I spoke to Jocko Willink, the bestselling author of Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win and former Navy SEAL officer, about the lessons he learned from his time in the military, the most important leadership qualities, how he transitioned from being a Navy SEAL to the business world, how his company's experience-based solutions help teams and his best career advice.
Willink cofounder of Echelon Front, where he is a leadership instructor, speaker, and executive coach. He is also the host of the Jocko Podcast, one of the more popular podcasts on iTunes with millions of downloads. He spent twenty years in the U.S. Navy SEAL Teams, starting as an enlisted SEAL and rising through the ranks to become a SEAL officer. During his career, Jocko was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and numerous other personal and unit awards.
Dan Schawbel: What lessons did you learn about leadership, mental toughness and perseverance from your time as a Navy SEAL in the Battle of Ramadi?
Jocko Willink: The most important lesson, which was crystallized in my mind during the Battle of Ramadi, was taking ownership of everything in my world, the good and the bad. This became clear when, a few short weeks into the deployment, we had a mission go horribly wrong. Mistakes were made. Men were wounded and men were killed. I could have looked to blame other people—but I knew in order to maintain my integrity as a leader and as a man—I could blame no one but myself. I took responsibility for everything that had gone wrong and also for creating and implementing new tactics, techniques, and procedures to ensure nothing like that ever happened again. Leadership starts with ownership—ownership of everything.
Of course, mental toughness is tested in combat, even more so when men are subjected to sustained intense urban combat. From a leadership perspective, one of the most important things we learned is that the more engaged in the planning and strategy the troops are, the less subject they are to combat fatigue. Some of the the SEALs in our Task Unit helped develop operations, influenced the mission concepts, aided with the planning, and understood the strategy, and those SEAL stayed focused, on task, and driven to take the fight to the enemy. The SEALs that were disconnected from the conceptual and planning stages lost some of that drive. It never impacted their efforts on the battlefield, but looking back, I know that I should have done a better job as leader in getting every single member of the Task Unit involved in all the aspects of our operations, including the planning. This would have given them a better understanding of the strategy behind the missions, and therefore an understanding of why we were doing what we were doing. This deep level of understanding is critical in keeping people engaged and in the game.
Perseverance is also key to success in any endeavor, but without perseverance in combat, there can be no victory. Our perseverance was certainly tested in Ramadi. We were tested by the scorching heat of the environment and the heavy pace of operations. But by far the biggest tests were continuing to conduct operations after suffering the loss of our brother SEALs killed in action. As a leader, I knew we needed to mourn and grieve—but I also knew we could not dwell on the losses. So we took a couple of days, paid our respects, and then did what we knew our fallen teammates would want us to do: get back to work. And that is what I teach now—when things get rough: get to work. Things won’t get better dwelling on the past. Accept what has happened. Then: move forward. Attack.
This is the same thing we teach to business leaders when things go wrong. Do not sulk. Do not feel sorry for yourself. Move on. Move forward. Attack.
Schawbel:Can you share some leadership qualities that came natural to you, and those that you developed, from your time at war? How, and should, business leaders look to develop similar qualities to lead their own teams?
Willink:One of the key qualities a leader must possess is the ability to detach from the chaos, mayhem, and emotions in a situation and make good clear decisions based on what is actually happening. Although this quality came fairly naturally to me, I got better at it the more time I spent in chaotic situations. That is why when I began to run the training for the west coast SEAL Teams, I tried to put the maximum stress on the leaders; I tried to simulate as much of the chaos and mayhem and emotion they would see in combat in order to force the leaders to learn to step back, detach mentally, and make good decisions.
We do this with business leaders as well. We put them in tough leadership scenarios with high stress and high emotions so they learn the indicators they have that show them the need to detach; then we teach them how to detach so they can think clearly and lead effectively. That is a great technique that business leaders can use to develop or improve that quality in their leaders. Put your leaders in stressful scenarios. Make them figure out solutions under
pressure. See if you can make them frustrated, angry, and flustered and then demand decisive leadership from them. They will be challenged at first, but they will get better over time.
Schawbel:How did you transition from being a Navy SEAL back to a civilian pursuing a new career, including a business, podcast and book?
Willink:Just before I retired from the Navy, I was asked by the CEO of a company to give a lecture on combat leadership to his executives. Since I had spent my last few years in the SEAL Teams teaching the leadership we had learned in Ramadi to SEALs getting ready to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan, I was ready to share those leadership principles with this executive group. After my presentation, the CEO asked me to come and give the same brief to all of his divisions. At one of those divisional meetings, the CEO of the parent company was there and asked me to deliver a leadership brief to the CEOs of all his companies. When I completed that talk, a number of those CEOs wanted me to come and brief their companies. All of a sudden, I had a business on my hands. Luckily one of my SEAL Teammates, Leif Babin, who had served with me in the Battle of Ramadi, had also been working with some companies doing similar things. We joined forces and started Echelon Front, our leadership and management consulting company.
As we continued to work with a wide variety of companies, we were continuously asked if we had our principles written down anywhere. Eventually, the demand got so high that we decided to write them down in order to give them out to our clients. That draft, called Extreme Ownership, eventually made it into the hands of a literary agent, who quickly sold it to a publisher. It was released October 20, 2015, and has done quite well.
During the promotion of the book, due to a connection through a SEAL friend who also happens to be a doctor, I appeared on the Tim Ferriss podcast. It was a great experience, the interview was well received, and I enjoyed the long-format, conversational medium of the podcast. At the conclusion of the session, Tim told me I should do my own podcast. Soon after the release of Tim’s podcast, Joe Rogan, another multi-talented individual with an extremely successful podcast, who had heard me on Tim’s podcast, invited me onto his podcast, the Joe Rogan Experience. It was another great experience for me, and Joe also told me I should do my own podcast. Well, when two titans of podcasting like Tim Ferriss and Joe Rogan tell you to do your own podcast, you do your own podcast.
My podcast, JOCKO PODCAST, has been an incredible experience. The podcast has topped the charts and was selected as one of the twelve best podcasts of 2016 by iTunes. The feedback I get from around the world is overwhelming. I am pleased the podcast has struck such a strong chord with so many diverse people from every walk of life—people who want to become better leaders, more physically fit, more knowledgeable, and overall better human beings. Preparing, studying, and researching for the podcast has also made me a better person, and the support and camaraderie from the listeners is incredibly strong and moving.
Schawbel:You, and your business partner who is also a SEAL, offer experience-based solutions to other teams to help them improve their performance. Can you share what some of those solutions are and how customers have benefited?
Willink:Yes, Leif and I run training for a wide variety of companies in every industry, including finance, construction, gas and oil, manufacturing, retail, energy, health and pharmaceutical, and many others. We do everything from keynote speeches to one-day workshops, as well as long-term engagements of up to a year or more and everything in between. Many of those events are lectures, conversations, and exercises that take place in the classroom.
But sometimes a client wants to step up the training and do some experiential learning. We have some incredibly fun, exciting, and challenging programs for that as well, which are based on developing combat leadership skills that translate directly into business and life. One of our favorite ways to do this is by putting the leadership into combat simulated environments using AirSoft or paintball weapons in small, controlled, urban combat scenarios. After teaching some tactical basics, we give the team various missions to plan and execute. Each mission educates and tests the leaders’ ability to think on their feet, detach, and implement the fundamental combat leadership principles we teach: Cover and Move, Simple, Prioritize and Execute, and Decentralized Command. We rotate the team leaders to give everyone a turn feeling the pressure of simulated combat.
The challenging scenarios really make the combat leadership principles we teach stand out and become clear. If the team does not utilize the principles they have been taught, they get crushed, but when they lead with what they have learned, they win, which reinforces the lessons and the most effective way to lead. When the teams go back to a normal and less stressful work environment, they always report increased ability to lead and improved confidence in their leadership skills and decision making ability.
In addition to the educational benefits of the training, the leaders have a lot of fun and strengthen their bonds as a team. When they get back to their jobs, they have a common language, a common understanding of leadership, and a unified determination to lead and win.
Schawbel:What are your top three pieces of career advice?
1. Work hard. There simply is no replacement for hard work. That means arriving at work before anyone else, staying later, and always being prepared. It means studying all facets of your job to become more knowledgeable. It means becoming a student of leadership, working to build relationships with your team, and putting in the hours to accomplish the mission. If you can do all that without hard work, you are not pushing your capabilities to the limit, so step it up.
2. Have fun. Every job I have ever had, no matter how miserable or tedious or stressful or dangerous it was, I always had fun doing it. If you are having fun, making the best out of bad situations, work isn’t even work—it is just hanging out with your friends. So, build relationships within your team and add some levity to what you are doing. The relationships and attitude of levity will make your job, your performance, and your life, infinitely better.
3. Build relationships. No one ever thinks that a military person or a combat veteran is going to talk to them about “relationships,” but the importance of relationships in a career cannot be understated. Even in the military, which is always seen as a strict hierarchical, chain-of-command driven organization, relationships are stronger and more important than the chain of command. A vast majority of the things I did in the military and in the business world, and the success I had in both, resulted from the relationships I built up and down the chain of command. As a leader and a follower, I can assure you that having relationships trumps having rank every single time. Furthermore, the relationships I have built in the work environment are the basis for my true, lasting friendships outside of work. So enjoy the people you work with, build strong, real relationships utilizing trust and respect as foundations, and your career and your life will flourish personally and professionally.
By: Dan Schawbel