Hey, we’re not getting air support tonight,” what do the troopers think? The troops say, “They don’t understand. They’re not helping us. We’re not getting the support that we need. The boss doesn’t get it.” That starts to formulate a bad team, a team that doesn’t believe that we’re all working together to accomplish the mission.
When you ask your boss why, and you have that explanation for your troops, then your guys go, “Okay, got it. I didn’t realize there were other missions going on tonight that needed the air support more than us. We’ll deal with it.” There’s a huge part that role plays of leading up the chain of command, and making sure that you’re taking ownership of your boss as well as your troops.
Brett McKay: The whole idea of going up the chain of command was awesome, because I think a lot of times, particularly in the business world, people forget that their boss is on the same side as them. They think if their boss isn’t cooperating with them, “Well, he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about the objectives we’re trying to fill.” It’s like, no. He cares. He’s on the same team as you. Like you said, you just need to do a better job, take ownership of it, and explain to him why you actually need this thing.
Jocko Willink: That’s it. That’s exactly it.
Brett McKay: You have this section on discipline, and you have this phrase. Discipline equals freedom. For a lot of people, that’s like, no. Discipline is, you have to do stuff you don’t want to do. It means you have to wake up early when you don’t want to. It means exercising when you don’t want to, and you’d rather just sit around and watch TV. How does discipline equal freedom?
Jocko Willink: Let’s just start with the example that you just gave. You have to wake up early even though you don’t want to. People want to have more free time, right? They want to have the freedom of time to do what they want. How are you going to get more free time? The answer is very simple. You have to have discipline. You have to have a disciplined time management schedule. You have to have the discipline to get up and get out of bed in the morning. I’ll tell you what, too. Morning hours are worth extra. They’re longer than regular hours that are during the day, because no one’s bothering you, no one’s getting in your way, no one’s talking to you. You just do what you need to do, so when you get up very early in the morning, you can accomplish a lot more, and that actually, that discipline of waking up early actually gives you more freedom in the rest of the day, and the rest of the week, because you get more done. That is a perfect example of how discipline equals freedom.
Same thing with working out. We want to be healthy. We want to be free from being sick, and coming down with illnesses, and we want to be free from injury. How do you maintain health? You have to have the discipline to eat right. You have to have the discipline to work out, so you stay flexible, you stay strong, you stay healthy. Those are two really easy examples of how discipline equals freedom.
Brett McKay: Yeah, the waking up early. I see this on Instagram all the time. People showing pictures of their watches at 4:30 in the morning. I think you’re responsible for this.
Jocko Willink: I think I might be.
Brett McKay: Up before the enemy. You wake up at 4:30 in the morning.
Jocko Willink: Yes.
Brett McKay: That’s nuts, and so what you do with all your free time that you have in the morning?
Jocko Willink: I wake up. I have a great workout. I do a little bit of work in the morning, normally work that takes a certain type of thought process. I do some of that work in the morning, before the world starts. By the time that the family is awake, I’m way ahead.
Brett McKay: What time do you go to bed at night?
Jocko Willink: I go to bed around 11:00.
Brett McKay: 11:00 to 4:30. How many hours of sleep is that? Five?
Jocko Willink: I usually try for five and a half hours. Five and a half hours, it works for me. I know that it doesn’t work for everybody, and some people need more sleep, some people need less sleep. I always like to point out that everyone’s all excited because I’m getting up at 4:30, but there’s people that are getting up, or there’s single moms out there that are working two jobs, that are getting up at 3:00 in the morning to go to the diner, to open it up, and start waiting tables. I’m just a guy that wakes up early, and I actually have the luxury of waking up early. A lot of people aren’t in that situation, but there’s also people that could be waking up early and doing a lot more than they’re doing, and they instead, unfortunately, they let the laziness win out. They hit that snooze button, and they end up not doing what they should be doing.
Brett McKay: I can see how it’d be beneficial for a leader to develop self-discipline in his life. How do you, as a leader, help create a culture of discipline in your organization?
Jocko Willink: It comes with the same mindset. First of all, be disciplined yourself. There’s nothing sadder than a boss that is encouraging people to come in early, and they’re not showing up early themselves. On top of that, this idea of standard operating procedures, of putting procedures in place, of having process in place that they can follow. Again, as you said earlier, this might make people think that we’re going to be more restricted as a team because we’ve got these standard operating procedures in place, that we’re going to be constrained by them. Actually, the opposite is true. If you would see my SEAL platoons, or my SEAL task units, we were very highly disciplined, and had standard operating procedures for everything, for the way we got into vehicles, the way we got out of vehicles, the way we got into buildings, the way we got out of buildings, the way we talked on the radio. We had a standard operating procedure for everything.
This didn’t make us more constrained. It gave us all kinds of freedom, because we were so disciplined that if I needed a building taken down, I could look at you if you were my task unit, Brett, and I’d say, “Brett, go take down that building over there,” and you would just go hit it. You didn’t have to tell me how you were going to do it. You didn’t have to tell me who you were going to take with you. You didn’t have to tell me what methodology you were going to use. You didn’t have to tell me what you were going to do if you got into a firefight. You knew all those things, and I knew all those things. Your troops knew all those things, so we had complete freedom to execute, execute, execute, and I could send you in that building, you in another building, you in another building, and we could do it very quickly and rapidly, because we were highly disciplined. The discipline that we had as an organization actually gives you more freedom.
Brett McKay: It’s the paradox of discipline.
Jocko Willink: Indeed, it is.
Brett McKay: It gives you more freedom. That’s right. One of those great paradoxes. All right. Jocko, besides the work you’re doing with your business consulting, the gym, you also got a podcast, a new one out. How long has the podcast been out?
Jocko Willink: The first one came out just before Christmas, December 2015.
Brett McKay: It’s super popular. It’s been well-received. What kind of topics are you hitting on on the podcast, and why did you decide to start a podcast?
Jocko Willink: I’ve always been into, even pre-podcast, when I was a kid, I listened to radio shows. I was always liked that medium of people, just voices coming into your brain. I always thought that that was awesome, and so when podcasts came out, I started listening to podcasts, and I got really into a few podcasts that I got really into. As the book was getting ready to come out, I had a friend of a friend who was friends with Tim Ferriss, and we got linked up. I ended up going on Tim’s podcast, and when we got done, and he pressed stop on the recorder. He said, “You need to have your own podcast.” I thought it sounded great, but the book was about to be released. When the book came out, that really went pretty Richter, and so we had to deal with all that.
I ended up doing another podcast with Joe Rogen, who I kind of knew through the years from being at UFCs, and cornering fighters, so I had seen him around for many years, but we would recognize each other, but we weren’t considered friends or anything. He liked the Tim Ferriss podcast that I did, so I went on his podcast, really cool experience, and the middle of that podcast, he just said, “You need to have your own podcast.” At the end, he called me out, and said, “Are you gonna do it?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” Once I said that, the Twitter, a bunch of people on Twitter and social media hit me up, and said, “Yeah, do a podcast.” I had a buddy who knew how to do podcasts, who was a buddy from jujitsu, so I asked him, “Hey, could we do a podcast?” He said yeah. That’s Echo Charles, the co-host of the podcast.
We recorded a podcast, and yeah, like you said, it was really cool how well it was received, and how much feedback we’re getting on it. As far as what we talk about, it’s about leadership. It’s about fighting. It’s about business. It’s about death. It’s about war. It’s about good and evil, and light, and dark. Really, I think what it’s about is it’s about life.
Brett McKay: Jocko, this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Jocko Willink: Get after it.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Jocko Willink. He is the author of the book Extreme Ownership, and you can find that on amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere. Really, if you’re a leader, or in a position of leadership, go check it out. One of the best books on leadership I’ve come across. Also, make sure to check out his podcast, the Jocko podcast. Just search for it. It’s on iTunes, and Stitcher, wherever else you can listen to a podcast. A lot of great insights about leadership, business, fitness, discipline, life, even combat. You’ll get insights there. Also make sure to check out the show notes after you listen to the show, at aom.is/jocko, where you’ll find links to resources and stuff we mention throughout the show.
That wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy this show and have got something out of it, I would really appreciate if you’d give us a review on iTunes, or wherever else you listen to the podcast. It helps out a lot. As always, I appreciate your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: December 4, 2017