A Leadership Approach: Extreme Ownership

My career in IT commenced in 1999 where I began as a developer. Since then I have served in a variety of leadership positions, as an Agile coach, mentor, project manager, program manager, and Director of Solution Delivery. The technologies, launch parties, office drinking, non-existent work-life balance, elevated status of project managers, all-night deployments with all-hands-on-deck, and the delivery processes have all changed dramatically since that time. While process and technology will continue to change, one thing remains a constant – people and their need for solid leadership skills. As Jocko Willink says, “being a leader is always hard.” As we are currently in the throes of a desperate and uncertain economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic, solid leaders are even more valuable.

I stumbled into Extreme Ownership, several years ago, quite by accident. While assigned to a challenging gig I was working on a weekend at a Starbucks. My favorite assignments have always been the challenging ones. I ordered my drink, sat down, opened my laptop, and set out to work. Fortunately, I became distracted by an engaging conversation. I was sitting next to a table where two gentlemen were discussing their business. One gentleman was obviously the boss and the other was practicing active listening. The leader was explaining expectations and goals, seeking an understanding from his colleague, and clarifying when there were misses. I listened as if I was paying for a seminar. I was so impressed, afterward, I approached the leader when the subordinate left and inquired about his experience leading teams. In the following hour, I learned about Jocko Willink.

I purchased Extreme Ownership that same day and have been a fan ever since. As a leader in the program management and Agile spaces, I find it uncanny how well his lessons fit within IT. As a consultant, there are some refreshing reminders and some helpful lessons to take with you on an engagement. I would like to highlight some key points from Extreme Ownership with three anecdotes that demonstrate effective leadership.

Jocko Willink’s laurels are damn solid and he has been interviewed on several high-profile podcasts like London Real and The Joe Rogan Experience. This is in addition to his show the Jocko Podcast. Jocko Willink and coauthor Leif Babin wrote Extreme Ownership and The Dichotomy of Leadership. Like Jeff Sutherland in the Agile community (and one of the co-founders of Scrum), who served as a pilot in Vietnam, these authors based their writing on their military experiences. In terms of extreme ownership, and how to build resilient teams that function well in uncertain circumstances, both Jocko and Leif took part in the battle of Ramadi as a part of Task Unit Bruiser of SEAL Team THREE.

Anecdote 1: The Leader Owns Everything

The invasion of Normandy in June 1944 was the largest invasion force in the history of the world, and it was a huge gamble of four thousand ships, twelve hundred planes and close to three million men. For those that love history and those that lived through it, Eisenhower’s success speech is very familiar.

Listen’s to Eisenhower’s Announcement of D-Day

As Eisenhower was a true leader he wrote, in addition to his success speech, a failure speech (see below). This document is now only a footnote in history, but it illustrates extreme ownership. He takes full responsibility for the failure and commends the brave soldiers who took part in the harrowing endeavor under his leadership. No blaming the soldiers, the execution of the plan, or the weather, he took full responsibility.

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe

An interesting side note, Jocko Willink stresses decentralized command. FDR provided Eisenhower with clear goals and a lot of freedom to make the decisions needed to win the war. Additionally, Roosevelt supported Eisenhower along the way, including giving Eisenhower a pass after a terrible defeat at the battle of Kasserine pass in 1943. FDR exemplified Extreme Ownership by promoting Eisenhower to Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Western Europe, allowing Eisenhower room to fail, permitting a decentralized command, and supporting him along the way.

Anecdote 2: Have a Plan When You Own the Mistake

This is a story I heard recited from my father’s leadership experiences from his twenty-five-year tenure at IBM. Not unusual for IT projects, a program he was working on had a hiccup with a high-profile client and a million-dollar project on the line. He gathered his team leaders, uncovered the specific issues, and which teams created the errors responsible for placing the program in jeopardy. He was privately tough on the team leader responsible for the problem; however, during the inevitable C-level review board, my father watched other managers make two mistakes. They blamed their subordinates and they had no plan to mitigate the issue.

My father watched the C-levels interrogate and intimidate the leaders who did not have a plan to address issues, maintain the client’s trust, and get the deliverable on track. When it was his time, he presented the problem, he took full responsibility, he presented how to avoid the error in the future, and he presented how to get the project back on track. There was no inquisition. Additionally, the leader responsible for the issue was in the room and was quite surprised. His rendition of the story focused on how great it was to work for my dad. “The leader must acknowledge mistakes and admit failures, take ownership of them, and develop a plan to win.”

Anecdote 3: After All Possibilities Are Tried, Remove Problematic Resources

Historians debate the strength and weaknesses of General Douglas McArthur. He had more than a few successes and is worthy of merit. Regardless of how one assesses this general, by the first quarter of 1951 President Truman was done with McArthur. Truman set the goal of liberating South Korea from North Korea, but McArthur had different goals. He wanted to liberate the entire Korean peninsula and go to war with China. In late 1950 McArthur took American forces past the 38th parallel very close to the Chinese border. To make things worse, McArthur failed during the battle of Unsan. President Truman removed this popular general in April of 1951 and the war ended with Truman’s original expectation in the summer of 1953 under the command of General Matthew Ridgeway.

In retrospect, McArthur failed to manage up. He was not in alignment with the president’s goal, and he publicly disregarded and criticized the commander in chief. Despite the heavy political hit Truman took, it is no surprise that Truman replaced the popular General McArthur.
In the all too common blame game, poor leaders sometimes blame poor resources for a program’s failure. Jocko Willink stresses a dichotomy here. Resources and the hiring process are expensive, and it is in the best interest of the organization to retain resources and make them effective. Leaders are responsible for mitigating issues. A leader should make every attempt at growing and supporting their people and even people on dependent teams. After reasonable attempts to correct resource issues, only then should one decide or promote a decision to remove underperforming team members.

Lessons for Leadership in Business

Projects are delivered by teams of people. Encouraging leadership and extreme ownership at every level of a development program will only enhance a company’s ability to be successful, increase the success rate of programs and projects, and likely increase morale. Most everyone wants to be on a winning team and most everyone wants to be off a losing team – and leaders make winning teams. You may not be able to control everything, but as Jocko Willink repeatedly states – “you can control you”. You can decide to be the best leader you can be. Take ownership of your “mission” whether it be running a program or writing a widget. Have a plan to deliver, include everything and everyone needed to deliver that plan. When that plan fails, own it, and the actions necessary to get things on track.

Adam is leveraging over 15 years of experience as a leader in the IT Agile space. Adam is on a mission to reduce waste, increase productivity, and improve clients’ ability to deliver software in a predictable and transparent manner. He enables alignment of executive business strategy, features development & delivery with organizational and revenue objectives by building new or expanding existing Software Development Lifecycles (SDLC), and introducing simple, repeatable, measurable, and scalable processes, like SAFe and other Agile processes.