In today’s episode of The Startup Chat, Steli and Hiten talk about Extreme Ownership.

Extreme Ownership is a book written by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin and it talks about the leadership concepts used by US Navy SEALs to accomplishing the most difficult missions in combat. 

This book also provides readers with Jocko and Leif’s formula for success and demonstrates how to apply these directly to your business and life to likewise achieve victory.

In this week’s episode, Steli and Hiten share their thought on the book, how the concept can be applied to your startup and much more. 

Time Stamped Show Notes:

00:00 About today’s topic.

00:38 Why this topic was chosen.

00:58 What you need to know about extreme ownership.

03:33 Jocko Willink’s response to every problem.

04:32 How a leader can have extreme ownership over everything that’s going on in the company.

05:58 How ownership can be empowering.

07:54 How Hiten and Steli are very much aligned.

09:09 How getting people to take responsibility can be really difficult.

11:04 Behaviour patterns that can be associated with extreme ownership. 

3 Key Points:

  • Every problem is a leadership issue.
  • If you can say the words “we have a problem”, you’re still alive.
  • Ownership is empowering.


Steli Efti: Hey everybody, this is Steli Efti.


Hiten Shah: And this is Hiten Shah. This is one of those topics that Steli just knew we were going to do today. We do a few every time. So, the topic is about extreme ownership and I have not read any of the books on it. So, first, I’m going to say, Steli, have you read any of the books on this topic?


Steli Efti: Yeah. I’ve read the book, Extreme Ownership, by Jocko Willink. I have.


Hiten Shah: All right, so let’s start there. What do I need to know about that, or what were your takeaways about it? Because I think that would be a good start because I know nothing.


Steli Efti: Yeah, so-


Hiten Shah: … Sure a lot of folks who are listening are not ready yet.


Steli Efti: Yeah, so-


Hiten Shah: I do have the book though, for the record.


Steli Efti: Yeah. I’ll tell you this in all honestly, this will now prove to people that constantly telling me they can’t believe that we do absolutely zero prep work for almost 500 episodes that we’ve done so far. Here’s the truth. I read the book, I would say, three or four years ago. I can’t tell you much about it. I can tell you this, I am a big fan of Jocko Willink. I think the book he talks a lot about his experience of running a military team under very, very difficult circumstances and some of the principles that he applied to running that team, which is basically summarized in the title, which is like you’re responsible for everything, basically. I think what I remember from the book is that everything is a leadership problem. Every problem is a leadership problem. Every issue is a leadership issue. And a core principle of being a leader is that, you own everything, you take complete responsibility and ownership over everything that’s going on within your team or within your sphere of influence. And you teach your people to do the same thing. I’m sure there’s a lot more awesome stuff in there that I just don’t remember anymore. But I’ll tell you one little tidbit on top of it. There’s a video out there from Jocko Willink, one of the authors of Extreme Ownership. If you go to YouTube and you type, Jocko Willink and then the word good, G-O-O-D, good, there’s a two minute video that was cut out out of a podcast recording that he made, that is one of my favorite, most motivational two minute videos on YouTube. Fucking love that. Which is basically where he describes that anytime somebody would come to him with problems before he could answer or respond to that problem, they would eventually go, “I know what you’re going to say, Jocko. You’re going to say, ‘Good,’ right? Because you always say, ‘Good,’ when I come with problems with you.” Right? We don’t have enough money and budget, and we’re in trouble for it. “Good.” This thing didn’t work out the way we thought it would work out. “Good.” And then, he just talks about, it’s like, “Good, good. There’s time for us to learn, there’s time for us to readjust, reengage, dust ourselves off. If you can say the words, ‘We have a problem,’ you’re still alive. You still have fight in you. We can move on, learn, grow from this, expand from it.” So, “Good,” is his… “Good. If there’s a problem, good.” Right? And I love that he was using this so consistently that people would come to him and be like, “I know what he’s going to say. He’s going to say, ‘Good.'” And so, that’s my imperfect recollection of the book and the things I like about the author of the book, for sure.


Hiten Shah: Awesome. I think this is an important topic. I like the way he thinks about it around people taking a leadership position in things. I had a really… With a bunch of founders just yesterday, because I was out at [inaudible] and the topic was on managing yourselves, basically. And it was a voted on topic and people wanted to do it, so I had like 22 people out of almost some 200 person event. And there was a bunch of breakout sessions, and I was like, “Well, I’ll pick one of the eight or something” and at that time slot. And it was a lot of fun to talk to founders and just hear that they have trouble managing themselves, and it has a lot to do with prioritization and tasks and things like that. And one of the things that, to me, I didn’t bring up, but I’m excited to talk about this and think through it is, how do you as a leader in an organization have extreme ownership over everything that’s going on, even if you didn’t work on it necessarily or it was on your team? And one thing that I always find really… Everything that’s going on that is related to those responsibilities. And it’s really fun to watch because there are some people when something goes wrong that just want to deflect, just based on personality, it’s not necessarily something they can control as easily without a lot of awareness. But it’s basically, they’re just trying to deflect it, and you can just tell that they’re just not willing to take that ownership over the mistake or they’re not even willing to take the ownership over something great that happened. And it has a lot to do with their personality of not wanting to make a mistake or not wanting you to do something bad. And I find that it gives me an impression that they don’t have ownership over what they’re doing. They don’t have this extreme ownership attitude, and it’s not good or bad, it’s just something that if someone’s like that, I actually look forward to ways to help them see things differently. And so, I think a lot of this has to do with, when people aren’t taking ownership over whatever work they are doing or their team’s doing, how do I help them see it differently and help them see that they do… Ownership is empowering, regardless of what the negative or positive is, and I think that’s where this idea of good comes in because it’s just powerful just to own. It doesn’t matter what it is. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad, own it. And if you own it, it’s just good in the first place.


Steli Efti: I love that. One interesting thing, I think this topic, to this kind of philosophy of taking a very extreme stance when it comes to owning… Usually extreme ownership or taking responsibility typically applies to the negatives of life, right? Nobody’s talking about like, “Why aren’t people taking more extreme ownership over the good things they’re doing?” Right? That’s not typically the issue. The issues usually when there’s problems, when there are challenges, when there are things the team outside a person’s control. Do you tend to feel like a victim, or when you fail or when something isn’t going your way, are you going to look for explanations or excuses to push away blame from you? Or are you the type of person that assumes responsibility for things because you always ask yourself or find ways to relay back to what you could have done better or how you influence the situation. And one thing that I noticed really early on in our friendship, we’ve been now friends for what, five years? We’ve been recording this podcast for close to five years now, right?


Hiten Shah: Yeah. Wow.


Steli Efti: On an ongoing basis. I was just talking to a bunch of people, a bunch of CEOs at a conference that were all telling me that how our podcasts have influenced them, and they were all amazed that we’re still like… They’re like, “I was listening to this four years ago, and I’m amazed that you guys are still so consistent with it and pushing out episodes.” One thing that I noticed very early in our friendship, and in our podcasting relationship up until now, is that, this is a thing where we’re very, very, similar, where through all the highs and lows of our lives, through all the problems that we’ve privately discussed, we are very much aligned that… I’ve never heard you describe a problem or situation in your life with your companies, no matter how much somebody could have explained it being something outside your control or somebody else would be to blame, I’ve never heard you describe a problem or challenge without assuming responsibility for it in one way or another.


Hiten Shah: Likewise, likewise. That’s right. Yeah.


Steli Efti: And so, this is just the type of thing, we never have to sit down and talk about it, but it’s the type of thing where I’m like, you’re one of the very few people and you are exactly like me. And this is maybe a part, or probably a part, of why I appreciate you so much, you just take an incredible amount of responsibility in your life and for so many other people’s lives. And I don’t know if you know when you did that, if that was always the case. I’m not even sure how this has happened to me, but I do know that it’s very rare that I see that. I do know that most of the time when I interact with people, I am in a situation where I’m trying to coach and encourage people to spend less time with explanations and less time with excuses and more time and energy in owning it, whatever it-


Hiten Shah: This is so difficult to get people to do sometimes because you’re bumping up against their psychology. You’re literally bumping up against someone’s psychology. Literally, it’s like, and I watch for this, it’s like when they’re under a little bit of pressure or they think they made a mistake, how do they react? Right? And I’ve seen this with co-founders, I’ve seen this with managers, I’ve seen this with individuals where it’s like when they’re pushed just a little bit on ownership, what’s the reaction? So, there’s a person I work with, and their reaction is, basically, immediately trying to figure out how to deflect the blame but not necessarily blame someone else, but trying to figure out what went wrong but not exactly taking ownership over it fully. And there was a scenario recently where that person, there was something small in a meeting, and that person slipped up by, basically, deflecting it to me and right away, trying not to find fault in what they did. Or it’s almost weird because this person does have extreme ownership, but when they get in a certain stressful situation where they feel like they’re responsible, which is with everything almost to an extreme, not almost to an extreme, but it is to an extreme, they try to figure out what went wrong. And if it’s not them, they won’t… It’s not like they won’t think about what they did wrong, but they’ll just try to figure out what went wrong, and if it’s somebody else, they will point the blame right away. And this time, it was pointed to me, and in the past I was like, “Why is it pointed to me?” But with this time I was like, “I don’t even care. It doesn’t even matter.” It doesn’t matter who is being blamed because, one, this is not that big of a deal. Two, in this specific scenario, I got to be mediator. I was just watching two people go after it, and it was just fun to watch. I got an apology after that. I don’t think I needed one because I don’t really care about this stuff with most people. But what was interesting is this realization that even if you have extreme ownership, there are behavioral patterns that you’ll fall back on that it’s almost automatic, and it’s self-awareness that can help you catch it. And the self-awareness isn’t about extreme ownership, it’s actually about something else. So, if this person was self-aware, their ability to be self-aware was what was key, because then they can see that, “Oh I didn’t need to do that. I just didn’t need to behave in that way. I didn’t need to throw Hiten under a bus.” It was the line that I got back to me, which is… Which is try to figure out what went wrong and then just identify it. And then, if their normal stance on this stuff is basically, how can I… Look at it this way. They hate doing something wrong. They hate making a mistake so much that when they feel like they made it, they’re going to find a way to not be their mistake. All I want is people to be aware of things like that about themselves. All I want for everyone is to be aware of that kind of stuff. Because, again, I would say that the people around me, they have extreme ownership because I do, and I never think of it like that because I’m just like, “Yeah, shit, anything that happens, I better be responsible if I have anything to do with it. Because who else is going to be responsible?” That’s my attitude, right? Almost to a fault. Where, even if something happens to someone else’s life and it’s bad, I’m like, “Okay, how can I help?” Right? Right away, my instinct is, “How can I help? What can I do? Let me help them fix this.” And that’s that. That’s not necessarily a good thing. I put that in the bad category because I don’t need to be fixing other people’s problems even if they ask me, right? That’s their problem. They need to fix those problems. They need to develop the skills to do that. So, in this case, by me just not reacting and not even caring that I was thrown under a bus, I think in some ways, over time, it’s helped this person see what they’re doing. Because I’m not telling them, “Hey, you did this, you did…” I don’t care. You could do that all day. I love working with you. You can do that all day because I know why you’re doing it. You’re not doing it to hurt anybody else, you’re just doing it because that’s your default. So, we have these defaults that take us away from this extreme ownership. Those are the things that I think are really important to try to figure out for yourself. And someone else I work with, right away, it’s very similar. If they did something wrong, and I pointed it out, they’re just trying to figure out, basically, what went wrong. And then, they’re spending so much energy and effort trying to figure it out and trying to talk to me about it. It’s like, “Hey, I don’t care. I actually don’t care why this happened. It’s not my problem. All I can tell you is this happened, and you should not do it again or you should fix it.” I don’t really care why you did this. This is not my task. It’s not my responsibility to do your job or even figure out for you why this mistake was made, because if a mistake was made and you have ownership over it, it’s your problem not mine. And that’s where I think the responsibility and who it falls on [inaudible 00:15:33]. Their default is trying to align with, in this case I was the manager, but trying to align with the manager on what the mistake was and why it happened. And me as the manager in this specific case, I didn’t give a shit about why the mistake happened. I just wanted the person to own it, and owning it literally meant that the person was just like, “Yeah, made a mistake. Cool. That won’t happen again.” Because this was such a menial, small task, that it didn’t matter to me why the mistake happened. I actually don’t care. I’m not here to fix the problem for you next time. It’s your responsibility because this is a full ownership task. It’s not something where I need to get involved in the mistake. It was something really trivial. Right? But it [inaudible] trivial so is that you take care of it and it doesn’t happen again because I feel like it’s a mistake that doesn’t need to happen again now that we know.


Steli Efti: Brilliant. Yeah. My man. I would say that, for anybody that’s listening to this episode, just ask yourself, “When was the last time that something went wrong, a project didn’t work out, you failed at hitting a goal or accomplishing something you wanted?” And then, ask yourself, “Did I give myself and others an explanation or an excuse?” I think a lot of times people confuse the two, so to me, they’re equally bad. If you had an explanation, it was an excuse, right? If you’re like, “Well, yeah, we didn’t reach it, but it was because Google changed the algorithm and our organic results were…” Well, who gives a shit that you didn’t meet your goal. If you spend time explaining and excusing things away, there’s an opportunity for you to grow in terms of the amount of ownership you take over situations. How much time you spend trying to protect your feelings and your ego when you make mistakes and when there’s failures, versus using those failures and mistakes to instantly turn them into lessons learned, insights gained, and a new plan of attack formulated.


Hiten Shah: Yeah. And the thing is, ownership is objective. It’s not subjective.


Steli Efti: Yeah.


Hiten Shah: So, that’s, I think, the mistake people make, which is you’re trying to explain something away or try to tell you why it happened, but honestly, I don’t really care. If it’s your mistake, and it’s your ownership over it, I don’t need to hear why it happened or anything unless I can help you. So, if you want me to help you, and it’s my job to help you, then you can just lay it out. Tell me what happened, what exactly led up to this mistake happening, why it happened, and what you’re going to do to prevent it from happening next time. And if you want me to read it, great, but I’ll read it, but it’s your job. Extreme ownership also means you have ownership over the mistake and it not happening again if it’s something that could happen again, and that has a lot to do with yourself, not to do with me or anybody else that you need to interact with. So, it’s almost this idea that I don’t need an explanation, I need a solution, and I don’t even need the solution [inaudible 00:18:42].


Steli Efti: Beautiful. All right. I think this is it for us for this episode. We will hear you very, very soon.