Jocko Willink | Extreme Ownership (Episode 521)

Jocko Willink (@jockowillink), commander for the most highly decorated special operations unit of the Iraq War, joins the show to talk about taking responsibility, discipline, intensity, and leadership to the next level as outlined in Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win.

The Cheat Sheet:

  • When making a decision, worrying about variables that can’t be controlled is a waste of time. A better outcome is likely if we learn to focus that wasted effort on factors that can be controlled.
  • Understand why taking ownership of your mistakes, personal issues, and outcomes gets better results than trying to pass blame to someone else.
  • What does discipline = freedom mean?
  • How do you stop small weaknesses that sometimes permeate discipline from having a negative impact on significant decisions?
  • Is there such a thing as a natural leader?
  • And so much more…


In the civilian world, about as close as most of us get to a life or death situation is the rush hour commute to and from work. But there are lessons we can learn from those who have had to make tough decisions under fire that can help us mitigate risk, lead effectively, and perform at our best under any condition.

Jocko Willink spent 20 years in the military and commanded SEAL Task Unit Bruiser — the most highly decorated special operations unit of the Iraq War — in Baghdad and Ramadi. Now retired from active duty, he and Leif Babin, his business partner and co-author of Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, teach civilians how to apply skills learned in war to take ownership of every situation and make better decisions at home.

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After serving two decades in the military and commanding the Iraq War’s most highly decorated special operations unit, Jocko Willink knows a thing or two about uncertainty. While he’ll be the first to tell you it doesn’t take going to war to experience uncertainty, the way he deals with uncertainty was definitely influenced by his time at war.

“The world is filled with uncertainty regardless of whether you’re in combat or the business world or trying to raise kids,” Jocko says. “There’s things you can control, and things you cannot control…I can mitigate as much risk as possible. I can pay attention; we can look at briefs and understand what the camouflage of an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) is going to look like, and I can learn as much as I can, and we can plan a route that is the safest possible. And then beyond those things that we can do to mitigate the risk, there’s nothing we can do.

“I don’t worry about the things I can’t control. If I go out and get blown up, then that’s what happened. I’ve mitigated as much as I can and I’m not going to worry about it.”

Jocko points out that being aware of the things you can’t control allows you to focus your effort on the things you can control. “Once people become aware of that, it’s not that hard to do,” he says.

The Concept of Extreme Ownership

You also don’t have to be the leader of a Navy SEAL task force during wartime to understand the importance of taking responsibility of your actions, though Jocko has learned that lesson the hard way so you don’t have to. But the point he’s really trying to drive home is that taking ownership of everything you have a say in influencing not only empowers you to do what it takes to get the job done, but it boosts the morale of the people around you and paves a two-way street of trust.

On the other hand, if you’re the kind of person who habitually blames others as soon as the ball gets dropped, you’re the one who’s ultimately going to pay the price. “If I’m your boss and you tell me [someone else on your team] didn’t do what she was supposed to do and that’s why your part of the project failed, I’m not mad at her,” says Jocko. “I’m actually disgusted with you — first of all because you didn’t lead them correctly. You didn’t give her the equipment she needed or the gear she needed or the training she needed. When all that happened and went wrong, you just blamed her. You didn’t take any responsibility for it yourself, so I’ve now lost trust in you as well and we’ve got an issue that’s going to cause problems in the future.”

It may seem counterintuitive to take ownership of someone else’s mistakes, but it shows you’re thinking bigger than yourself and you have your team’s mission in mind above all else.

Discipline = Freedom

While it may look Orwellian at first glance, Jocko explains what he means when he says “Discipline = Freedom.”

“We all want freedom. We want that financial freedom; we want to have more free time — that’s what everybody wants. And when you want that freedom, the way to get there is through discipline.”

If you want financial freedom, you have to have the discipline to manage where your money’s coming from and budget how it gets spent. If you want more free time, you have to work at organizing a more disciplined time management schedule. “That is,” Jocko says, “the pathway to freedom.”

This doesn’t apply simply to individuals, but to teams, too. Your team members need to cultivate a certain discipline to work together efficiently and effectively. The better the pieces of the whole fit together, the more naturally the tasks at hand can be completed.

Jocko says: “With my task unit — with my SEAL platoons that I was in — we were highly disciplined and had all kinds of standard operating procedures (SOPs) about how we did everything: how we got into vehicles, how we got out of vehicles, how we lined up on buildings, how we left buildings, and how we talked on the radio. Everything we did had a procedure. And you might think that constrained us on the battlefield, but it actually gives you more freedom on the battlefield. Because if I needed you to go take down a building, I could say, ‘Jordan, go hit that building over there’ and you could just immediately go and do it.

“You didn’t have to tell me how you were going to do it. You didn’t have to tell me how many people you were going to take. You didn’t have to tell me what you were going to do with any unknown people that you found in there. You didn’t have to tell me what you were going to do with any wounded. We already knew all that, so you could just go do it. Not only did I know what you were going to do, but all your team — your subordinates all knew those things as well. They knew the basic plan. They knew the SOPs.

Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm in its entirety to learn more about Jocko’s parenting style, stopping small weaknesses from ruining your discipline and having an adverse effect on your decisions, how exercising discipline feeds itself throughout the day, why combat is humbling, how Jocko got involved in a life of service, if there’s such a thing as a natural leader, the traits that differentiate bad leaders from good leaders, if bad leaders can become good leaders, how smart leaders learn to overcome their own weaknesses by developing excellent teamwork, how much difference a winning leader in charge of a losing team can make, how Jocko’s training prepared recruits for the realities and chaos of combat, using anger as a tool, and lots more.


If you enjoyed this session with Jocko Willink, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out on Twitter:

Click here to thank Jocko Willink on Twitter!

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Jordan Harbinger - author of 952 posts on The Art of Charm

Jordan Harbinger has spent several years abroad in Europe and the developing world, including South America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, and speaks several languages. He has also worked for various governments and NGOs overseas, traveled through war zones, and been kidnapped -- twice. He’ll tell you the only reason he’s still alive and kicking is because of his ability to talk his way into (and out of) just about any type of situation. Here at The Art of Charm, Jordan shares that experience, and the system borne as a result, with students and clients.


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