LEADERSHIP NOTES: EXTREME OWNERSHIP by JOCKO WILLINK & LEIF BABIN

*This article was written by an anonymous friend of Pop Punk Radio for entertainment purposes only. Views expressed in this article may or may not reflect views of Pop Punk Radio as a whole.*

Extreme Ownership is an insightful book on leadership written by former Navy SEALs and makes me wish I had tried to be a SEAL when I was younger rather than focusing so much on college. I would have loved to have strong leaders like Jocko Willink and Leif Babin in my formative years rather than the blue-pilled beta-males that I grew up surrounded by in California. Hands-on experience and camaraderie also would have been beneficial for my growth.

One of the primary lessons of leadership is that *why* is of critical importance. It is the leader's responsibility to ensure that their subordinate leaders understand *why* they are performing a specific task and how that impacts the overall goal. This concept is covered in the book and I have my own experience to relate it to. I have also included some silly punk rock songs to go along with the anecdotes. This is a music blog after-all.

"Could you please tell me why? Why I can never find the answer to something I will never understand." - Unwritten Law / "Tell Me Why"

In a past job, I was once tasked with updating a database of aerial imagery. My "Team-Leader" showed me *how* to do the task but he never explained *why* we were doing it. I don't think that he knew *why* either. We just knew that new imagery came in regularly and would be used to update or replace older imagery as necessary. Simple enough.

One day, the TL explained to me that he wasn't going to bother updating the imagery database anymore. I was confused and asked why but didn't receive a clear answer. From my perspective, I felt like perhaps he did not enjoy the work and I didn't blame him because it wasn't very glamorous. It boiled down to updating some numbers in a spreadsheet and adjusting hierarchies.

Perhaps my TL did not enjoy the work but I took pride in performing the updates. I was fresh out of my Master's program and here I was applying remote sensing education to real world applications for a major tech company. Perhaps my TL had a different educational background and remote sensing wasn't his interest or focus. If my TL didn't want to perform the work, I was more than happy to take ownership of the task and use my skills to help the team and the company. Sounds good, right?

 

"Give me work! Give me pride! Give me loads of overtime!" - Guttermouth / "God, Steve McQueen (The Work Song)"

Well after a few weeks of performing the updates on my own I was told by the TL that our bosses had informed us to hold off on the imagery updates for a while. I took this personally and felt as if maybe I had done something wrong but my TL didn't seem to be aware of anything. He was just relaying a message. My TL never seemed excited by the imagery updates to begin with so I'm sure he didn't bother to ask any questions.

Curiosity got the best of me and I messaged our boss asking why the imagery updates were put on hold. I received a response that gave me the impression that the imagery updates were causing a problem somewhere down the line. The response made me feel like an idiot for making a mistake when I was only trying to help my team. A few months later it was eventually explained that some of the imagery updates had in-fact caused an issue as other teams had been misusing the assets down the line. This was partially because imagery assets had been provided to them that perhaps weren't the best for their purpose. 

Without knowing exactly how and *why* the imagery assets were being used down the line, I had made decisions based on the limited knowledge I was aware of. Somewhere down the line, other employees of the company were blindly grabbing whatever assets would help them do their jobs most quickly with little concern or knowledge about whether or not it was the best asset for their purpose. I'm willing to bet that many of these employees down the line also did not have a full understanding of *why* the were performing their jobs among the bigger picture and were simply focusing on the *how.* Feeling smug and doing their jobs with pride, just as I had.

"I think I'm dumb. I think I'm dumb. I think I'm dumb." - Nirvana / "Dumb"

Our bosses eventually explained *why* we were doing the imagery updates among the overall picture. I considered some of the resources that my TL had previously shown us without any knowledge or excitement about what those resources were given to us for; only explaining "boss sent us this but I don't know what he wants us to do with it." We had other tasks to do, so why would we waste our time on a non-urgent task with a cryptic explanation? 

After the more comprehensive explanation, a light-bulb went off in my head that could have been beneficial earlier if I had been able to combine a more complete knowledge of the task and resources that had been given to us. Unfortunately for myself, my team, and the company, this crucial information was not relayed to our team until my TL had long abandoned the project and I was a few weeks away from the completion of my own contract. 

Both of the TLs before me had decided to leave the company before their contracts were finished. I know for a fact based on direct conversation that both former TLs were not comfortable with our team's leadership, which is unfortunate because I had a ton of respect for at least one of our two direct bosses despite the company's quirky management style. One of those bosses always treat us with respect, had a pleasant demeanor, and treat the subordinate members of his team like equals. The other boss was a stereotypical plastic office asshole who interacted with us rudely and treat the subordinates on his team with contempt. Guess which one I would have dove on a grenade for and guess which one I would have thrown on the grenade. I'm certain that each of them would have treat me the same way, respectively. 

Fortunately for us, the better respected boss was also our lesser respected boss's boss. Otherwise, I'm pretty sure there never would have been a team to begin with because we all would have left. Insert Xzibit meme here: "Yo dawg, we heard you like bossy bosses. So we gave you a boss to boss your bossy boss so your bossy boss ain't so bossy."

"You hate your boss at your job..." - Flaming Lips / "Bad Days"

Our bosses liked to constantly show us an image of three people standing on a pile of junk while trying to peer over a fence, along with a similar image where the pile of junk had been turned in to useful tools like ladders helping the people see over the fence with greater ease. It sometimes felt as if our bosses purposefully threw us in a deep pool along with a few tools and it was our responsibility to figure out how to use the tools to escape the pool. A common tactic of university professors but this was the real world at a major tech company. They also used to like telling us to "ask questions" while usually only giving us a partial explanation. 

I don't know if or how much of this was intentional, but it was hard not to feel like our bosses let us down by not explaining things clearly and fully to begin with. As Leif explains to a mid-level corporate manager in Extreme Ownership; "This isn't his fault, it's yours. You are in charge, so the fact that he didn't follow procedure is your fault. And you have to believe that, because it's true. When you talk to him, you need to start the conversation like this: 'Our team made a mistake and it's my fault. It's my fault because I obviously wasn't as clear as I should have been in explaining why... It was up to me to make sure you know the parameters we have to work within...'"

It's easy for anyone to sit back and point the finger at their leaders for not providing enough information because, well it's true. It is 100% the responsibility of the leader to ensure that his team understands the bigger picture. "The leader must explain not just what to do but *why*." However, as Jocko Willink and Leif Babin explain, "It is (also) the responsibility of the subordinate leader to reach out and ask if they do not understand."

"Are you looking for an answer, when you still don't know the question?" - The Ataris / "Life Makes No Sense"

When hired at the company, myself, my team, and my TL were all hired as contractors. Contractors are not part of the actual company they are performing work for. Upon being hired by the contracting agency, we spend our first weeks of training being told not to talk to others about the work we perform. They come down pretty hard at the beginning, creating an atmosphere of secrecy. An atmosphere where many are initially afraid to do as much as look at any other screen in the office aside from their own. Eventually some people realize the company is primarily concerned with keeping aspects of their proprietary software from being discussed outside of the company but the point is we were all so afraid of asking questions of our bosses (direct employees of the bigger company) that we really didn't ask any questions at all, let alone the critical question of "why?" Even when our own bosses were telling us to ask question.

I can't speak for my colleagues but I can say that I personally took an approach of assuming that if something was important for me to know, my bosses would have explained it and that if they didn't explain something to us there was a reason. It was also assumed that if there was a reason to withhold information from us, it was due to secrecy. Our team might ask our bosses details surrounding *how* to do certain tasks but we were largely in the dark as to *why* we were doing them and felt afraid to ask for further questions.

While it may have been correct that we were in an environment where we felt discouraged from asking our bosses for certain details, it was also incorrect for us to sit back and do our task blindly without more fully understanding *why* we were doing it. As discussed in Extreme Ownership; "If you don't ask questions so you can understand and believe in the mission, you are failing as a leader and you are failing your team..." 

 

"Was the answer in the question all along?" - MxPx / "Answer in the Question"

Looking back on the situation, I would have asked questions until I either understood exactly why I was doing a task or until I was blue in the face. Nobody was going to fire us for asking questions and even if we did ask for some information that our bosses were unable to relay, I'm sure they would have simply told us that they couldn't answer them. It is a leader's responsibility to ensure that subordinates understand *why* their task is important to the overall goal of the project just as much as it is the subordinate's responsibility to ask questions until they do. 

"As a leader employing Extreme Ownership, if your team isn't doing what you need them to do, you first have to look at yourself. Rather than blame them for not seeing the strategic picture, you must figure out a way to better communicate it to them in terms that are simple, clear, and concise, so that they understand. This is what leading down the chain of command is all about." Likewise; "When leading up the chain of command, use caution and respect. But remember, if your leader is not giving you the support you need, don't blame him or her. Instead, reexamine what you can do to better clarify, educate, influence, or convince that person to give you what you need in order to win."

Comments