11 questions with Jocko Willink: How to own your leadership role

Leaders constantly face the need to balance opposing forces in order to succeed, especially in challenging times. Vistage invited Jocko Willink, a retired U.S. Navy SEAL who’s earned the highest levels of recognition for leadership, to present a special webinar for Vistage members on how to identify and constantly make adjustments to those opposing forces to lead every member of their teams effectively. Below is a follow-up Q&A with Jocko on how CEOs can fully own their leadership roles. >>Member-only access to full-length webinar

1. You’ve said that humility is the most important characteristic of a leader. What makes humility so valuable?

JW: Humility as a leader means that leader will listen to what other people have to say and take that input on board. It means the leader will respect their competitors. It means the leader will strive to improve their methodologies and capabilities. It also means they won’t let their ego get in the way of making the right decision. A lack of humility results in the opposite of all those things—which results in failure for the leader and the team.

2. You make the point that teamwork and good relationships are essential in successful organizations, akin to covering and moving in the military. How can an organization with shoddy teamwork—some not carrying their weight, others taking on too much work, others zoned out—repair its internal relationship dynamics?

JW: If someone on the team can’t carry their weight, I will carry it for them while I ask them what they need so that they can carry their weight. If someone is taking on too much work, I will take some of that work off their plate so they are not overwhelmed while I assess how I can more evenly distribute their workload. If someone is zoned out, I will try to get them some kind of break so they can come back energized and engaged. In each of these cases, I will take ownership, find the problem, craft a solution, and implement that solution. By helping people, I will strengthen relationships and build a better team.

3. You say that the best plans are simple plans. How can leaders ensure that their plans are simple enough to be followed by the team?

JW: The best way to ensure the team understands the plan is to ask them to explain the plan back to you in their own words. In the military, we called this a “Brief Back.” This is much better than just asking them if they understand, because sometimes people just nod their heads and say, “Yes.” The Brief Back ensures they truly understand.

4. Extreme ownership—owning problems, solutions, and the implementation of those solutions—would be a radical shift for any culture with even a semblance of blame. Are there common traits you notice within organizations when leaders put extreme ownership into practice?

JW: The common trait of organizations that implement Extreme Ownership is humility. Without humility, people want to protect their ego when something goes wrong; the easiest way to do that is to cast blame on others. When someone is blamed for something, their natural reaction is to get defensive and blame someone else, so no one on the team ends up taking ownership of problems and the problems don’t get solved. When there is humility in an organization, people set their ego aside, take responsibility for things going wrong, and fix the problem. This attitude permeates through organizations and the result is a culture of Extreme Ownership.

5. How should leaders who practice extreme ownership respond to repeated mistakes being committed by their team? Is this a time to look within? To bring in other leaders? To perhaps seek feedback from the team itself?

JW: If someone on my team is making mistakes, it is my fault. I am the leader. I haven’t trained them enough, explained things clearly, or given them the resources they need. Or perhaps I haven’t counseled them or given them the guidance they need. In order to figure that out, of course, I have to get feedback from the team—and I have to have a good enough relationship that they actually tell me the truth about what is happening. There is also the possibility that the team or individuals on the team are not capable of doing the job—in which case, I am responsible for replacing them. There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.

6. In one of your most notable clips, you talk about responding to negative situations with one word: “Good.” What are the good things about facing problems that leaders should appreciate?

JW: Problems? Good. When we face problems, we are tested. We are forced to get creative to solve the problems—we have to adapt and overcome. We have to become more effective and more efficient. But perhaps the most good that comes from facing adversity is the strengthening of the team. Shared hardships bond us together. Don’t complain about problems or challenges. Simply say: “GOOD.”

7. Why is it important for leaders to let others on their team take the lead?

JW: I am often asked how to get team members to ‘buy in’ to a plan. My answer is simple: Let the team members come up with the plan. When you let members of the team come up with a plan, they own that plan—it is their plan. There is no need to try to get them to ‘buy in’ to the plan. Not only that, when a subordinate is allowed to take lead, he or she will gain valuable experience and knowledge, making them more capable—and thereby making the team better. As often as you can, let the team take the lead. That being said, if the team needs direction, give them some guidance.

8. You said that you were known as decisive in the SEALs because of small decisions. How can leaders practice decisiveness?

JW: Yes, I was known as a decisive leader. But, in a sense, I cheated to earn that reputation. I cheated by making small, iterative decisions instead of big, broad decisions. Unfortunately, many decisions are based on information that is scarce and unreliable. In any decision there is risk, and the bigger the decision, the bigger the risk. I mitigated risk by making smaller decisions rapidly and adjusting those decisions based on immediate feedback. Because these decisions were smaller, I could make them faster—and they had less inherent risk. While occasionally a big bold decision must be made, most of the time, make small iterative decisions is a better, and more effective, way to lead.

9. You talk often about detaching emotionally, or “stepping back,” amid tense moments. Can you explain how leaders can practice this?

JW: We do not make good decisions when we are emotional. So, if we feel emotions beginning to rise, we need to take a step back and detach. How do you do that? First, recognize signals that tell you that you are becoming emotional. Does your face turn red? Do you start to sweat? Do you clench your fists or raise your voice? Does your heart rate increase or your breathing quicken? Whatever these signs are you have to recognize them—they are the indicators that you are getting emotional. Then take a step back. Take a breath. Look around. Don’t say anything, just listen. See things from another perspective and then, talk in a calm voice. No one likes a hot-head. No one trusts that an emotional person is going to make the right decision. Don’t be that person. Detach and make a decision based on logic and the actual best course of action.

10. Decentralized leadership is the last thing that falls into place when organizations follow the laws of combat, and you’ve noted that it also takes the most work. What most commonly holds teams back from becoming a decentralized team of leaders?

JW: Once again, the common denominator for failure is ego. When a leader’s ego gets in the way, they can’t let go. The leader wants to run everything. They become micromanagers, which is the opposite of Decentralized Command. Don’t let your ego get control. Let your subordinate leaders lead.

11. You’re a man of many worlds. How important is it for leaders to experience worlds of thought outside of those with which they’re familiar?

JW: The more you see the more you see. Experiencing environments outside the ones that a leader is familiar with will expand that leader’s perspective and give that leader the ability to better understand events and formulate alternative solutions for problems and issues. Don’t get caught in an echo chamber of thought. Free your mind.

Category: Leadership

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About the Author: Vistage Staff

Vistage facilitates confidential peer advisory groups for CEOs and other senior leaders, focusing on solving challenges, accelerating growth and improving business performance. Over 45,000 high-caliber execu

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  1. What a fantastic perspective and great correlation between leadership within the military and business. You can include sports into these categories as well. Such a great morning read and refresher. It is obvious why Jocko Willink was such an incredible leader and a inspiration to all of us.

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