Team Leadership Frameworks from Navy Seals

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Team leadership principles from Navy Seal Jocko Willink

Jocko Willink is retired United States Navy Seal. As the commander of SEAL Team Three’s Task Unit Bruiser during the Battle of Ramadi, Jocko recounts not only the successes of his unit, but the failures and learnings making his book ‘Extreme Ownership’ a battle-tested team leadership manual.
Jocko’s shares in the introduction that his aim for the book was to speak “not from a pedestal or a position of superiority, but from a humble place, where the scars of our failings still show”, which establishes one of the key tenants throughout Extreme Ownership, humility.

Key learnings from Extreme Ownership

  • Leadership requires belief in the mission and unyielding perseverance to achieve victory,
    particularly when doubters question whether victory is even possible.
  • When in a crisis situation: “Relax. Look around. Make a call.”
  • The only meaningful measure for a leader is whether the team succeeds or fails.
  • For leaders, the humility to admit and own mistakes and develop a plan to overcome them is essential to success.
    The best leaders are not driven by ego or personal agendas. They are simply focused on the mission and how
    best to accomplish it.
  • Training leaders in critical decision making and effective communication in high-
    pressure situations to better prepare them for combat.

    • Gamification and building exercises that simulate high pressure situations will always be a valuable skill for leadership consultants in the corporate world.
  • All levels of a team must understand how they contribute to the primary objective.
    “This is especially true in the SEAL Teams, where innovation and input from everyone (including the most junior personnel) are encouraged.”
  • Extreme Ownership. Leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame.
  • When subordinates aren’t doing what they should, leaders that exercise Extreme Ownership cannot blame the
  • If an individual on the team is not performing at the level required for the team to succeed, the leader must train and mentor that underperformer. But if the underperformer continually fails to meet standards, then a leader who exercises Extreme Ownership must be loyal to the team and the mission above any individual. If
    underperformers cannot improve, the leader must make the tough call to terminate them and hire others who can get the job done. It is all on the leader.
  • With Extreme Ownership, junior leaders take charge of their smaller teams and their piece of the mission.
    Efficiency and effectiveness increase exponentially and a high-performance, winning team is the result.
  • Take ownership of mistakes, and overcome them.
    “The best-performing SEAL units had leaders who accepted responsibility for everything. Every mistake, every
    failure or shortfall—those leaders would own it. During the debrief after a training mission, those good SEAL
    leaders took ownership of failures, sought guidance on how to improve, and figured out a way to overcome
    challenges on the next iteration.”
  • If their platoons underperformed, it was up to them to solve problems, overcome obstacles and get the team
    working together to accomplish the mission. Ultimately, they must fully accept that there are truly are no bad teams, only bad leaders.
  • Therefore, leaders must enforce standards. Consequences for failing need not be immediately severe, but leaders must ensure that tasks are repeated until the higher expected standard is achieved.
  • Have a succession plan in place.
    “Every team must have junior leaders ready to step up and temporarily take on the roles and responsibilities of their immediate bosses.”
  • Your leaders also need to make tough calls, put yourself in their shoes.
    “I knew I had to adjust my perspective, to mentally step back from the immediate fight just outside the wire and think about this question from a strategic level, as if I were one of those generals in Baghdad or back at the Pentagon. Sure, they were far from the front lines, but certainly, they had the same goal we did: to win.”
  • There is a higher purpose to leadership, to help your team develop and become greater versions of themselves.
    “Leaders must always operate with the understanding that they are part of something greater than themselves and their own personal interests.”
  • Leaders must understand exactly why the objective has been briefed.
    “Every leader must be able to detach from the immediate tactical mission and understand how it fits into strategic goals. When leaders receive an order that they themselves question and do not understand, they must ask the question: why?”

    • Those leaders must take a step back, deconstruct the situation, analyze the strategic picture, and then come to a conclusion. If they cannot determine a satisfactory answer themselves, they must ask questions up the chain of command until they understand why.
    • If frontline leaders and troops understand why, they can move forward, fully believing in what they are doing.
  • Admitting mistakes, taking ownership, and developing a plan to overcome challenges are integral to any
    successful team.