Sh*t Rolls Uphill: Extreme Ownership
Sh*t Rolls Uphill: Extreme Ownership
What happens when things go wrong…and it’s your fault? Do you take responsibility? What if it’s not your fault, but it happened with your team? Do you take responsibility then?
Extreme ownership is a concept developed by former U.S. Navy Seal Jocko Willinick. The theory is that, as a leader, you should take on full accountability at every level of your team or organization.
Willinick asserts in his book Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win that “leaders are responsible for every action that people on their team make.”
How does that statement make you feel as an entrepreneur? Do you think that’s way too much responsibility? If so, you might suck at extreme ownership. Essentially, if you fail to own problems, you’re headed for failure.
So what does extreme ownership really mean for you as a business owner? In effect, extreme ownership is a humble mindset. Taking responsibility for something you didn’t cause is a way to get into a problem-solving mindset, rather than deflecting blame and letting the issue fester.
The even tougher pill to swallow is that, even if it’s not immediately obvious, YOU might really be the cause of a problem that happened within your team. For example, maybe an employee is underperforming because you put them in the wrong role, or have failed to provide adequate training.
Practicing extreme ownership with a self-aware team can help them build solutions into their process. Ask, “what could I have done better?” and your team will begin to ask themselves what they personally could have done better as well. This is a great prompt to bring up during project debriefs.
Andrew Hong: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to Entrepreneurship Sucks. My name is Andrew Hong. I am the host of this podcast, where we talk about the mindset, tactics skills that entrepreneurs need to succeed, but most suck at. In today's episode, we're going to talk about a concept that most people don't realize they suck at: extreme ownership. So this concept of extreme ownership is one I came across with a podcaster, an author that I follow, Jocko Willink. I first found out about him on the Joe Rogan Podcast. And Jocko is just a really interesting dude: he's a Navy SEAL. I've always been fascinated by the military, and the reason why is that the military is an organization. It's about training people to do a very specific job at scale, and I think there's a lot of lessons that businesses and leaders can learn from the military. And Jocko, in his book, Leadership Strategy and Tactics, I have it here, right with me, talks about this concept of extreme ownership. And I want to talk about this because, as an entrepreneur, you're responsible for everything that happens with your idea, your company, your people, but the reality of it is that most people suck at taking responsibility for their own actions, especially when you did the wrong thing. We all know that we like to deflect when something went wrong. And this makes it really difficult for you to build a team and improve your team and grow a business if you don't practice this concept of extreme ownership. And I'm going to get into the definition of this, and I'm going to kind of read an example from Jocko's book actually. And Jocko has a really outstanding view on this, and he talks about how Navy SEALs, or leaders with the Navy SEALs, treat the idea of extreme ownership. So I'm going to read a little passage or excerpt from his book. Yes, those are pages that I'm actually flipping. So I'm going to start on, this is a direct quote from his book.
Andrew Hong: Taking extreme ownership means that leaders are responsible for every action the people on their team make. It's as simple as that. There are some things that occur that are beyond the control of the leader, but there are far fewer than most people think. One great example of that is the weather. Everyone knows we can't control the weather. So the mission has to be canceled because the weather is too bad for the helicopters to fly the assault team to the target. That obviously can't be the leader's fault. After all, the leader can't control the weather, right? Wrong. While the leader can't control the weather, he can certainly put contingency plans in place in case there is bad weather. There could have been a backup plan using ground vehicles to get to the target. The leader could have forward staged closer to the target so helicopters weren't required. He could have even come up with a contingency timeline that kept all assets available if the weather turned bad so the mission could be delayed rather than canceled. So while the leader can't control the weather, he can certainly plan to deal with it. This means there are no buts to taking extreme ownership. It applies to everything. And the moment a leader decides he is going to allow excuses, it opens the door to shift blame onto others. That leads to failures.
Andrew Hong: I couldn't have summarized that concept of extreme ownership any better. So even for the things that you can't control, like the weather, if you're a leader who's practicing extreme ownership, you are trying to figure out ways to control around the weather, by planning for contingencies. And the reality of it is, is that that quote," Taking extreme ownership means that leaders are responsible for every action the people on their team make," is something that you, as an entrepreneur and you as a leader, have to get comfortable with. Just imagine if you're working on a normal team and you're a director of marketing and you're working on a team of salespeople and product folks, and something goes wrong and you don't acquire the amount of users that you have. I guarantee you, the first thing that people are going to start doing is saying," Yo content person, we didn't have enough content at the top of the funnel to get to get people in." Then the sales person will be like," No, no, no." Or the top of funnel person will say," No, no, no, no, no, the traffic that we're sending to those blog posts, the paid traffic, is garbage." The pay- per- click person may deflect that to somebody else, and the sales team who gets the leads is ultimately going to say," Yeah, we didn't close these leads because there are crap leads." So that's a typical kind of discussion that sort of happens between multi- faceted teams that have to work together to get a common goal done. And when you're working on those teams, let's say you're a cog in the wheel. The reality of it is that, a lot of times, these structures are built so big that no one is truly accountable for anything. And that's why roles and responsibilities and ownership and all that kind of stuff is important when defining your org structure. But as an entrepreneur, that org structure doesn't really exist. So the reality of it is, as an entrepreneur, when you hear this story about extreme ownership and planning around the weather, how do you react to that? When you hear that quote," Taking extreme ownership means that leaders are responsible for every action that people on their team make," do you feel inspired by that? Does that make your skin crawl? Are you kind of on the fence and skeptical about that? Because if you're a person who, after hearing that story, thinks that is way too much to expect of a leader, shouldn't that be really the responsibility of the team or whatever to figure that out? Is the first kind of notion that you are probably going to suck at practicing extreme ownership. And I will say that if you suck at practicing extreme ownership, there are a lot of implications to how you run your business. So if you allow those excuses and allow people to deflect blame onto others, Jocko very clearly said that is what leads to failures. So if you fail to own the problem, if you fail to own every problem that's in your business, it will lead to failure. I always say that the CEO, in reality, in an early stage company and, hell, even mature companies, your job as the CEO is the chief problem solver. Your job is to get every problem figured out, and shit is going to roll uphill. That's what you want to happen because you want to have a pulse on the challenges that your businesses are facing, and if you shy away from owning those challenges, unless you've recruited just a crack shot team who just knows what they're doing, and is firing on all cylinders, which rarely is the case, you're going to make a lot of mistakes and those are going to lead to failures. So I bring this up because, like I said in the beginning, it's human nature to deflect responsibility. I think the 80-20 rule applies to everything, and I think 80% of this world will deflect blame when it's placed on them and 20% of this world is going to take that blame and look at it and say," Hey, what could I have done better here to affect the outcome of this situation?" And I want to use this to kind of transition to this thought of what does extreme ownership actually mean for you as an entrepreneur? And the reality of this concept of extreme ownership, this is a true mindset thing. The last couple of episodes, we've only talked about mindset. I'm not talking about your skills in finance or product or HR and operations. I'm talking about your skills and your own mindset and how you think about the world and interpret the world. And extreme ownership is one of those things where, is your mindset a humble enough mindset, or you can take the blame for something that went wrong, that you didn't actually cause? Just think about that for a second. Are you willing to take blame for something that you didn't directly cause? Because most of us would be like," F that, that was that guy's fault. That was that girl's fault." But that's not what gets you to extreme ownership. And if you can't take responsibility for what went wrong, who will? There's nobody else in your company for shit to roll uphill to. And if nobody is going to take responsibility for those problems, the problem will only continue to fester, get bigger and bigger and bigger. And that's, I think, that failure that occurs that Jocko was sort of referring to back in that passage. I think this becomes an especially big problem when you start deflecting the blame to your team. So, as the CEO or the founder of the company, if you're always constantly blaming your team for everything that went wrong, what does that say about you as a leader? Not that you're a person who likes to blame people, but are you actually the person who might be the problem? Because the reality of it is, you probably made some decisions in the past with your team that resulted in this suboptimal outcome. Here's an example: maybe your employee didn't do a good job on that campaign because you put him or her in the wrong role. Maybe they're an email marketer and you put them in the role of... Or maybe they're a blog writer and you put them in the role of writing email copy. Or maybe your employee didn't do a good job because you haven't put enough training into him or her. This is an example of, when something goes wrong with an employee, instead of going and pointing the finger directly at the employee, that you're actually sitting there and figuring out how to plan around the weather. In reference back to what Jocko is saying that, hey, we can't control the weather, but we can set up contingencies to try to reduce the risk of the weather. And in this case, it's a very similar kind of thing where, hey, maybe we're not getting the outcome because you haven't planned for the right types of events and training or putting the person in the right role to put that person in a position for success. So these examples actually show that you might actually be the problem and not even realize it. And there's another quote from Jocko that I really love, and this is actually taped up on my bathroom door every day so I look at it. And this is a great quote because I think this is what is sorely missing from a lot of entrepreneurs and, in general, leaders. And the quote is:" While a bad team is, without question, the result of a bad leader, a good team is not necessarily the result of a good leader." So what that means is that you as a leader can fuck things up, but your team can probably save your ass, if you've got a really crack shot team. But the reality of it is, is that if things are going bad on the team, it's all your fault. And that's something that I've taken to heart. If my team isn't performing well, if my team is not getting me the results that I want them to get, it's because I'm doing something that is not enabling them or setting themselves up for success. And I do this because I want to practice extreme ownership because it establishes the fact that the buck truly stops here. It stops at me. And I use this as a way to build trust and confidence with my team, my partners, my clients, to know that I'm willing to take it on the chin. And if I'm working with good partners and good clients and good employees, I actually think that my employees and my partners and my clients will be inspired by the fact that I'm willing to take the blame. And I say this, we can only really do this with really good, good partners, employees; self- aware partners and employees because the bad employee is going to be like," Oh yeah, I'm just going to blame it every single time on the boss, because the boss is always going to blame himself." But if you have a good employee who's self- aware and realizes that," Oh man, I'm pretty lucky to have a boss here that is trying to figure out what he could have done to help me. I want to rise to the occasion so that when he does help me that we can have a better outcome." And again, this is an organizational development thing, in trying to build your team and inspire people. And I think extreme ownership is one of those things that will not only get you better outcomes, but it'll get you a better relationship and allow you to build better with your team. So if you're someone who practices extreme ownership, it's something that I think you should do and voice more often with your team and everyone that you're trying to build. One thing I will warn about taking this approach is I always ask when something goes wrong at our company, I always ask the team," What could have done better to get a better outcome?" And I've definitely had feedback from the team and kind of pushback from the team where," Dude, why are you blaming us? We did an awesome f- ing job." And I tell the team," I know that." And I actually tell the team," I knew that the reason why this project didn't go well is because the client didn't get us this, or didn't get us this. But I actually want you guys to figure out, are you going to take extreme ownership of this situation?" And that's something that I want to build into the culture of our team because I want the first question they ask, when something goes wrong, to be," What could we have done better to produce a better outcome?" So to kind of recap everything, we talked about this concept of extreme ownership. And the idea is that most of us as human beings are not going to take responsibility for things that we directly caused. And hell, even if we directly caused it, sometimes we're going to find ways to wiggle our ways out of it. We've all been there. We've all done that. We've experienced people try and do that to us. But as an entrepreneur, you cannot do that. You need to be in a position where you are responsible for every action that the people on your team make. And if you do that, as I said before, I think you can inspire your team, but you can also impart a culture on your team where they're always looking at ways to optimize and improve themselves. So a good technique that you can always do, as an entrepreneur, to start practicing extreme ownership with your team is debrief in a retrospective. The first question you ask your team, whether things went good or went bad, is," What could we have done better to affect this outcome?" And for you personally, as an entrepreneur, when things go wrong, if you find yourself deflecting blame directly onto anybody else but yourself, you've got to ask yourself the same question: what could I have done better to affect this outcome? So if there's anyone out there that is listening to this and connects with this idea of extreme ownership, I'd love to hear some tools or techniques that you use with yourself or your own teams to really solidify how you practice extreme ownership within your company or within your organization. So that's a wrap. Thanks for joining me on this episode of Entrepreneurship Sucks. Entrepreneurship Sucks is brought to you by the Toby Agency Podcast Network. Like what you've heard? Please subscribe, rate, review, and share this podcast. Then if you ever want to talk to me about the crazy journey of entrepreneurship, reach out to me on LinkedIn or at my handle @ AndrewNHong on Twitter. Thanks and I'll see you on the next one.