Jocko Willink, a retired U.S. Navy SEALs commander, and his former platoon commander Leif Babin served together during Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2006, they successfully led SEAL Team Three’s Task Unit Bruiser through the Battle of Ramadi—a focal point of Iraqi insurgency—and, as a result, it became the most highly decorated special operations unit of the Iraq War.
A 20-year veteran, Willink was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and numerous other personal and unit awards. Babin is the recipient of the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart.
After returning home from combat, both men took on the role of leadership instructor—Willink as the officer in charge of all training for West Coast SEAL Teams, and Babin as head of the SEAL Junior Officer Training Course—and began to realize that the principles that are critical to success on the battlefield were applicable to success in business and even life in general. In 2010, they founded Echelon Front, LLC, which is based on the leadership lessons they learned from the “front echelon” on the battlefield.
Their first book, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, was released on Oct. 20 and has already made the New York Times Best Sellers list.
Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone recently spoke with Jocko Willink and Leif Babin about their new book, the lessons learned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and what they would ask the presidential candidates if given the chance. The interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
Opportunist: Congratulations on the success of Extreme Ownership. What was your inspiration for this book?
Jocko Willink: As I was transitioning out of the Navy and retiring, I was asked to do a speaking event. Almost immediately, I recognized a correlation between military and business leadership. Around this time Leif was getting ready to depart the Navy as well. He and I both ended up in positions where we were teaching leadership to junior SEAL officers and we realized that the principles that were critical to helping us achieve success on the battlefield are directly applicable to success in business or even life in general. Then we formed our company, Echelon Front.
Even a reader who isn’t in business or leadership can benefit from what we learned. I am very satisfied and gratified by the fact that this book tells the story of the voices we got to witness on the battlefield and that inspiration in its own right will move many people. I’m glad those stories are getting out there so that the civilian population can see the types of challenges they face on the battlefield and the sacrifices they made.
A lot of people told us we should talk to an authority and have a ghostwriter sit down with us, but we wanted this told in a humble way so that these stories translate the right way and illustrate the principles we believe in. We decided to write it ourselves. Some people may not even know we know how to write. [Laughs]
Leif Babin: While we were still in the military people always asked, ‘Do you have these lessons written down anywhere?’ or ‘Do you have a reference we can follow?’ Even when we got out and formed Echelon Front and started working with companies they asked, ‘Hey, do you have any reference materials we can use?’ So we started putting together a rough guide.
We want to help leaders. We spent years training junior SEAL officers and realized there were all these things we wished somebody had told us about before Iraq. We saw those guys go out and succeed with the same principles. It’s incredibly rewarding to see that. We are passionate about this stuff and we have seen it work on the battlefield and for dozens of companies over the last four years.
Opportunist: What are the most important traits a leader should possess?
Leif Babin: Right out of the gate, the No.1 trait—and you cannot survive without it—is humility. If a leader isn’t humble, he or she can’t do a strong, brutal self-assessment or take criticism or suggestions from others. They’re not going to be able to lead without humility. They also have to be able to follow at times because, even if you’re president of the United States, you’ve got to answer to the American people. They need to be open to ideas from others because a better idea may come up from the frontline troops. At the end of the day, it’s not about you—it’s about the mission.
Jocko Willink: Humility is definitely No. 1, and assessing whether you are able to look in the mirror and ask what you can improve upon. If you believe you cannot do anything better, you just failed the test. If you look in the mirror and say, ‘You know what, there’s stuff I can work on’ you’re a humble leader who is going to be able to succeed.
The best leaders we’ve seen in the military and the business world all exhibit extreme ownership. They are humble and balanced as well. They can be close with their troops but not so much that one is more important than the other. And they are attentive to details without being obsessed. That dichotomy is a fine line.
Opportunist: How do effective leaders know when to take command and when to turn things over to subordinates?
Jocko Willink: That’s one of the critical things we talk about in this book: establishing a balance. There are all kinds of different, opposing forces in leadership. Another principal is decentralized command. That is when you have to push your mission down to your troops below and empower them to make decisions. When you’re on the battlefield there is no way you can micromanage 50, 75 or 100 guys, so you push responsibility of authority down to the subordinate leadership. This requires you to have good guidelines and parameters for your subordinate leaders to work with.
Leif Babin: It’s about trust and competence. The best leaders are able to delegate. This enables leaders to focus more on the strategic picture instead of constantly getting sucked into the tactical details. The key is getting your subordinates to know and understand why.
It’s all about teamwork. Cover and move is a gunfighting tactic. If Jocko and I were going to move across a street that was under fire in Ramadi, we would be more likely to get killed if we weren’t mutually supporting one another. But if we work together to lay down suppressive fire, each of us can move. First I lay down suppressive fire so Jocko can move, and then he lays down suppressive fire for me. We are working in unison in order to accomplish our mission. Cover and move is teamwork. This also translates to the business world. Teams within the greater team such as different departments within a company or different individuals who don’t tell folks what they’re doing without explaining the bigger picture are not going to be successful. We all have to work together to support one another with a singular focus toward accomplishing those strategic goals.
Jocko Willink: I don’t think that commentary from Leif can be topped. There was a plethora of other things we experienced in combat and lessons that we learned in a dynamic environment where everything is at stake. We took those lessons with us and they apply in any leadership position in any situation.
Opportunist: In your book you talk about how leaders ‘on any team, in any organization’ must accept all responsibility for success and failure. Is it possible to learn as much from your mistakes as you do from things that go well?
Jocko Willink: Yeah, absolutely. We learned so much from the mistakes we made and failures and things that went wrong. We had to come back off the battlefield and look at those mistakes and own the responsibility for them and find out how to solve the issues and make sure they didn’t happen again. Taking extreme ownership doesn’t cast any blame or excuses; it figures out what the problems are and finds a way to implement solutions. Then you can capitalize on your assets and relationships to get the mission accomplished.
Leif Babin: The more experienced the leader, the more humble you will be because life is just humbling and, certainly, so is combat. It doesn’t matter how confident you are, ownership of those mistakes is essential. Otherwise, you only create a culture of blame and nobody ever overcomes those mistakes or succeeds.
Opportunist: Do you believe personal accountability is lacking in today’s society?
Leif Babin: Yes. Personal accountability is absolutely lacking. Criminals always have some excuse for why they did the horrible things they did. Across the spectrum of the business world, folks are showing up to work with a ‘my boss didn’t teach me well enough’ attitude. They feel entitled instead of working hard enough to earn themselves into a leadership position. This isn’t rocket science or crazy D-theory leadership stuff. Jocko talks about how this is simple, but it’s not easy. It’s very difficult to stand up and say ‘Hey, you know what, our team didn’t perform the way it should have and guess who’s at fault … me. So let’s figure out how to surmount this challenge and get the job done.’
Opportunist: You have said that implementing extreme ownership requires checking your ego. How does an inflated ego affect a leader’s ability to lead? In his book, Trump: How to Get Rich, Donald Trump said: ‘Show me someone without an ego, and I’ll show you a loser.’ How might his ego help or hurt his campaign?
Jocko Willink: We also talk about how ego drives people toward success. You need some ego to be confident with yourself. Trump would be, without a doubt, an ego-driven man, but we all have an ego. I have an ego and Leif has an ego. Trump can also be very humble at times. Any businessman trying to make things work will have to put his ego in check from time to time. If we let our ego get out of control it can cloud our vision, the decision-making process and the mission itself. As long as you know how to use it and can balance that, it’s healthy to have an ego.
Leif Babin: Just as Jocko said, ego drives people to want to succeed and outperform others. When it clouds your vision, it prevents you from taking ownership or accepting constructive criticism or adapting a strategy that you’ve put in place. Whenever there was a major issue with the SEAL teams or companies we’ve worked with, ego was 90 percent of the problem.
Politicians in Washington—and this is a bipartisan issue, no question about it—have a history of not admitting mistakes. I think Barack Obama is a great example. Our current president has the world going to hell in a handbasket and he is in complete denial of what is going on in the world. He is never going to put Russia back in its place or hold China accountable for its aggression in the South China Sea. We need leaders who step up and exhibit extreme ownership.
Jocko Willink: We expect a leader to be confident without being cocky. The history books are filled with people whose egos grew to a point where they no longer listened. Richard Nixon should have come out and said Watergate was wrong but he denied it and said he wasn’t a crook and look where he ended up: impeached.
Opportunist: What lessons has the United States learned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Leif Babin: Tremendous lessons. Combat leadership lessons. How to work together as a team. It’s kind of interesting that back during peacetime there was still a friendly rivalry between the different branches of the service—the Marine Corps vs. Army vs. Navy—and during our missions we relied heavily on the Air Force to get us where we needed to go, the Navy to fly F-18s overhead, the Marine Corps with their quick reaction force and the Army with their tanks.
Jocko Willink: Strategically, I would say the biggest lesson learned is that America has to be realistic about what we can accomplish. We do an awesome job of going in and smashing our enemy, but we can’t expect to take people living in a 7th century culture and make them into a ‘little America.’ Our work was about defeating an insurgency; it was never about building a flowery democracy or a mini-superpower ally of the United States.
Opportunist: If you were able to pose a question to each of the presidential candidates what would it be?
Leif Babin: I would look for a principal leader to speak the truth and take ownership of problems in America.
Jocko Willink: We need somebody who is not going to back down. True leadership is for the long-term strategic good. That’s really what we do. Even if there is some immediate pain, we do it for the long-term good of generations down the road—future children and grandchildren—and we need somebody to make those tough decisions both abroad and at home.
Opportunist: What do you feel are the biggest issues facing the nation today?
Jocko Willink: In this situation we have with the Benghazi trial, no one has really stepped up to the plate and said ‘this was my responsibility’ or ‘I take full ownership for this’ or ‘this is what went wrong.’ We haven’t heard any extreme ownership. On the other end of the spectrum, they are the very ones who take credit for making the influential decision to send SEAL Team Six in to kill Osama bin Laden. Give credit where credit is due: to the intel, the troops and the superior team that made it happen. We have politicians trying to take ownership, but not for the Benghazi attacks.
Leif Babin: Russia or ISIS or Iran and also China—those are the big threats. I worry about major conflict coming. Major decisions could be setting up conflict and leading to us having to come up against nuclear-armed Iran, which would be catastrophic for the world.
Opportunist: So now that you’ve written a bestseller, what’s next for you guys?
Leif Babin: We will continue to focus on our leadership training. If we walk into any random leader’s office and find a copy of our book with dog-eared pages we have certainly accomplished our mission.
Jocko Willink: Obviously, the book has taken off more than a lot of people might have expected right out of the gate. But right now we are trying to help people in the business world and in everyday life improve their lives and perform better.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer, editor and journalist with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides between Florida and Michigan. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @lescstone.
Follow Jocko Willink on Twitter: @jockowillink