Navy seals in front of sunset

People often ask which leadership book is my favorite. Having read many of the books available on the topic, I have found one that has stood above the rest. Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win, by former U.S. Navy SEAL officers Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, is the single best leadership book I have come upon.

Willink and Babin present 12 principles of extreme ownership, how they worked on the battlefield, and how they apply to leadership. The principles are then shown in real-world workplace scenarios that the authors have seen through their consulting work.

The principles presented in Extreme Ownership can also apply to local government. The authors state these principles can apply to “any company, team, or organization in which a group of people strives to achieve a goal and accomplish a mission” (Willink). Here local government leaders can use these principles in leading for success.

Extreme Ownership

Under this principle, “all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader” (Willink). This means that ultimately whatever happens in the organization is the leader’s responsibility. When the team isn’t performing, the leader of each team is to blame. Each level of leadership in the organization must take ownership of the actions of their subordinates. In local government, ultimate responsibility lies with the city manager or mayor. Government leaders can only improve the organization by providing development for their team. When the team isn’t performing, the leader must fix the performance issues or remove team members.

Example: A street department crew has broken another paver. This is not the fault of the equipment operator, but the fault of the street department crew leader by either failing to properly train the employee or by keeping an employee that isn’t fit for the job. Then we look at the director of the street department who hasn’t ensured that the crew leader is training or removing underperforming employees. Ultimately, it is the city manager’s fault for not ensuring the department head provides appropriate accountability of their supervisors.

No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders

Under this principle the authors describe how bad leaders can negatively affect a team. When there is a bad leader there is no one to hold the team accountable. Teams that are lacking accountability tend to develop negative cultures. A good leader will create a culture of effectiveness on any team. The book points out that a leader accepts mediocrity or drives performance. A poor leader will allow negative behaviors to become the culture and cause poor performance.

Example: The fire department has a particular engine company that is consistently not meeting response times. This crew on a particular shift is the only one that isn’t keeping with the standards of the rest of the department. The fire chief decides to make a change and move the captain of the crew to another station. The new captain comes in and almost overnight the crew is now meeting their response time goals. The only difference? The new captain requires his team to follow all the department policies of being response ready. These policies are what allows the crews to make their response time goals. The previous captain was not enforcing the policies. It was not the team that was failing, it was their leader failing them by not holding them accountable.


The primary function of a leader is to inspire others to want to do a job. In order to do this the leader “must believe in the mission” (Willink). If the leader doesn’t understand or know why something is being done, they need to find the answers. These answers may be found by evaluating the situation using critical thinking or by asking questions. The leader may need to ask questions up the chain of command to get the “why” of the mission. If the leader reflects enough or asks enough questions, the true impact of the mission will be found. These findings will allow the leader to find their belief in the mission.

Example: The human resources (HR) director doesn’t understand why the HR business partners need to be colocated in other departments throughout the city. This is an inconvenience when she is trying to communicate with her staff and check their progress. She is always complaining to her staff about this and morale is falling. The HR director decides to ask the city manager why her staff is not in a central location. She is told that the HR business partners being colocated with other departments has reduced HR violations by 60 percent, increased usage of the city-offered benefits, and reduced the total cost of the HR department. Now that the HR director is aware of these benefits and believes in the mission, she is a better leader and morale has improved.

Check the Ego

As the book mentions, most conflict in organizational teams is caused by ego (Willink). Often it is the ego that pushed the leader to achieve their goals and become the leader. This same ego can cause the leader to fail their team. The leader must be able to overcome their ego and take a retrospective look inside themselves to examine their strengths and weaknesses. An inner look will allow the leader to see where they are failing their team.

Example: The police department is having record high turnover. The police chief has decided to take another job in a neighboring city. A new police chief is hired and decides to send out a survey to the department. This survey is intended to find the root cause of the turnover problem. Through the survey the chief finds that the former chief was more interested in gaining certifications than he was in running the department. This selfishness of ego clouded the former police chief’s ability to effectively lead the department. An effective leader must put their own ego aside and put their team before themselves.

Cover and Move

This is a principle widely used in the military. A cover-and-move strategy is used when a soldier has their gun pointed toward the enemy while their teammate moves positions (Willink). In this action your life depends on your team doing their part. In local government it generally isn’t a life-or-death issue, but a question of success and failure. Another way of saying cover and move is calling it teamwork (Willink). Each team member, team, and department must work in conjunction with the entire organization to achieve goals. A unit only looking out for themselves may mean a temporary victory, but will not complete the overall mission.

Example: The capital budget process is a great example of this concept. All of the department heads meet with the finance director and the city manager during the budget process. The purpose of this meeting is to select the capital budget items that will get funded in the next fiscal year. Each department has a wish list of capital projects they want to fund during the next budget. The city has effective leadership that has adopted a cover-and-move strategy. Instead of working in silos, each department head knows that they will not get everything they want. Each one of them must listen to the other leaders propose their needs. The department heads will then take into account the big picture and give up some of their items to make the overall budget work. This give-and-take strategy helps the city as a whole succeed, even if some departments are set back.


When plans and directions are too complex, people tend to not understand them. It is critical for the leader to ensure that their team understands their directions. Each direction must be broken into bite-size consumable elements that the team understands. Complex directions do not hold up well when things go wrong (Willink). Communication needs to ensure that the team understands the mission and how to achieve it.

Example: The county’s staff accountant was given directions to review the past purchases of the parks and recreation department for any non-cancelled checks. The staff accountant looked through their electronic system and found no non-cancelled checks and reported this to the finance director. When an audit was performed it showed there were several outstanding checks the accountant missed. When asked about this, the accountant stated they looked through the electronic system for the checks and found none. The finance director told the accountant that he should have looked in the paper register, boxes of financial records in storage, and on the laserfiche system. Due to the finance director’s lack of simple directions to her team, the task was not properly completed. The director should have provided all the locations of non-cancelled checks in the directions.

Prioritize and Execute

“Even the most competent of leaders can be overwhelmed if they try to tackle multiple problems or a number of tasks simultaneously” (Willink). High-performing organizations are prepared for contingencies in planning (Willink). Leaders must develop a plan to evaluate the highest-priority issues and solve them. An organizational unit cannot effectively solve many critical items at once. A major task for every leader is to develop a plan for execution that can solve all the problems in due time.

Example: City council has approved the new budget, funding the street department to fix 43 of the city’s streets. The public works director, being a high-performing leader, realizes that all the streets cannot be fixed simultaneously. She works to develop a plan that uses the limited resources to prioritize the streets that are most in disrepair. Her plan to prioritize the needed street repairs will get the most pressing issues solved. All of the streets will be repaired in a methodical manner, versus having several competing projects going at the same time.

Decentralized Command

A leader cannot, and should not, micromanage every aspect of an organization. The leaders of the organization must provide the “why” of what they want done. Willink and Babin call this the “commander’s intent” when the frontline workers understand what the leader needs from them. In order to convey commander’s intent, the leaders must trust their workers and give them “left and right limits” (Willink).

Example: City council has set a priority for more people to come and enjoy the city parks. The parks department director has been given approval to beautify all of the city’s parks. The director tells the parks supervisor that the parks need more flowers, landscaping, and water features. He gives the supervisor a budget, several hundred bags of mulch, and five workers dedicated to the project. The parks director shows the supervisor some online photos of parks that could be used as a template for this project. The commander’s intent was showing the supervisor what he had in mind and then gave him limits in the form of staff and supplies to complete the project.


Every mission needs to have a plan. Every local government organization should have plans for what they want to accomplish. The commander’s intent is taken and developed into a way to accomplish the mission (Willink). Any good plan should be understood by everyone who is providing a part of the plan. The leader should provide the overall direction for the plan and allow their supervisors to develop the fine tuning of the plan (Willink). It is critical to ensure that everyone knows their part in the plan. If someone is not clear on the plan, then things could fall apart and risk having a failed mission. For each mission, the planning process will be different.

Example: A captain on a fire engine pulls up to a structure fire. The captain tells her personnel that they will pull a hose line and make an interior attack, then start looking for people trapped in the structure. This is a quick and simple plan used by a few people to accomplish a specific mission. Some plans may be far more complex and have many more players. Another example: The city manager has decided that the city is going to start providing EMS services instead of contracting with a private ambulance service. The city manager will need to plan for hiring personnel, buying equipment, hiring a department head, completing state compliance applications, and planning for a transition. The city manager’s intent is for the city to have its own EMS agency. The rest may be handled by the assistant city manager or by hiring an EMS chief to develop the other major parts of the plan.

Leading Up and Down the Chain of Command

Leading down the chain of command is where most leaders excel. This is where a leader communicates with subordinates and provides them the tools to do their jobs. The leader will need to periodically visit the worksite to provide direction and observe what subordinates are doing (Willink). Leading up the chain of command can be a difficult task for many. What should one do when their boss is the problem? A good leader must question if they have provided information and support to their boss. Leading up the chain of command requires much more savvy and skill (Willink). Extreme ownership needs to be used by the subordinate leader to help work with their leader. When orders are given from above, the leader must seek understanding in order to fully execute the orders (Willink). Asking questions and seeking clarification from one’s boss is a great way to find out the “why” for yourself when it isn’t given.

Example: The senior planner was continually fielding complaints from the planning staff about the planning director. The planning director would constantly deny requests for changes to the city’s ordinances. The planning staff was in a constant state of frustration because nothing they tried to implement was implemented. The senior planner realized it was their job to lead up the chain of command as well as down the chain. She went to the planning director to show him how the current ordinances were not working. The senior planner provided data to the director that showed the problems and then further explained the need to change the ordinances. She further went on to ask the director what he wanted to see in a proposal. The director had never been asked this before and was happy to provide input. By leading up the chain of command the senior planner was able to provide leadership to her boss to effect change.

Decisiveness Amid Uncertainty

Leaders are often presented with situations to make decisions without the benefit of complete information. Leaders must act decisively in times of uncertainty (Willink). In cases where there is incomplete information, the leader uses previous experience and wisdom to make decisions.

Example: The IT director received an email from an employee that said they think their computer has a virus. While he was reading this email, another employee called about popup ads on their computer. Meanwhile, an employee in another division in another city building called about their computer having strange popups. It looked to the IT director that the city’s computers were being rapidly affected by a virus. He immediately made the decision to shut down the virtual desktop servers, kicking off all city employees. The IT director did not have the luxury of not being decisive. A lack of decisiveness could have shut down the city’s entire network and paralyzed operations. He took what little information he had and made a decision without certain knowledge. This is when a leader has to make these kinds of definitive decisions.

Discipline Equals Freedom

On the surface it would appear that discipline and freedom are on opposite ends of a spectrum. The reason for this feeling is that these two principles are dichotomies, and leaders usually operate in an area of dichotomies (Willink). According to Willink and Babin, some of these dichotomies are that a leader must be:

  • Confident, but not cocky.
  • A leader and a follower.
  • Quiet, but not silent.
  • Calm, but not robotic.

Example: During a meeting with the director of fleet, the assistant city manager asked why progress was not being made with finding vendors to bid for the upcoming budget. She is normally a very hands-off leader that allows department heads to make their own plans. However, in this case the director of fleet was not performing. She made the decision to more closely lead the director and provide him with detailed directions. Some would call this micromanagement, and it is somewhat. A good leader will sometimes need to “micromanage” when a subordinate is not performing. That leader will then go back to providing global direction and not managing the subordinate so closely when their performance improves. This is one of many examples of how a leader will have to enact dichotomies during their time in leadership.


WESTON DAVIS is area director of LifeNet EMS in Texarkana, Texas.

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For more information on extreme ownership, visit


Willink, Jocko, and Leif Babin. Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win. St. Martin Press, 2015.


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