Startup leader

Welcome to the world of extreme leadership. Imagine being in charge of a critical mission to secure a city during a war, where danger lurks at every corner. In this text, we’ll explore the valuable lessons from two Navy SEAL leaders who faced such extreme challenges in Ramadi, Iraq. Their ability to lead made the difference between life and death for their teams.


Now, you might be wondering how this military experience applies to you, especially if you’re not in the armed forces. The good news is that the principles that guided these Navy SEALs can be adapted for any team or organization striving to conquer complex tasks and daunting missions.


By delving into strategies like “cover and move” and “prioritize and execute,” you’ll discover how to lead effectively and achieve victory in even the toughest battles. So, get ready to embrace extreme ownership and transform your leadership abilities.


The crucial role of responsibility in leadership

Leading a team to success means being responsible for its mistakes. Think of it this way: imagine you’re in charge of a group, and something goes terribly wrong. It might not even be your fault, but as the leader, you step up and say, “I’ll take the blame.” This is a crucial aspect of good leadership.


In a real-life example from 2012, a military leader named Jocko Willink found himself in a difficult situation in Iraq. His team was attacked, but it turned out they were being fired upon by their own teammates. Despite not causing the problem, Willink took responsibility for the chaos and tragedy that followed. Surprisingly, this act of owning up to the mistakes actually saved his job. Why? Because good leaders understand that they need to take responsibility when things go wrong.


This lesson is also evident in training for elite military units like the SEALs. The units that perform the best are led by commanders who admit their own mistakes, welcome feedback, and work hard to improve. On the other hand, units that perform poorly are often led by people who blame others or the situation itself.


When leaders refuse to take responsibility, it has a negative ripple effect. Bad attitudes and excuses spread throughout the team, making it ineffective and unable to solve problems. But when leaders take ownership of their mistakes, it sets a positive example for their team, encouraging accountability and initiative at all levels of the group.


In a nutshell, taking responsibility for failures is a key part of being a successful leader. It fosters a culture of accountability and ultimately leads to a more effective and capable team.


Why believing in your mission matters

To be successful in your mission, it’s crucial to grasp why it matters. An example of this principle can be seen in the story of military leader Willink. When he was informed that his highly trained SEAL team would be working alongside the inexperienced Iraqi army, he had serious reservations. He believed the Iraqis lacked proper training and equipment and sometimes weren’t loyal to the American allies.


However, instead of immediately objecting to the plan, he decided to understand why it was happening. He discovered that involving the Iraqi army was a strategic step to eventually withdraw US forces from Iraq. Knowing this purpose allowed him to believe in the mission and persuade his team to do the same.


By conveying his conviction to his unit, they also began to understand the mission’s importance and committed to it. If Willink had openly criticized the mission from the start, it could have caused significant resistance within his team. Even if he had later tried to convince them, their doubts might have persisted, potentially leading to mission failure.


In essence, whether you’re leading a military unit or a corporate team, you must genuinely support your team’s goals. When you receive a questionable order, consider how it aligns with your organization’s larger strategic objectives. As a leader, you’re part of something bigger than yourself and your team. If you don’t understand a decision, it’s your responsibility to seek clarification from higher-ups. Asking superiors for explanations can be intimidating, but failing to grasp the strategic context is a mistake good leaders must avoid at all costs.


Mutual support


The power of mutual support

Instead of treating your allies as rivals, view them as a support system. Let’s simplify this concept with a real-life story. Imagine you’re part of a special team on a dangerous mission in a city called Ramadi, Iraq. Your team has no backup, and to escape, you have to walk through the city during the day, which is extremely risky.


Your chances of encountering enemies are very high. Miraculously, you make it back safely. However, you later realize you made a mistake. There was another team of experts nearby who could have protected you, but you never asked for their help. You were so focused on your own team’s problems that you forgot about the others.


In the military, there’s a basic rule called “cover and move.” It means working together as a team. Each part of the team should support the others to achieve the mission.


In this example, you were so focused on your team’s goal that you forgot about the other teams. This put your team in more danger than necessary.


This lesson applies not only in combat but also in business. Leaders should focus on their current mission but also consider the bigger picture, including how other teams can help.


For instance, in a business, Leif Babin noticed that different teams within a company were blaming and competing against each other. This goes against the “cover and move” principle. Internal teams should support each other because the real competition is outside the company, not within it. The competition isn’t your HR colleague; it’s the other companies trying to win your customers.


Effective decision-making under pressure

To stay effective when facing high-pressure situations, it’s crucial to set clear priorities and act on them promptly. Imagine a scenario where a SEAL team is in a dangerous situation. They accidentally fall through a tarp, leaving one member injured and vulnerable. The team is deep in enemy territory with no backup and an enemy bomb nearby. What should the leader do?


In such chaotic moments, leaders must remain calm and make smart decisions. The key principle here is “prioritize and execute.” SEALs remember this as “relax, look around, make a call.” Even the most skilled leaders can get overwhelmed if they try to address every problem simultaneously. So, it’s vital to identify the most important issue and focus on it first.


Once the top priority is clear, the leader can move on to the next one, and so on. In the example, the leader’s first priority was security, followed by helping the injured soldier and then taking a headcount of their team. By calmly assessing the situation and tackling priorities step by step, the leader managed to handle the pressure effectively.


Business leaders can apply a similar approach. While business situations aren’t life-and-death, prioritizing and executing is still valuable:


  1. Identify your highest priority in any situation.
  2. Communicate this priority clearly to your team.
  3. Seek input from key team members on how to address the problem.
  4. Focus your team’s resources on executing the plan for that priority.


As priorities change, make sure to communicate these shifts to your team. This approach helps leaders handle pressure and make strategic decisions in challenging situations.


The importance of preparing for risks

Planning for success means thoroughly identifying and addressing potential problems before they happen. Let’s take a real-life example: Imagine a special forces operation to rescue a hostage from a dangerous group. Just before the mission, the leader learns that the hostage is not only surrounded by explosives but also guarded by hidden machine guns.


This new information makes the mission much riskier. However, the leader had already considered the possibility of such dangers when planning the mission. This is because, as a responsible leader, he had to think about all possible risks his team might face. It’s like doing your homework before a big test.


He had already come up with a detailed plan to reduce the risk of explosives and machine guns. Because of this careful planning, there was no need to change the plan or delay the mission, even with this new information.


This kind of preparation is crucial. In fact, this leader often uses this situation to train new recruits. He asks them if they would still go ahead with the mission after learning about these risks, and the answer should always be yes.


The lesson here is that leaders, no matter what they’re leading, should create a detailed plan that identifies, measures, and deals with all the potential risks they know about. This way, if things don’t go as expected, everyone knows what to do. This makes success more likely because your team is ready for the unexpected. However, keep in mind that not all risks can be eliminated, so good leaders focus on managing the risks they can control.


Why good leaders keep their superiors informed

Instead of getting annoyed when your higher-ups interfere, ensure you’re giving them the necessary information.


In Iraq, Babin, a SEAL unit commander, used to be frustrated when his commanding officer bombarded him with what he considered silly questions via email. He wondered why he was being bothered this way and thought his boss should understand how busy he was.


Willink, his colleague, offered a simple response: “No, because you’re not keeping him informed.” This made Babin realize that his superiors weren’t mind-readers; they were asking questions because they lacked detailed updates.


In essence, the commanding officer wanted the information to approve Babin’s plans and support his missions. Babin learned that he needed to change his attitude and provide comprehensive plans to his superiors.


However, many business leaders don’t grasp this concept when dealing with their bosses. They often blame their supervisors for not providing support, but they should realize that it’s their responsibility to offer the essential information for support and decision-making.


To put it another way, effective leaders ensure information flows up and down the chain of command. Taking full responsibility as a leader means guiding and influencing everyone around you, whether they’re above or below you.


In conclusion, effective leadership, whether in the realms of the military or business, necessitates the complete ownership of one’s team and their endeavors. This entails assuming accountability for both triumphs and setbacks, crafting comprehensive strategies that consider potential risks, and upholding robust channels of communication in every dimension.

Inspired by a book “Extreme Ownership”; Jocko Willink & Leif Babin”



7 minutes read

Leading Your Team in High-Stakes Scenarios

Explore lessons from Navy SEAL leaders in the heart of war and discover how their insights can help you lead your startup to success in any challenging situation.