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Book Review: Extreme Ownership

Book Review: Extreme Ownership

| On 11, Jan 2018

Darrell Mann

If you want to find the ‘someone, somewhere that already solved your problem’, the best place to go look are places where people have a more extreme version of your problem. If you’re a manager operating in a complex environment, there are probably no better extremes than the world of combat. And in that arena, there probably aren’t too many books better than Extreme Ownership by ex-SEALS Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. Before they became management consultants, they served in Iraq – very likely the extreme end of the extremes of human conflict. Especially when you read some of the war stories that underpin the theories contained in the book.

That said, if you don’t like military metaphors, you probably won’t enjoy the book too much. Some of the war story language veers a little too close to Boys Own comic book territory for my liking. But then again, some of it carries the kind of macabre humour found only in the military, and I found it difficult not to laugh at some of the acronyms and colloquialisms.

Neither, of course, bears any real relation to the point of the book. Which is that a lot of the ways in which modern business does business has little or no relevance to operations in complex environments. And, also of course, every environment involving two or more people is fundamentally complex. In combat, the complex often dips unpredictably into the chaotic. SEALS are expected to survive and thrive when these things happen. Which means that they tend to see life differently to pretty much any MBA programme I’ve ever seen. ‘Extreme Ownership’ means exactly that – if you’re the leader and something – anything – goes awry, it’s your fault and your responsibility to put it right. There’s no such thing as ‘the dog ate my homework’ excuse making in the world of extreme ownership. Even if the dog did eat your homework, you’re still responsible for making sure it’s handed-in on time. No excuses. No such thing as ‘they’ or ‘them’. And every such thing as ‘keep it simple’ of the variety that acknowledges and embraces the complexity rather than trying to ignore the inconvenient bits as is usually the case in most management teams. It’s always your fault when shit happens. Accept the fact and lead accordingly. As such, there’s a fair amount of overlap with another of our long-time favourite books, ‘AntiFragile’ by NN Taleb. Systems need to be stressed in order to make them stronger. And there’s probably no more stressful situation imaginable than facing an aggressive threat with a strong desire to thwart all of your attempts to thwart them.

There’s not a lot of theory in evidence in the book. Very likely because every complex or chaotic situation is inevitably different from every other one. That said, what theory is to be found is pitched at a level that feels eminently deployable in any business situation that I’ve ever had the privilege or misfortune to encounter. If you’re looking for solid, perspective-shifting insight, you’ll find it in pretty much every chapter of the book.

I’m usually quite skeptical of any book that sticks #1 New York Times Bestseller on the cover. The label usually means ‘lowest common denominator’. This time around, in Extreme Ownership, I think the authors have done a sterling job in creating a solid exception to the expectation. I’m not sure everyone that reads it will actually become more antifragile, but even if they don’t they will have seen vivid evidence of what it looks like from the perspective of two authors who’ve quite literally been there, got the t-shirt and, now, written the book.