Leading During Crisis: Taking Extreme Ownership

I don’t know about you, but I’ve hit that “Covid wall”. The sameness – days largely confined to home, the stress of “who can we safely see?”, opportunities lost and health concerns… it grinds you down. 

But through this, we need to  keep moving forward. We need to keep our organisations, our colleagues and staffs all moving forward, marching towards our goals. 

Something we’ve all been feeling our way through is leading during crisis. Which got me thinking – how do we lead effectively during these challenges? How do we keep our organisations and staff/colleagues moving towards our goals during this personal and global crisis?

That question led me to Jocko Willink’s book Extreme Ownership. Jocko Willink is an impressive figure: a former Navy Seal battalion commander that fought in the battle of Ramadi, founder of of leadership consultancy Echelon Front, owner of a successful ju jitsu gym, and very popular podcaster. 

Hell, the guy gets up at 4am every single morning. 


I came away incredibly impressed with Jocko (and co-author Leif Babin).  There is an incredible depth of thought, knowledge, and experience laid out in this book. This is perhaps the best leadership book I have read. 

Jocko & Leif have had to deal with difficulties and challenges that Covid-19 pales in front of. They’ve had to lead in extreme conditions and did so not mindlessly but with forethought and planning. 

To that effect, I think this book will help you as much as it’s helped me. To keep this digestible I’ve included some brief comments that are applicable to our industry. Keep in mind, these are my notes and thus the pieces that interested me in a condensed form. You can grab the book here and find Jocko’s podcast here.

Extreme Ownership Notes & Wine Business Application

  • Combat Laws:
    1. Cover & Move
    2. Simple
    3. Prioritize & Execute
    4. Decentralized Command
Part of the conceit of the book is that leadership that applies in combat applies just as much in the business world. 

Thus these “combat laws” are guiding principles in how we think about leadership.

  • Cover and Move
    • When the team succeeds, everyone within the team succeeds
      • For this reason, team members/departments/supporting assets need to always help each other, work together, and support each other to win
    • Within an organization you must focus on the enemy outside the walls, everyone within is on the same team
      • You have to overcome the “us vs them” mentality within the same organization

1. “Cover and move” is the application of supporting fire – everyone in your organisation needs to be supporting each other. And this happens through relationships. Getting support in your tasks and your colleagues/staff getting support in there’s comes from having relationships with each other, knowing what the goal is and keeping the organisation moving forward. 

  • Keep it Simple
    • Keep procedures and communication plans as simple as possible. With simplicity embedded in how things are done its easier for the team to understand how what they’re doing ties to the mission
      • And this also allows you to adapt quickly

2. “Simple” means keeping everything digestible, understandable, and as straightforward as possible. Complexity is the enemy of effectiveness. 

This can be challenging given the reality of Covid-19 protocols. 

Further, as wine sales have moved even more online this has created new demands on staff – knowledge around websites, Google algorithms, social media savvy, etc. 

In cases where this is outside your teams skillset, it’s even more important to keep the tasks and goals simple and digestible. Rather than tasking an inexperienced team member with Instagram strategy, give them a specific tasks – for example posting a daily update on what’s happening at the winery or a daily photo of the vineyard (or 10 comments on other accounts).

  • Prioritize and Execute
    • Even the best leaders will be overwhelmed if they tackle multiple problems or tasks simultaneously
    • Find the highest priority item and execute
      • No multi-tasking
    • One way to stay on task is to stay ahead of real-time problems
      • Most problems can be anticipated and an effective leader will have responses mapped out before the problems happen
      • This prevents you from being overwhelmed when the shit hits the fan – you already have a plan of attack and are prepared
      • If a team has been briefed on the contingencies, this also leaves the team more able to execute in the face of problems
      • This is a critical component of any highly effective team (and supports Decentralized Command)

3. “Prioritize and execute” is a reminder to know what your priorities are, the ultimate goals that will bring organisational success, and execute on that. I can tell you that a simple habit that gets in the way of this law is constant email checking. I know that when I regularly check emails I become responsive and slow to take action on the things that move the needle for Vintality.

A great example is in the vineyard where there are always a 100 things that need to get done. 

But this demands that you also know what your priorities are. What is going to actually move the needle in the vineyard or wine shop? What is going to deliver real results? Prioritise that and de-prioritise all the crap we do because it makes us feel good. 

  • Decentralized Command
    • Human beings are not able to manage more than 6-10 people, teams need to be broken into manageable units with clearly designated leaders
      • Those leaders must understand the overall mission and the ultimate goal of the mission: the Commander’s Intent
    • Junior leaders must be empowered to make decisions on key tasks necessary to accomplish the mission in the most efficient way possible
      • Every tactical level team leader must understand not just what they are doing but why they are doing it
    • Decentralized command does not mean junior leaders/team members are operating their own program
      • Instead, junior leaders must fully understand what is within their authority – the “left and right limits” of their responsibility
      • As well, they must communicate with senior leaders to recommend decisions outside their authority and pass critical info up the chain of comman
      • Must be proactive not reactive
    • What about Decentralized Command leading to a game of telephone?
      • That’s why you need Simplicity – proper Decentralized Command requires simple, clear, concise orders that can be understood by all
      • Everyone needs to know what the goal is so that they can support the goal without asking for permission

 4. Lastly, “Decentralized Command” is about entrusting responsibility to others. This is one I especially struggle with, wanting to do all the important tasks myself because I can control the results. A successful organisation is training up its team to handle more responsibility, not less.

The key that unlocks these 4 laws is ego: 

Implementing Extreme Ownership requires checking your ego and operating with a high degree of humility. Admitting mistakes, taking ownership, and developing a plan to overcome challenges are integral to any successful team.

  • Principle: Extreme Ownership
    • On any team, in any organization, all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader
      • The leader must own everything in his or her world
      • They take extreme ownership of everything that impacts their mission
    • Leaders must look at an organization’s problems through the objective lens of reality, without emotional attachments to agendas or plans
      • “It mandates that a leader set ego aside, accept responsibility for failures, attack weaknesses, consistently work to build a better and more effective team.”
      • And does not take credit for his teams’ successes
    • This all then seeps into the culture
  • Leadership is the single greatest factor in any team’s performance
    • Whether a team succeeds or fails is up to the leader
    • The leader’s attitude sets the tone for the entire team
    • The leader drives performance – or doesn’t

This is a harsh reality that even during Covid there are no excuses. As leaders, we bear responsibility for the success and failure of the teams and organisations. This is not about masochistic self-blame but recognizing that even in challenging times like this, it is on us. 

This is a hard truth for us to accept. I know I love to make excuses. Why was I late? “There was an accident on the way.” “I had to finish an important call.” “My car broke down.” 

Hell, why were there spelling mistakes in the last BC Wine Weekly newsletter? “I was in a rush!” “An odd spelling mistake isn’t that important!”

Yet, I am responsible. I could leave earlier, plan more, prioritise correctly (have someone spell check). Rather than looking externally to blame, I must look to myself.

Leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame.

  • It’s not watch you preach, its what you tolerate
    • It doesn’t matter what you say or write: if substandard performance is accepted and no one is held accountable (if there are no consequences) then poor performance will become the new standard

This is a good example of why taking ownership is not about self-blame, recrimination, or a vicious spiral. 

Taking ownership means recognizing that the behaviours, habits, actions and relationships in your organisation ultimately stem from your leadership. 

A staff member with a bad attitude? Coach them up. Talk to them. Get them resources and tools to help them correct it. 

And if that hasn’t worked? Well, at some point you have to fire them. You are what you tolerate. 

Your organisation is what you tolerate. 

  • You have to believe in your mission to convince your team to believe in the mission
    • If you openly question the mission or express doubts those will be amplified in your team
    • But once you understand and believe, you can pass that understanding and belief on, clearly and succinctly so they can believe themselves
      • They need to understand why

Here’s a question: Can you articulate what the mission of your organisation is? 

Because if you can’t you’d better believe your team can’t. 

Here’s Vintality’s mission: 

Vintality is a supportive hub to help you realise all your vineyard aspirations using qualitative data gathering and analysis, specialised vineyard tools, community connection with a love for terroir in its truest form.

  • How to take ownership if someone doesn’t follow procedures
    • If someone doesn’t follow procedures that’s your fault
      • And you have to believe that, because its true
    • When you talk to that person you need to say: “Our team made a mistake and its my fault. It’s my fault because I obviously wasn’t as clear as I should have been in explaining why we have these procedures in place and how not following them can cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. You are an extremely skilled and knowledgeable superintendent. You know more about this business then I ever will. It was up to me to make sure you know the parameters we have to work within and why some decisions have got to be run through me. Now, I need to fix this so it doesn’t happen again.”
    • This is unnatural, its natural to blame subordinates and direct reports when something goes wrong
      • Its hard on the ego but its on us to see where we failed to communicate effectively and help our team understand what their roles and responsibilities are
    • It’s not about you nor your subordinate, its about the mission and how to best accomplish it

If someone doesn’t follow procedures that’s your fault – and you’d better believe it because it’s true.

Leader's Checklist

  1. Analyze the mission
    1. Understand the higher HQ’s mission, Commander’s Intent, and endstate (goal)
    2. Identify and state your own Commander’s Intent and endstate for the specific mission
  2. Identify personnel, assets, resources and time available
  3. Decentralize the planning process
    1. Empower key leaders within the team to analyze the possible courses of action
  4. Determine a specific course of action
    1. Lean toward selecting the simplest course of action
    2. Focus efforts on the best course of action
  5. Empower key leaders to develop the plan for the selected course of action
  6. Plan for likely contingencies through each face of the operation
  7. Mitigate risks that can be controlled as much as possible
  8. Delegate portions of the plan and brief key junior leaders
    1. Stand back and be the tactical genius
  9. Continually check and question the plan against emerging information to ensure it still fits the situation
  10. Brief the plan to all participants and supporting assets.
    1. Emphasize Commander’s Intent
    2. Ask questions and engage in discussion and interaction with the team to ensure they understand
  11. Conduct post-operational debrief after execution
    1. Analyze lessons learned and implement them in future planning

This is a protocol I’m going to use as an actual checklist within my company. 

Leading In Challenging Circumstances

  • Leading Down the Chain: Lessons from Task Unit Bruiser’s deployment to Ramadi
    • The SEALs who suffered the most and grew the most negative were those who had the least planning in operations
      • Conversely those who remained focused and positive and believed in what they were doing all had some ownership in the planning process
        • Even if only a small part of the plan such as a route in/out or breach scene on a door
      • The SEALs with little to no ownership were in the dark and thus had a harder time understanding why we were taking risks and what specific impact they’d have on the campaign in Ramadi
    • You can do much better job of leading down the chain
      • Give more ownership especially to those who were negative and not fully committed
      • Put together a routine strategic overview brief and regularly delivered it to all team members so they understood what is going on

A lesson for us: team members struggling right now? Give them responsibility. Give them a goal to aim for. 

Student says: “Master, I am very discouraged.  What should I do?”
Master says: “Encourage others.” 

Leading From Below

  • If your boss isn’t making decisions in a timely manner or providing enough support don’t blame him: first blame yourself
    • Examine what you can do better to convey critical information
  • Leading up requires a tactful engagement with the boss
    • To do this, a leader must push situational awareness up the chain of command
  • Leading up you need to use influence, experience, knowledge, communication and maintain the highest professionalism
  • You also need to understand that your boss has to allocate limited assets and make decisions with the bigger picture in mind
    • Or perhaps the senior leader has chosen a different direction – have the humility to understand and accept this
  • One of the most important jobs of any leader is to support your boss

Jocko talks about how he never had a bad relationship with any of his bosses. I challenge myself with that. That’s a strong reminder that even when I’m working with an ineffective boss (or client) I’m responsible for (a) my actions (b) my ego and (c) supporting their success. 

No matter the quality of their leadership, do we have a good relationship? Am I helping them succeed?

Default: Keep Moving

  • Default Aggressive
    • Don’t let the situation dictate our decisions, we must dictate the situation
      • For many leaders this is not intuitive, they operate with a “wait and see” approach
      • But the picture is never complete, there is always some element of risk
    • A CEO was having trouble with two very talented department heads. They could not get along. He gave them a weekend to figure it out. And the end, they both said they couldn’t work together and the other needed to be fired. So he fired them both.

I hope you immediately grasp how this applies during Covid and the financial challenges we’re facing (and are coming). If you sit still, you lose. Given the challenges that we’re facing – personally and professionally – it can be easy to hunker down and hope to ride it out. 

That path leads to failure. 

The answer isn’t mindless chasing after the latest fad. But even with incomplete information the default needs to be movement and progress. “Default aggressive” means defaulting to action over inaction. 

In Summary: Practices of an Effective Leader

  • Leaders must have a competitive spirit but also be gracious losers
    • They must drive competition and push themselves and their teams to the highest level
    • But they must never put their personal drive for success ahead of the success of the mission
    • Leaders must act with professionalism and recognize others for their contributions
  • A leader must be attentive to details but not obsessed by them
    • A good leader does not get bogged down in the minutia of tactical problems at the expense of strategic success
    • He must monitor the team’s progress in the most critical tasks
    • But you cannot lose the bigger picture
  • A leader must be strong but also have endurance
    • He must be able to perform a the highest level and sustain that for the long term
    • They must recognize their limitations and know to pace themselves and their team so they can maintain solid performance indefinitely
  • Leaders must be humble but not passive; quiet but not silent
    • They must possess humility and control their own ego and listen to others
    • They must admit mistakes and failures and take ownership of them and determine how to prevent them from happening again
    • But a leader must speak up when it matters
    • They must be able to stand up for the team and respectfully push back against a decision, order, or direction that negatively impact mission success
  • A leader must be close with subordinates but not too close
    • He must understand the motivations of team members and know their people – their lives and families
    • But a leader must never grow so close that one team member becomes more important than another, or more important than the mission itself
    • Leaders must never get so close that team members forget who is in charge
  • A leader must exercise Extreme Ownership
    • Simultaneously a leader must deploy Decentralized Command by giving control to subordinate leaders

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