What I’m Reading Now


The veterans’ writing workshop recently completed a prompt about the three or four books that have had the biggest impact on their lives and how those books affected them.

One mentioned Extreme Ownership: How Navy Seals Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. He didn’t write much about it, and I urged him to expand his comments. Instead he loaned me the book.

Willink and Babin open each chapter with a scenario from their tour in Ramadi, Iraq, during the bone-breaking, soul-sucking battles to reclaim the city. After explaining what went wrong, or how a catastrophe had been averted, they apply the lessons to the corporate world. The opening chapter has Willink writing in detail about how his lack of communication caused the death of a “friendly,” an Iraqi soldier, and serious injury to a fellow SEAL. By acknowledging his error to his superiors and to his men, he avoided getting kicked out of the military and built trust up and down the chain of command. That’s the extreme ownership. Other chapters address “decentralized command” and “plan.”

As I read I kept thinking, why has no one written this book before? It was just published this year, but I understand why it had such an impact on Gene. The authors note that not all the concepts are new. Other people have written about simplifying instructions, making sure everyone understands priorities, etc. But no one has compiled them in such a readable and useful form. Here the stakes are not just high; they’re potentially life ending. The commander has to be absolutely sure that his sniper is about to take out an enemy fighter and not one of their own.

Another factor distinguishes Extreme Ownership. Willink was Babon’s commanding officer. This relationship adds a layer of subtlety and complexity not usually found in books about management. It’s an older brother and younger brother telling their story, at once the same and disparate.

Aside from the valuable insights into leadership, the book offers a behind-the-scenes look at the military. One huge revelation: PowerPoint abuse runs rampant and seems to interfere with actual work. Let that be a lesson to corporate overlords everywhere.

I have two problems with this work, neither the fault of the authors.

Only two women appear, probably because there are so few women in leadership positions in the firms that Willink and Babin advise. There’s also a hint in the title to Chapter 4: “Check the Ego.” I’m not saying that women are egoless (see The Devil Wears Prada), but we tend think and act cooperatively (see Miranda Priestly’s assistants). It would be a great service to revisit the companies in ten years to see whether the profile of business executives has changed and whether women have begun to engage in the behaviors that necessitated Extreme Ownership. 

The other problem concerns the photographs. They were not taken with an eye to reproduction in a book, and they exemplify “fog of war.” Most of the time I couldn’t tell what I was supposed to be seeing. Because of security and confidentiality, many backs of helmets appear, at least I think that’s what they are. Even the color author photo on the flyleaf needs serious a workout in Photoshop. The editors who approved these images for a book costing $27 should be forced to attend the series on extreme ownership.

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