Book Report – Extreme Ownership by Remote Leaders

Over the last week, I read “Extreme Ownership – How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win” by former Navy Seal officers Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. The authors, upon retiring from the Navy, built a solid reputation as leadership coaches and have successfully advised many a company through their consulting business, Echelon Front. The book is a comprehensive overview of the principles of leadership as developed and deployed by Navy Seals in high-risk combat situations, and the authors are as vivid in their emotionally-charged and exciting descriptions of combat operations, as they are flawless in placing them in the context of business and management operations, with plenty of examples from either side. I found it an exceptional read which I heartily recommend. 

Extreme Ownership in Remote Leaders

At the same time, while reading it, I kept making notes and thinking how the principles could be applied to improving our remote placement strategy, where we help companies flawlessly integrate remote employees into their workforce. I’ve found that Distant Job’s mantra as a Remote Employment Agency holds true: a Remote Employee is just like a regular employee, simply one that’s farther away. A good leader will take that into consideration and apply the same leadership techniques to lead a remote employee to success. While I’ve found the whole book to be exceptional, there where three chapters in particular that sticked out to me, three principles that when properly applied, I could see solving challenges that often plague even the most successful businesses and would massively improve the performance of remote employees.

What follows are my three key insights.

Leaders Embrace Extreme Ownership – Even Remotely

At the core of the book is the concept that a true, effective leader owns everything related to the mission. It can be translated into “no excuses”. You didn’t get what you were after because your employee did something wrong? It’s because you failed to offer proper guidance or clear commands. You couldn’t execute because the people above didn’t give you the leeway or resources necessary? That’s on you, too. You did not articulate your needs – the needs of the mission – well enough.

With Extreme Ownership, it becomes your job to get what you need from those above and those below. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a brutal prospective to adopt – that you are the person responsible for your team or division’s lack of performance. Yet, as harsh as it may sound at first, it is equally empowering: the capacity for success is in your hands, and no-one else's. You are the captain and commander of your destiny – if you just manage to promise to yourself that you’ll stop making excuses by placing the blame on others or on destiny.

This applies directly to remote employees. Throughout the book, Willink and Babin describe life-or-death situations where they had to coordinate and rely upon operatives that were only reachable through radio and at times with unreliable signals. Yet this did never cause an issue with applying the principles of leadership that they went on to outline in the book. They owned each and every mission they had command of, even when part of the plan’s implementation relied on people they couldn’t meet face-to-face with.

There Are No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders

Competence and excellence permeated from a strong leader and down the ranks. Babin makes a striking example early on in the book, where he describes the performance of two different teams during a particularly brutal SEAL training exercise involving several other teams. One was winning every round – the other was placing last. Switching leaders led to a massive upset: the last team started placing 1st virtually every time; the previously winning team, in the meantime, offered a stiff challenge. The conclusion is simple: an outstanding leader will bring up the standards of a losing team. And team that had an outstanding leader will adopt their standards and excellence, so that they are not easily brought low by a lesser leader.

This is why DistantJob works under two core principles: one, you need employees, not outsourced talent. Outsourced talent is never part of your team, will never be in touch and inspired by your standards. They will perform poorly, often fatally so. Even when they perform well enough, they will eat up more time, resources, and could have done better if they were part of the team.

Two – you really need to make them part of the team. They should be steeped in your company culture, observe the same rules and procedures that the rest of your team does, and be afforded the same degree of ownership of the project they participate in. This is something we will gladly help you implement.

Simplicity and Clarity

A complex mission needs to be broken apart into simple, easily actionable chunks. Most people shy away from this because they feel that favoring simple over complex puts their intellect into question. Nothing could be farther away from the truth: a complex plan is intellectually inferior; it has more moving parts and hence, greater margin for error. When in doubt, simplify.

Smart people refrain from asking questions because they feel their boss will look down on them. And true enough, some bosses present complex plans thinking that they are simple because they forget that not all their employees have access to the same information that they have – they forget that they are operating from a strategic point of view while most employees are operating from the tactical.

Be absolutely clear on what you want your remote employees to do. As a leader, you don’t need to get bogged down on how they do it – in fact, this would be counter-productive, as micromanaging would steal from your time and would leave your employee with no sense of ownership of the mission, hence lacking in motivation –  but you do need to make sure that they know what they must do. Actually, the best way for an employee to know how to properly do the work you assign is through you carefully articulating your intent – what you hope them to accomplish and how that factors into the larger mission. Encourage your employees to ask “Why?” so they can be aware of the larger, strategic picture, and their laser-focused, tactical role in it.

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Luis Magalhaes

Luis Magalhaes

Luis Magalhães is Director of Marketing and editor-in-chief at DistantJob. He writes about how to build and manage remote teams, and the benefits of hiring remote workers. He‘s been managing editorial teams remotely for the past 15 years, and training teammates to do so for nearly as long.

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