“There are no bad teams, just bad leaders.”–Jocko Willink
You manage a project but you lead a team. As a leader, you are responsible for every aspect of the team’s performance. If the team failed to deliver on schedule, you’re responsible. If the team delivered on time and to customer expectations but busted the budget, you’re responsible. If a team member neglected to inform a major stakeholder of a significant change and it was raised at the program management review, you’re responsible. This is what extreme ownership is all about.
According to Jocko Willink—retired Navy SEAL, author of “Extreme Ownership” and CEO of Echelon Front—it ultimately always comes back to the leader. Perhaps, the leader didn’t model the importance of tracking data that could warn of schedule delays. Maybe the leader failed to negotiate effective trade-offs that would keep costs within established thresholds. Perchance, not everyone was trained or well-versed on the project’s change control process and communication plan.
As intense as this may sound, there are serious benefits to be reaped from this mindset. The primary benefit is increased team performance. When the leader practices extreme ownership it creates a safe environment within your team. Specifically, it disarms defensive behavior. When team members realize they are not going to be blamed for shortcomings or problems, they begin to seek solutions to achieve the mission. It teaches your team that they can come to you with problems early on. When team members are focused on solutions instead of defending themselves and when they come to you with problems early, you have the foundation for a high-performance team.
Exercising extreme ownership also displays humility. In today’s world, projects and programs are inherently complicated and complex. Mistakes are going to happen. We are human and we make mistakes. Admitting and owning mistakes takes humility and it shows vulnerability. In “The Effective Executive,” Peter Drucker theorized that leaders who show vulnerability also create a safe environment for their teams. Coincidently, leaders who revealed vulnerability also experienced higher levels of loyalty from team members.
Google studied team performance and they came to the same conclusion as Jocko Willink and Peter Drucker. They analyzed various data points such as teams that were composed of members with similar experiences. They also looked at teams composed of members with wildly different experiences, backgrounds, and education levels. No matter how they looked at the data, high team performance always came back to team members who felt they were working in a safe environment. Team members who knew they could approach the leader with problems or propose ideas no matter how outside the box, and do so without fear of dismissal—or worse, ridicule—performed beyond expectations.
In closing, Extreme Ownership is a leadership philosophy that compliments the tenets of project management. It can significantly enhance team performance, as it allows team members to focus on solutions toward accomplishing the mission. Focused on solutions, the team is well positioned to deliver within scope, on time, and on budget.
Jay Borst, Ph.D.
Jay Borst has over 24 years of program management experience. He has worked on imagery systems, library systems, and satellite systems.