Lead Like A Navy SEAL: 7 Rules, No Excuses

I don’t get up at 4:30am every morning to lift kettlebells (I prefer yoga) and I’m not into rubbing dirt on my face. But despite those recommendations, retired Navy SEALS Jocko Willink and Lief Babin’s new book “Extreme Ownership” totally resonated with me. 

Their key principle: you need to take 100% responsibility for everything that goes on your organization.

I had to let this book soak in a little. Once I’d reflected, I made a list of the practical things – the Navy SEAL ninja moves, if you will – that I see reflected in what Far West Capital has done best, and what we can do better in the future.

1. Take “extreme ownership” for your mission and ALL its results.

It all starts with the supposition that any results created – not just the good stuff! –  are your ultimate responsibility if you are in a leadership role.

In 2017, we totally revamped our operation – several times – after a couple of large hits that stung pretty good. As CEO, it would have been easy to blame others who were more directly involved in the breakdown. Trust me, I wanted to. But at the end of the day, I set up the systems. I hired the people. I set the goals. Ultimately, these failures lie directly at my feet.

In the book, Jocko describes a failure that makes my failure seem rather petty.  In 2012, in Iraq, Jocko was commanding a SEAL task unit that was under heavy gunfire. He thought it was the mujahadeen, but in fact it was friendly fire from another SEAL unit – and unfortunately, a soldier died.

Jocko was the ranking officer, and in his eyes there was only one option: take full responsibility and own it. By doing so, he saved his job.  His superiors understood that all leaders make mistakes, but only the good ones take responsibility for them.

Bottom line: You will never make progress offering “reasons” – aka excuses. If you do, everyone around you will do the same, and you will have an organization of blame, obfuscation and mistrust.  Not what you are looking for.

2. Execution of your mission depends on understanding its importance.

Why are we doing this?  

We have all seen Simon Sinek’s seminal talk on the topic by now, but if your team does not “get it” and clearly understand the purpose of your business – hell, if you are not a true believer yourself – the mission will be compromised.

We have spent many years refining this and the conversations continually evolve with the team. We wrote and defined a “core ideology stack” (you can read ours here) that includes…

  • Purpose Statement
  • Core Values
  • Mission
  • Vision
  • Manifesto

Lending millions of dollars a day across 33 states, with over 300 clients, we treat each relationship like it was our own business, knowing full well that our clients are trusting us with one of the most important aspects of their entire lives – their cash flow. It is very important that each team member understands the gravity of the decision making and that it is grounded in our “Why”:  to help each other and our clients to unleash their potential.

3. “Cover and Move” is essential for a successful mission.

Babin describes a situation in Ramadi, Iraq that could have been very costly in terms of lives; luckily, his team escaped unscathed, but he blames himself. He didn’t employ a basic tenet of the Seals – “Cover and Move” – which basically means work as a team.

Our Core Values start with team.  We emphasize open communication, and another of our core values, Transparency.  We utilize some very simple and effective communication tools such as workify.com, Slack.com, Trello.com and Salesforce.com to make sure everyone is up to speed and understands the score on a daily basis.  This sounds easy and pretty intuitive, but one rogue team member can mess up a lot of stuff, so you have to be brutal when it comes to hiring and firing around your core values.

4. When your mission is under pressure, “prioritize and execute.”

On a daily basis, we have many fires competing for attention. Sound familiar? To prioritize, we utilize a simple methodology – you may recognize it from Stagen Leadership.

 It is so easy to get overwhelmed; if you’re struggling with this with your own goals, read our piece on personal attention management to focus you on the important stuff.

“Relax. Look around. Make a call.”

– SEAL mantra

5. A successful mission mitigates risks in real time.

As a lending company, we know firsthand how important it is to think through the downsides and be prepared for the known risks. We follow the maxim “Risk is what you don’t know, not the thing you know.” Control the things you can – and remember it’s an ongoing process.

  • We created a set of non-negotiables that exist in every relationship we have on the books and we created a set of KPIs that are reported on weekly around those non-negotiables.
  • There are many things we can’t control in a lending relationship, but we can control these six things, so we focus on executing them flawlessly each week across the portfolio.

(Turns out, it is much easier said than done; see point 1 and the failures I mentioned.  If you are a lending nerd, call me and I will tell you the story.)

6. Your mission needs tight lines of communication, both up and down the chain of command.

Everyone at Far West Capital knows that I love data and information. It may sometimes seem like overkill, but without the right data, good decisions are impossible. We also utilize a system called Khorus.com that helps the team stay focused on our long term S.M.A.R.T. goals each week.

We practice transparency with the team, sharing detailed financial information, strategic plans, goals and tactics.  We are working to develop “Radical Transparency” a la hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio; we have a ways to go, but I think we’re moving in the right direction.

7.  Decentralize command of the mission for effective leadership.

If you are relying on heroics of “the guy” or using “hope” as a strategy, we call that “smoking hope-ium”. Do that, and you are going to vastly limit the potential of your team.  Success must come from the team, from others empowered to do their job and lead outcomes.

We make sure that nobody has more than 6 direct reports, and that each team clearly understands the goals of the organization and their own responsibilities.

So, to summarize: you have to own your mission, you have to understand and communicate its importance, you have to do it as a team, your actions must be prioritized, you must constantly be vigilant for unexpected risks, the team must be in tight communication, and you can’t take the full leadership load – you must delegate.

I’m looking for more books along these lines – if you’ve read one that inspired your leadership style, please tell me. You can tweet at me here – or just comment on this post.

Cole Harmonson is the CEO of Far West Capital, a company that funds the goals of high-growth entrepreneurs. Know a great company in need of capital to unleash their potential? Send them here and we’ll give them a call.

Showing 2 comments
  • J. A. St. Clair

    That is great writing about important subjects. I listen to Jocko’s podcasts and have Extreme Ownership on my desk although have not yet read it – doing so is becoming a higher priority.
    Keep up the good work at Far West Capital

  • Jennifer Hartman

    Great article and information to remind us of the ‘path’ to reach success as a team. Thanks, Cole!

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