Leadership Lessons Learned in Combat

Extreme Ownership - Accountability - Prioritization - Execution - Delegation - Simplicity

Hello, I am Nicolas Bustamante. I’m an entrepreneur and I write about building successful startups.

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I have recently read Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, who spent several years leading SEAL platoons in Iraq and Afghanistan. The book offers valuable leadership lessons that resonate with my experience building a startup. The authors write using concrete examples of real-life situations, not abstract management ideas. Their teaching authenticity lies in the concept of having "skin in the game." When you're leading troops on a dangerous battlefield, you're putting your life, and those of your teammates, on the line. You have no choice but to be a good leader. 

War and business are separate enterprises. War is a negative-sum game, whereas business is a positive-sum game creating value for humanity. War is hell, and society should be better off without it. While I do not idealize war, I do think there are crucial leadership lessons to be learned from the battleground. The author's key concept is "extreme ownership," which they define as followed: 

"Of the many exceptional leaders we served alongside throughout our military careers, the consistent attribute that made them great was that they took absolute ownership—Extreme Ownership—not just of those things for which they were responsible, but for everything that impacted their mission. These leaders cast no blame. They made no excuses. Instead of complaining about challenges or setbacks, they developed solutions and solved problems. They leveraged assets, relationships, and resources to get the job done. Their own egos took a back seat to the mission and their troops. These leaders truly led."

The best leaders I know feel responsible for everything and blame no one when things go off-track. Leadership is about accepting responsibility for failure and giving away success to teammates. That's what makes a leadership position so hard. The solitude and the constant flow of problems can be overwhelming. Young leaders often struggle to understand why they have to take the blame even if they did nothing wrong. The reason is that to be accepted as team captain, the leader must bear the burden of command. Say, a leader communicates a critical piece of information that everyone gets except one teammate who is still asking basic questions. Who's fault is this? The leader's fault. Leaders first look at themselves in the mirror and accept the failure because they were responsible for the communication. What if the same teammate didn't wake up, leading to missing meetings where the leader shared the information? It's also the leader's fault because he tolerated this behavior. 

There is a chapter in Extreme Ownership about maintaining high standards that echo my experience. The authors wrote that: "Leaders must recognize that when it comes to standards, as a leader, it's not what you preach, it's what you tolerate." It's so tempting, as a leader, to let things pass up to avoid confrontation. I made this mistake over and over. Expectations should always be linked with accountability. If substandard performance is accepted, then it becomes the new standard for the team. Worse, I feel that when you tolerate average behavior, you betray the team and the people who give their best to be above standard. Leaders must live by and enforce high-quality standards. It's hard, but there is no other way. 

When it comes to having hard conversations or communicate a mission, leaders must start with why. When I didn't sufficiently share the "why", I experienced difficulties in my leadership position. I wrongly thought that Navy Seals focused primarily on the "how" because the army is a top-down organization. Nothing seems further from the truth. Navy Seals' commanders explain why they are doing every mission and why it fits the big picture. In my opinion, the best way to get a team's commitment is to explain the why and the necessity of the project to achieve a greater vision. Some leaders fall short on this and prefer focusing on the "how" and micro-managing people. In my opinion, it doesn't work and, worse for a startup, it doesn't scale because it creates complexities. By the way, for Navy Seals, creating complexities violates the laws of combat. 

Jocko Willink and Leif Babin describe four laws of combat: cover and move, simple, prioritize and execute and, decentralized command. The first law of combat, cover & move, means teamwork. If teammates aren't mutually supporting each other, then the mission will fail. The role of a leader is to foster camaraderie inside an organization. It's easier at the beginning of the company and gets more challenging when the team grows. I find it helpful to take a step back and look if friendships emerge and, more generally, if teammates spend time together outside of the office. That's also why leaders must not tolerate high-performing assholes who have high output but ruin teamwork. 

I love the second one, simplicity, because I have noticed too often that complexity breeds chaos and disaster. When a plan, a document, or an explanation is complex, it means that the topic is not well understood. Nothing is more powerful than a complex topic explained clearly. On this note, Leonardo Da Vinci wrote: "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." The worst part of complexity is that it creates hidden risks that often explode at the worse time. It is a bit like subprimes; everything seems to work well because no one understands the problem, and then everything collapses. I often tell my team that if you can't explain the plan to a grandma, don't bother explaining it to your teammate.

The third law of combat is "prioritize and execute," which means focusing on executing the highest priority problem. You can imagine in a firefight the necessity of focusing on the main priorities. It's the same for a startup. If the team executes slowly and on the wrong priorities, the startup runs out of cash and goes bankrupt. I have recently written on OKR, a goal-setting framework, to keep teams aligned and focused on key priorities. Jocko and Leif's lessons can be directly applied to startups: "evaluate the highest priority problem then, lay out in simple, clear, and concise terms the highest priority effort for your team then, develop and determine a solution, seek input from key leaders and from the team where possible then, direct the execution of that solution, focusing all efforts and resources toward this priority task then, move on to the next highest priority problem and repeat."

The fourth law of combat is "decentralize command," which means giving the decision power to the ones closest to the problem. It's tough to delegate because it requires placing trust and confidence in another person. Most founders struggle with that, in the early stage, thinking that they shouldn't delegate because they will do a better job - meaning that they don't trust their teammates sufficiently. Empowering teammates is, however, the only way to scale. No one has the cognitive ability to gather all the information to decide about each issue. It also allows the delegator to keep the focus on the big picture. In my opinion, delegation is the first step, and the second essential one is to empower teammates to the point where they can be autonomous. When I was taking on too much and not delegating enough, I sometimes missed the elephant in the room, particularly on strategic topics. 

My closing remark is that everyone is a leader. A leadership position doesn't require a title. As long as your behavior impacts other's people, you are a leader. It would help if you embraced extreme ownership wherever you are in an organization. Leadership is the single denominator for success. Understand that whatever you do, you have to lead, and it starts with yourself!

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