Have you ever imagined that military leadership principles could apply in a business context? Two Navy SEALs leaders, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, show in their book, “Extreme Ownership” exactly how this is possible.
After reading it and reflecting on my own experiences, I decided to apply some of these principles to the context of agile scrum and cross-feature teams and share some of my thoughts below:
The leadership mindset
The first principle I would like to start with is the leadership mindset. Jocko states that all responsibilities for success or failure lie with the leader. Take ownership of them, acknowledge mistakes, and admit failures. I couldn’t agree more.
One of the first stepping stones to good leadership is owning up and taking responsibility. This is the key to earning the trust of your directs, your supervisor, or any peer you work with.
Your actions or inactions play a crucial role in the results and happiness of your directs. If they fail, it might be because you haven’t explained clearly enough the value or importance of a project. Alternatively, it can be that you haven’t protected them from repeated interruptions. Sometimes, it can be because you accepted a mediocre performance, and now it became the new team standard. Whatever the reason might be, it is the responsibility of the leader to bring the team to success and develop his people.
Next, the author explains what his expectations of leaders on the battlefield are. He states that it is their role to figure out what needs to be done and do it, to tell higher authority what they plan to do, rather than ask what they want to do. Leaders must be proactive, rather than reactive.
“To be effectively empowered to make decisions is it imperative that frontline leaders execute with confidence. Tactical leaders must be confident that they understand the strategic mission and Commander’s Intent, they must have implicit trust that their senior leaders will back their decisions.”
I love this previous quote from Jacko as it reflects a culture that in my opinion, should be nurtured in all organisations. Clear, open communication alongside trust from both directions is a must. That is why no matter if you are a tech lead, engineer manager, head, director, or C level as a leader, you need to be trustworthy, accountable, and precise about the objective.
The book presents the story of how multiple teams of six members are racing on a specialised track having to carry an inflatable boat with them at all times. When one team was failing over and over, the instructors decided to switch the leaders. The results were fascinating since nothing else changed in the team structure, the performance of the team increased, and they were now competing for the first place.
The book mentions how effective leaders focus the team on the most immediate physical goal that lies ahead: the benchmark, the landmark, the road sign, etc. and not the finish line or the days to come.
In scrum teams, the most common duration of a sprint is two weeks. There is value in checking our progress on the yearly roadmap, but good leaders bring focus on the sprint goals, the landmarks from the story. It makes it easier to connect if the goal is clear, visible, and attainable. Pay special attention to planning meetings to set and communicate goals, as this can make the difference between success or failure.
Prioritise and execute
The next principle that I like is related to prioritisation. It is mentioned that Navy SEALs have this saying:
Relax, look around, make a call.
Contrary to my previous section where the team must focus on the immediate goal, a leader must not get lost in the details. Instead, he should look at the strategic picture. Make sure not to get overwhelmed with reactive tasks. Stop and challenge the next thing you plan to do, by asking is this the most important or the most valuable task my team or I should focus on.
Additionally, in scrum teams, this means having two or three sprints prepared ahead, have an overview of critical projects that need to be initiated or delivered in the next quarter. Try to know as much data as possible, like roadmaps of external departments, market trends, competitors, etc. so you are not caught off guard and can make the right strategic decisions.
The next principle and one of my personal favourites is having discipline.
It starts from small wins like not hitting the snooze button for 30 minutes more of sleep, working out, practicing your craft, learning and growing every day. With repetition, habits are formed, and with habits comes freedom.
Teams and team members must develop their own habits, so the health and morale of the team are as good as possible. Sprint retrospectives are essential alongside the culture that each leader is responsible for. Pay attention that positive habits are created and bad ones are stopped as early as possible.
Keep things simple
The last principle that I would like to mention here is “Keeping things simple.” Jocko explains how in the military complicating instructions and orders can have extreme consequences. When an important message needs to be passed from person to person or down the chain of command, simplicity is key.
To be honest, making things simple is something I need to improve on and grow. Many times, in my career, I discovered that a message was understood differently by various people. Clear and straightforward statements from leaders can make the information flow much better in all organisations.
Simplicity doesn’t refer only to the communication aspect, but also to the solutions we implement. Is your approach to solving this problem or implementing this next feature a simple one, so even 5-year-olds understand it? If not, challenge it and find a way to reduce complexity. It is hard to keep things simple, but it is definitely worth it.
Overall, I really enjoyed the Extreme Ownership book and found many cases that I could relate to, even if I never stepped foot in the military. It gives me even more respect for the men and women leading in this organisation. If all leaders have in the back of their mind these principles, and they treat their actions and behaviours as if they had life and death consequences, I feel that it would set a new standard in many organisations and change our industry for the better.