I recently read “Extreme Ownership,” a popular read on leadership by former Navy SEAL officers. The core premise of the book is that a leader must fully own the results (good or bad) of their results if they are to create and lead a successful team. Accountability is key, even in cases (or especially in cases) in which events are out of one’s direct control – the leader is responsible for ensuring that everyone in their organization has the context and competence to succeed, even to the point getting rid of underperforming team members when necessary. There are no excuses.
How I wish I could find more of this in the tech domain.
I have limited experience in non-tech industries so I can’t say whether it’s better or worse elsewhere, but techies love their excuses. When I was consulting I called it the “Any and All Excuses Accepted Here” phenomenon. I’ve lost track of the number of status reports (standups, etc) in which someone reports that their task or project is late and everyone (leadership included) just nods at the excuses and moves on. Perhaps a developer got sick or another team didn’t deliver on time. Maybe there was a massive network outage that blocked access to servers or critical services. In truth the challenges are legitimate, but so what? I rarely see the person who owns the outcome and explains what they’re going to do to make things right.
Why is this attitude important? Simple: as one of my mentors used to say, the market doesn’t give a damn about your excuses. Either you deliver and win or you don’t.
There are certainly companies who are much less tolerant of excuses in their relentless pursuit of market leadership, however that doesn’t mean their leaders actually embrace the concept of Extreme Ownership. Many of these companies have cultures in which blame replaces excuses and leaders throw their subordinates or peers under the bus. Shit rolls downhill. The culture quickly becomes toxic and, while the short-term business results may be impressive and the investors are happy, the people responsible for delivering the success work in fear under weak leaders.
So how do we fix this?
It starts with you. If you’re a leader in your organization you must embrace Extreme Ownership yourself if you want the rest of the organization to follow suit. Once you do, you’ll find that it becomes contagious and spreads quickly throughout the team/s.
Getting into the Extreme Ownership mindset takes work. Start here: the next time your team fails, resist the urge to make any excuses or to pounce on the person who screwed up. First ask yourself the question: “What could I have done to get a different result?” Then make it right if at all possible. Own up fully and personally to the failed result and set about doing what you can to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Sometimes it’ll involve better communications; sometimes more training. Usually it will require hard thinking in how to do things better. Often it will need hard conversations about individual performance and in extreme cases the removal of people who simply can’t fulfill their team duties. The latter is tough and is a last resort, but is necessary to ensure the health of the team.
Creating a culture of ownership is not enough – training is also needed. Let’s face it – most people are not natural-born leaders. But I believe, and my experience has shown me, that most people can learn to be solid leaders. As leadership has strong components of science and psychology it lends itself well to training. We do a great disservice to our industry by thrusting new leaders into roles without any training or support (or worse, sending them to bland corporate boilerplate training). More on this in a later blog.
In closing – read the book (preferably with your team) or listen to the interview on Tim Ferriss’ podcast and start adopting the principles. You won’t regret it.