FORMER U.S. NAVY SEAL TEAMMATES Leif Babin and Jocko Willink established leadership consulting firm Echelon Front, and are the co-authors of Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, which offers leadership lessons from the battlefield that can be applied in the boardroom. In this exclusive interview with COMMERCE, Babin and Willink discuss how to build high-performance teams, the characteristics that make a successful leader and why leadership is critical to success in every business.
Retired Navy SEAL Officer Leif Babin was deployed three times to Iraq and served 13 years in the U.S. Navy, including nine as a Navy SEAL. Officer Babin served as SEAL platoon commander in SEAL Team Three’s Task Unit Bruiser. During his last tour, he served as an Operations Officer and Executive Officer of a SEAL Team where he once again was deployed to Iraq with a Special Operations Task Force. He is the recipient of the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. He remains a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve.
Q. What sets your leadership training apart from other companies that teach best practices?
A. What we teach is not theory; it’s hands-on, practical and experience-based training developed from what works and what doesn’t. Combat is just life amplified and intensified. What works on the battlefield works throughout the business world. At Echelon Front, we use principles we’ve learned on the battlefield that translate to any organization. People learn best practices from us, and they know that something that works for a SEAL team can certainly work for them.
Q. What strategies do you teach in your book to build high-performance, winning teams?
A. The underlying principle of our book, Extreme Ownership, is on a mindset of responsibility and accountability. Rather than cast blame on other members of the team, “extreme ownership” requires that you look in the mirror and say to yourself, “How can I lead my team better? I need to own everything in my world and everything that affects my vision.” Once a leader has a mindset of extreme ownership, that attitude and tone will translate throughout the organization and create a culture that exhibits ownership, does not make excuses and acknowledges failures so that they can come up with solutions.
Q. What would you say are the core characteristics that make a strong, successful leader?
A. Humility is certainly one of them. Someone who exhibits extreme ownership will display humility. This involves having the discipline to do the right thing, focus and not make excuses. A successful leader is also someone who is proactive. That’s a huge part of extreme ownership. On the battlefield, your default setting is aggressive, which means “in pursuit of the mission.” In the business world, proactive is a better term. Someone who exhibits extreme ownership is going to be proactive in figuring out problems that may arise and already have a plan in place to overcome those obstacles and accomplish the mission.
Q. What are the most important lessons from your time as a SEAL that you apply each day to your professional and personal life?
A. Leadership is the most important thing on the battlefield and in business. When I was a SEAL platoon commander during the Battle of Ramadi, if my platoon did not do what they had to do, I couldn’t just blame it on them. If my machine gunner did not understand his field of fire, that is because I did not do a good enough job explaining it to him. It’s really that attitude that enables SEALs to succeed and directly translates to any position. If you are taking the time to train, mentor and help people grow to do the job they need to do, then you are going to be successful. There are always a few people out there who are not going to be able to perform up to speed. In this case, it’s ultimately the leader’s decision to make that tough call to terminate that person, and find someone else who will be able to do the job.
Q. Can you please discuss split-second decision-making?
A. With split-second decision-making, you’re under a lot of pressure and you must prioritize and execute. This involves taking a step back from your immediate emotional reaction, and determining the highest strategic priority. Once you’ve done this, you can make your decision and disseminate it. This will enable your team to get its wheels turning to execute and move on to the next priority. *** Retired Navy SEAL Officer Jocko Willink spent 20 years in the U.S. Navy SEAL Teams, starting as an enlisted SEAL and rising through the ranks to become a SEAL officer, eventually being named commander of SEAL Team Three’s Task Unit Bruiser during the Battle of Ramadi. The Unit went on to become the most decorated Special Operations Unit of the Iraq War. Officer Willink was awarded a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for his service in Iraq.
Retired Navy SEAL Officer Jocko Willink spent 20 years in the U.S. Navy SEAL Teams, starting as an enlisted SEAL and rising through the ranks to become a SEAL officer, eventually being named commander of SEAL Team Three’s Task Unit Bruiser during the Battle of Ramadi. The Unit went on to become the most decorated Special
Operations Unit of the Iraq War. Officer Willink was awarded a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for his service in Iraq.
Q. How does leadership in business compare to leadership in combat?
A. I think that while the stakes are not as high in business because it’s not life or death, they are still huge. Often people in business have hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars at risk. They are responsible for employees. People are relying on individuals in leadership positions to make the right decisions so they can pay their mortgage and feed their families. You are not dealing with lives, but livelihoods. In business and in combat, you are trying to get a team to accomplish a mission.
Q. What defines quality leadership?
A. You need to be aggressive and assert yourself but, at the same time, you cannot be overbearing. You need to ensure that your subordinates are comfortable enough to talk to you, present issues to you and disagree with your plans. You need to be confident in feeling you can get the mission done but, at the same time, you cannot be cocky. You must remain calm, but you cannot be robotic. Being able to balance this dichotomy is probably the most important core characteristic of being a successful leader.