From My Bookshelf to Yours: ‘Extreme Ownership’

What actions can you take to solve problems rather than blaming, complaining, defending and denying?

During the research and writing process for my new book – “Frontline Leadership: The Hurdle,” published by Utility Business Media Inc. – I read a lot of books, and I want to share some highlights from a few of my favorites. This article will focus on “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win,” authored by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. I hope that you find this article useful, and I also hope it inspires you to read both “Extreme Ownership” and my book as part of your continuing personal and professional development.

Have you ever read a book and ended up with so many margin notes, highlights and sticky notes as placeholders that it was difficult to read again? “Extreme Ownership” is one of those books for me. I was expecting a bunch of cool SEAL stories, which I got. What I wasn’t expecting – but was thrilled to see – is how insightful and practical the book is for individuals and organizations.

In the remainder of this article, I’ll establish what extreme ownership means and how we can apply it to our leadership and safety. We’ll then use excerpts from the book to discuss specific challenges we face every day and principles that will help us overcome those challenges. As the authors of “Extreme Ownership” state, “The principles are simple, but not easy. Taking ownership for mistakes and failures is hard. But doing so is key to learning, to developing solutions, and, ultimately, to victory.”

What is Extreme Ownership?
The foreword of the book begins with the following statement, which I use in almost every leadership course I teach because it absolutely nails what accountability, leadership, ownership and responsibility are all about: “Of the many exceptional leaders we served alongside throughout our military careers, the consistent attribute that made them great was that they took absolute ownership – Extreme Ownership – not just of those things for which they were responsible, but for everything that impacted their mission. These leaders cast no blame. They made no excuses. Instead of complaining about challenges or setbacks, they developed solutions and solved problems. They leveraged assets, relationships, and resources to get the job done. Their own egos took a backseat to the mission and their troops. These leaders truly led.”

Here’s a quick self-check you can do. Leadership is easy until challenges or setbacks happen, so start a count of how you react when they arise. Do you blame someone or something or complain about what someone else did or didn’t do? Do you immediately think about excuses or how you can avoid blame? Or do you gravitate toward solving problems and developing solutions?

Your team looks to you for those solutions. So does your boss. They don’t want to hear you blame, complain, defend or deny. Those things are easy to do in the short term but ineffective over the long term. Extreme ownership is difficult and requires effort but, as noted earlier, ultimately leads to victory.

Normalization of Deviation
Many of you know Danny Raines, who writes the “Voice of Experience” column for Incident Prevention magazine. He brilliantly defines normalization of deviation as accepting the unacceptable. It is complacency developed over time. The authors of “Extreme Ownership” discuss normalization of deviation as well, stating the following in the book: “When it comes to standards, as a leader, it’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate. When setting expectations, no matter what has been said or written, if substandard performance is accepted and no one is held accountable – if there are no consequences – that poor performance becomes the new standard.”

I love a book that presents the negative and how to replace it with the positive, which is something “Extreme Ownership” does well. Check out this excerpt from the chapter titled “No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders,” which offers words we should adhere to regarding excellence in safety: “The best teams anywhere, like the SEAL Teams, are constantly looking to improve, add capability, and push the standards higher. It starts with the individual and spreads to each of the team members until this becomes the culture, the new standard.”

I can’t help but think of James Reason when I read those words – especially how he defined a successful culture, which is informed, reporting, constantly learning, flexible, just and fair. Pushing our standards higher and achieving safety excellence seem to be the exact opposite of normalization of deviation.

Us-vs.-Them Mentalities
Us-versus-them mentalities are a critical topic in today’s world. Especially as it relates to safety, we must learn to work together and stand shoulder to shoulder rather than work against each other. Remember that hazards do not discriminate or take sides – and neither should we. An excerpt from “Extreme Ownership” sums this up well: “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.”

According to the late Colin Powell, “Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

Powell’s quote does an excellent job of summarizing and reinforcing the key points I have highlighted from “Extreme Ownership.” As is the case with any book, it doesn’t do you much good to read it if you aren’t going to apply it. So, what actions can you take that will lead you to develop solutions and solve problems rather than blaming, complaining, defending and denying?

For more on this topic, please join me for a complimentary webinar on March 9 at 1 p.m. Eastern. I look forward to seeing you then.

About the Author: David McPeak, CUSP, CIT, CHST, CSP, CSSM, is the director of professional development for Utility Business Media’s Incident Prevention Institute (https://ip-institute.com) and the author of “Frontline Leadership: The Hurdle.” He has extensive experience and expertise in leadership, human performance, safety and operations. McPeak is passionate about personal and professional development and believes that intrapersonal and interpersonal skills are key to success. He also is an advanced certified practitioner in DISC, emotional intelligence, the Hartman Value Profile, learning styles and motivators.

About Frontline Fundamentals: Frontline Fundamentals topics are derived from the Incident Prevention Institute’s popular Frontline training program (https://frontlineutilityleader.com). Frontline covers critical knowledge, skills and abilities for utility leaders and aligns with the Certified Utility Safety Professional exam blueprint.

Webinar: Extreme Ownership
March 9, 2022, at 1 p.m. Eastern
Visit https://frontlineutilityleader.com for more information.

Learn more from David McPeak on the iP Institute Podcast. Visit https://ip-institute.com/podcasts/#frontline now!

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David McPeak, CET, CHST, CSP, CSSM, CUSP, is the director of professional development for Utility Business Media’s Incident Prevention Institute (www.ip-institute.com). His experience includes operations management, safety and training roles. McPeak holds multiple safety and training certifications and has received numerous awards. He also has served as chairman of Task Team One of the OSHA ET&D Partnership, as a member of Incident Prevention’s editorial advisory board and as a member of the North Carolina Apprenticeship Council. Reach him at david@utilitybusinessmedia.com.

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