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Flynn Cochran: Extreme Ownership

I'm here with an extraordinary guest. One that is certain to get your attention.

He is a former US Navy SEAL Officer, McKinsey & Co. Engagement Manager and graduate of Harvard Business School. He spent eight years in the Navy and six of them in the SEAL Teams.

He served as an Assistant Platoon Commander and Platoon Commander at SEAL Team One and deployed three times to combat zones in support of the Global War on Terror.

During his three-plus years at McKinsey & Co., he served dozens of major technology companies in large-scale sales force transformations, redefining go-to-market strategies, and applying agile organization principles to enhance their management systems.

Upon leaving McKinsey, he serves as the Chief Strategy Officer for Echelon Front, as well as a leadership instructor, speaker and strategic advisor.

Please welcome to the show, Flynn Cochran.

Dustin
How are you?
Flynn
It’s good to be here.
Dustin
I am super excited to be here and I’ve got to say you're Superman. We'll get into that.
Flynn
That's inaccurate.
Dustin
I appreciate your humbleness and I'm going to make the case that you are a superhuman in this episode because I think people are going to benefit big time. I want to start off. You're overseas, you're in a place that you have very little presence in, which is a crafty way of saying maybe we are doing things there that require sensitivity and that require a certain level. You're cut back a little bit. You're out on a hike getting some time. You're not actively doing what you normally do on a day-to-day, but you're getting the rounds in. Two gunshots, two bullets fly over your head and a man in Arabic starts yelling at you. What the heck happens at this moment? Take us back to that moment and what do you do at this moment?
Flynn
I got pulled out of my platoon. I'd say I was a SEAL Team One Assistant Platoon Commander. I got pulled out right before we deployed. My platoon was going to Iraq, an emergent requirement came up to go to this country and have a small footprint there and help build out this host nation forces to go and do the counterterrorism work in their country and build that out. I got 5 or 6 people who went with me overseas. We were on a low visibility type of operation. We were living in a normal house and doing things that helped build that force out. One of my buddies, PD, and I were out on morning hike, a little bit of a race. Anytime you have two SEALs together, it's never just a hike or a run, it's always a race. We’re putting out, we're going up, we're getting our physical training in and we go up in those shots. He stumbled a bit before, so I had 10 to 15 meter lead on him and I come up over this edge and two shots over my head and a guy starts yelling in Arabic. The guy didn’t see PD skirted off to the side, got behind a rock outcropping and had visibility of what this guy. At the time, we were going after Al Qaeda in this country.
One of their tactics, techniques, procedures they were using were capturing Westerners. What they had done is they set up fake checkpoints where they would pose as military-age males and they stop people. If you're Westerner, they’ll kidnap them and they use them for ransom and all sorts of other stuff, which is not good. There were also military in the area as well. There are the actual host country military forces in the area. I have this decision to make of this guy shot over my head, so it's one data point. He's screaming at me in Arabic. He's not continuing to shoot at me, but he was wearing a military uniform, army fatigue bottoms. He had a big beard on. He was wearing a ball cap so it wasn't fully armed out, but also had some elements of it. I had to make it to PD, who's off to the rock outcropping. He pulled out his gun out of our back. We had our guns, but they were in our backpacks. He pulled out his pistol and pointed out the pistols, “Do you want me to shoot this guy? Let me give a threat?” I had to make a call. I had to make a decision on what to do.
There was a range of outcomes. If I sit and told PD, “No,” and the guy was a bad guy, we get captured and taken hostage by Al-Qaeda. That's a bad situation, a bad outcome. If we don’t shoot him and he's a military of the country we're in, we figured out from there, that's probably the best outcome. If he ends up shooting him and he is a military of the country we're in, that's an international major crisis, where PD and I get flown out of the country immediately and relationship building with the US and that country has to be done. There's a bunch of different things that could happen. Part of it was, this was the first time that anyone shot at me in real life. I had to make a decision. I was a young Platoon Commander and the situation has a lot of variables, a lot of things happening. Ultimately, I looked at it, assessed the situation and told PD to put the gun away. He actually didn't shoot this guy. From there, we had some conversation. I spoke Arabic. I studied for two months before I deployed there. I can say a few words and anyway, this guy was all upset. Long story short, I'm not going to bore you with the details. We deescalated the situation.
We walked with him back up to a military compound that we didn't know about. There was a military outstation on the other side of our hiking, our PT or Physical Training area. We went back there and got things sorted out. Obviously, it is a high-pressure situation with very little time to make a decision. I made the right decision. You talk about me being Superman. That has nothing to do with it. It was because of the training I went through that developed me and put me in pressure situations where I could make that call. I think most of the guys in my situation with the training I had would make that same call. I don't want to be the phenomenal combat leader that, “I'm the only one who could do that.” That wasn't the case. I'm telling you the training that I was put through coming up through the pipeline, put me in situations on a daily basis. Sometimes a couple of times a day to where I would feel that stress and pressure and have to detach emotionally from the situation, assess what's happening and then make a decision.
Dustin
I want to talk about that detachment. I imagine when someone fires shots at you, any human, our senses go up. You walked me through like I was there. It’s like you looked at his pants and he had that. He had a beard on but he wasn't fully military. When the adrenaline is going and maybe a motion is starting to creep in rightly so when someone's shot at you, how do you calm your mind or calm your heart and start going through what you need to acquire in that situation to make a decision?
Flynn
You can either get it through experience or training. There are two ways to get better at certain things and experiences. Fundamentally, you don't want your first experience of feeling that to be real. If you re-round two years when I was in my first part of training, I would have handled that situation much differently. I wouldn't probably be able to detach emotionally, identify all the things that need to happen and take all the pieces of information that are relevant and then make a decision quickly because I hadn't had the training. Reverting back to how I was able to do that? It was the first time that I felt overwhelmed.
We were walking around the beach of San Diego. I had five guys in my platoon and we carried shapes, these rubber guns. We didn’t shoot anything. We didn't shoot paintballs. We didn't shoot fake ammunition. They were heavy rubber guns. When we wanted to shoot, we put our gun up and we shoot, but I would get overwhelmed. We have a problem. We'd have an enemy force and I would get overwhelmed. The instructor or cadre was behind me, and Leif Babin, the coauthor of the book, Extreme Ownership, were one of my initial trainers. He drilled this mantra in my head, “Relax, look around and make a call.”
I get overwhelmed, even with no real threat whatsoever. I'd be overwhelmed because I felt the pressure of leadership. The pressure to make a decision and I said to myself, “Relax, look around, make a call,” then I figured that out. We move to actual live ammunition in a building to where you're shooting targets. When you walk into a room, you have to identify the target. You're getting and taking all the information, “Is he carrying a cell phone? Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a fork?” They would change it out. You have these targets, they would change out the little stickers they would put on there. Sometimes it would be a gun. Sometimes it'd be a bomb. Sometimes it'd be a cell phone. Sometimes it'd be a bottle. You'd have to very quickly identify the relevant piece of information and make a decision.
Dustin
I want to talk about your background in McKinsey because there are a lot of business elements there and that's the big thing I want to communicate is taking the ideas, the training strategies, the insights that you have and apply it to the business world. In the business context, we're not getting bullets shot over. How do we translate that? Do we take that mantra that you were given and apply it there? How do we best use this?
Flynn
That is the detachment piece. That is one of the hardest things to do in combat. It's the hardest thing to do in a high-pressure meeting where someone isn't following the project plan the way you designed it and it's the same feelings. The emotion comes up the same way. Combat and some of that stuff are intensified in some ways. In McKinsey, I got more nervous about some steering committee decks that I would have to present. I got more nervous about those than a combat operation because the pressure is real. I fully understand that the pressure you feel is real. That doesn't matter what kind of environment, you're going to feel the pressure. How you get better is through training. I used to wonder how companies could compete. For SEAL Platoon, you train for eighteen months so you can deploy for six. Three out of four days of those two years, you're training so you can go and deploy, which is a lot of time training.
Not many organizations in the world, especially companies train three-quarters of the time. You wouldn't have a business. You have to go on and operate. I used to wonder, “How could they compete?” I thought about what the training I went through was like. When Jocko took over the West Coast SEAL training when he got back from that deployment to Ramadi to go about training, he said, “We can up the game.” He went up to Hollywood. It was only a couple of hours from San Diego. He brought down set designers and he built out these Afghani and Iraqi villages. He brought down pyrotechnic experts. When you walk into a building or a room, there would be explosions. It could be smoke or fire. There would be hot lava running down the rocky mountain and all sorts of stuff. He didn't stop there. He down actors and actresses. The actors would be amputee actors, so they have lost a limb. You walk into a room and they'd be yelling, screaming and fake blood will be spurting out of their arm.
The actresses would be middle-aged Arabic speaking women. When you walk in, you kick a door down, you go into a building and they'd be screaming in Arabic. Everything he was doing was trying to replicate what we saw in combat. He was trying to get us used to what that would be like. We've trained in worst-case scenarios, we'd always do worst-case scenarios. We train the fundamentals. We would try to do all these advanced techniques of the hostage rescue on an airplane. We train how to shoot, move and communicate. It was repetitive.
As I thought about what he was trying to do there, you are deployed for 24 months. You're always deployed. You have little training days, maybe once a quarter you take a day, but you're always deployed. The only difference is that you have the advantage, in my perspective. As I worked with companies, one of the most important things we teach companies is how to do this. It's a change in the mindset of every opportunity. Every day is a data training and you’re like, “Did I get better?” All it takes is taking a few minutes to reflect on yourself and then have a conversation with the person you're working with. Whether you go out with your partners maybe once a week, maybe once a month. I don't know what that is but if you view every day when you're in that experience versus training, you are getting the experience.
What you have to do is capture the lessons learned and get better at all times. If companies are able to do that and the companies that do implement that see massive growth, both from an individual contributor perspective on the front lines, getting the job done, all the way up to the leadership team and CEOs. We don't spend enough time debriefing that board meeting. We should talk about how we can make the board meeting in the next quarter better. That has a massive impact, but it requires you to take a step back and not get inundated with the day-to-day tasks, which is hard to do.
Dustin
I know early on in my career it was all about doing. As I've realized, the more communication you do, the better it is. The challenge is you want to get to that activity. How do you coach people? How do you tell people, “You need to make that time to take that debrief or even the pre-brief?” Everyone wants to get into action. Everyone gets to the task and yet, there's so much value in both of those. How do you coach people to say, “This is super important, you've got to do this if you want to get to the next level?”
Flynn
It's funny how we started with a story around how to detach. That was the fundamental principle for me. I was able to detach and make a decision. It's the same thing. You have to be able to detach from the situation. Everyone's got a to-do list of 12 to 15 things and it never goes away. You knocked off 2 or 3 and 4 more things come up. From a day-to-day perspective, is it going to have lunch with this person that is maybe a board member, maybe another department head that you don't have a very good relationship with? You’ve got to have some interaction and long-term, have a good relationship with that other department head is important. When you look at your calendar, you go, “Should I go grab lunch with Dustin? I need to get this report up to accounting. I need to close up the books for them.” There's a bunch of other stuff that takes precedent on a day-to-day basis. If you make those tactical decisions over and over again, you're not thinking strategically.
As a leader at every level of an organization, you have to teach people how to think strategically. What's going to help us win long-term? You'll realize, “Maybe I can let this thing slip a little bit because this relationship is important that I haven't built yet. I need to go make some investments in that relationship or this broader thing. This thing that's going to help us win strategically. I need to do that.” Tactically, from day-to-day, maybe a week’s perspective, even a month or even quarter, “I might slip a little bit, but I know this is the right thing to help us win long-term.” It's thinking strategically all the time. Think strategically about your day, about what you're doing and if you do that, you'll be able to carve out. What you have to do is detach. If you see that list and it's an emotional thing. You get a nice little hit of emotion when you knock off the 2 to 4 things that have been weighing on you. If it feels good and you want to get things done and that's not always the right call. The right call is, “What's going to help us win long-term?” On the other side of it, you can't always think long-term. You need to still do your job. Part of your job, especially as a leader is to think 2 or 3 steps ahead and how you’re preparing yourself and the organization to win long-term.
Dustin
I'm very curious about that detachment but also making the call on the ground. Coming back from the military to make it crystal clear for people. You have a commanding officer, he's giving you orders, but you described, maybe I should let some things slip because you're there on the ground. You have situational awareness. How do you come to grips with that making the call over what you think or what was communicated by your commander or the person above you?
Flynn
That gets to the fourth law of common. We talked about this idea of decentralized command. A decentralized command is about some new concepts. It’s a buzzword in business or in the military. It's pushing decision-making down at the lowest level. It's allowing your people to make decisions, solve their own problems and get things done. The only way that works is to explain the why behind it. “Why am I going to this operation?” If my people don't know why we're going on this operation, then I failed as a leader to explain. Inevitably, how we accomplish that is going to change and problems come up and things are going to arise. You're not going to be able to solve every problem. No organization is perfect. You're planning and anytime you launch in a plan, things have to change. If your people understand why they're out there in the first place, they can change the ‘what’ and still accomplish the mission.
If they change it significantly, there needs to be communication back up the chain of command, “I know that we're going to hit target building A, that's where we thought he is, but we didn't find him there. We need to bump this plan this way.” You need to have that communication back because there's a broader perspective that the leadership needs to keep on the overall picture of an organization. That's one aspect of it. Make sure that before you launch an operation, you know the why. You understand why I was going to that country in the first place. I understood why so I can make a very tactical decision, but I knew it tied to a larger strategic goal of what we're trying to accomplish here.
Don't underestimate how important it is. Even for your frontline sales reps, frontline customer service reps, your frontline operators are out there doing the construction, doing whatever that is. They understand why that project, what they're doing ties to the strategic goals of the organization. That's one aspect of it. The other aspect is, most of the time when your boss asks you to do something, you go and do it. You deliver on it. You build this broader idea of leadership capital.
You have an account with every single person you interact with and you have an account with your wife and your husband and your kids. Each one of your kids and your boss and your subordinates. You have this account with fundamental trust and respect in some ways. Everything you do should be doing is to build up that account so large, so that when my boss tells me to go do something and I say, “I can't do it.” He's like, “It’s no factor because the other 99 times I asked him to do something, he didn't complain about it. He got the job done. He did it well. He was the first guy back with it.” You have such trust and respect and account with this guy or gal and they're like, “I’ve got it. I'm not going to push back and lose my mind because I know Flynn is in the game. He's going to make the decision that's right for the broader organization.”
Dustin
You lead by example. I'm curious as to what you would tell me. I consider myself an achiever. What got me here was the actual doing of stuff. Some people call this micromanaging to the worst degree. What do you say to the micromanager that's looking to grow and get to that next level? They can't keep doing everything. They can’t be up 24 hours a day. At some point, you’ve got to let it go and you’ve got to build that team. What do you tell that micromanager to get them to expand their thinking?
Flynn
Number one, you have to think strategically. You're one person. There is a finite number of things you can get done in a day. That's great if you built a business where you can make every decision and solve every problem and you have a team of 6 or 7 people and that's what you want to do, I got it. If you want to actually grow to where you're a manager or a leader of leaders, that's fundamentally what we're trying to get. You have to give up a bunch of control and it goes back a little of this idea of decentralized command. The way you can think about the decentralized command is you paint a box for your team and your individuals in the team. Sometimes the box is big, sometimes it's small. That box is the decision-making authority parameters. Where do you want them to operate? If something's outside of the box, then they should come to you and talk to you about a decision there. As a leader, do you want that box bigger or smaller?
Dustin
I want it big.
Flynn
You want it as big as possible. Why do you want it as big as possible?
Dustin
So that I don't have to micromanage or be involved in the decisions.
Flynn
It’s right because they can solve their own problems. Every time one of your people comes up with a problem, what do you have to start doing?
Dustin
I start thinking.
Flynn
You'll start thinking. You’ll start probably asking questions, “Give me context. Who's in the best positioned to solve that problem?” The person on the ground with all the contexts in the world. It's the same thing from the military perspective. We built standard operating procedures on how we cleared things. We trained in a certain way. We would be very fluid and agile in a very crazy, combat and chaotic environment. We have to make decisions quickly. I needed my people to make decisions to solve their own problems because every time I had to dive down and help them solve the problem, there will be a bunch of questions that eventually slow us down. What you have to do is paint that box so we can have parameters. Sometimes it's called the guardrails of failure. It is like a highway where you're teaching someone how to drive. You want to set some guardrails off, like the car going over the edge is mission failure and you can't allow that.
There need to be some guardrails. The other piece in thinking strategically is people learn best through failure. If there's a certain amount of failure you can take on this decision, but he or she's going to own that. If the car's not going to fall off the cliff, maybe let them go run that because they'll learn something. Strategically in the longer-term, they learn a lesson that helps you win long-term. If you go in and everyone's guardrails are so tight that they can't move left or right and you make every decision, they're not going to fundamentally grow and develop and be able to expand. That's what we talked about a decentralized command.
Dustin
I’ve got a personal question for you. In my leadership, I've actually asked the team and I know I need to work on that setting the box bigger, a lot bigger. I've asked the team to hold me accountable for that because I'm naturally going to want to get back in there and get in the trenches. I love it. That's what made me successful.
Flynn
You see a problem set and you know the 100% solution right away. You've done it so many times. It’s like, “I got that. I know that problem. Here's the answer.”
Dustin
Is it a bad idea from leadership, positioning or an authority standpoint to ask the team to hold you accountable for that because you are the decision-maker, the chief or whatever? Do you lose respect? Do you lose positioning if you're asking your team for help to hold you accountable as a leader?
Flynn
The way we talk about solving problems and leadership problems or leadership gaps, who do you think knows you don't do a very good job at that in your team? Who do you think knows that sometimes you dive deep and you want to solve every problem?
Dustin
All of them.
Flynn
They already know. If you get up in front of them and say, “I know I sometimes jump the gun on the side. I like to dive deep and I like to get in there, but I realized that it is not going to help us win long-term. I need to do a better job as a leader doing that. I know the impact it has on you is you don't develop. I want you to make these decisions. I want you to grow and I want you to take my job once you take my job, I go up and we can do great and better things. Because I dived in, jumped in and solved everyone's problem, it doesn't help you.” What I'm going to do is I'm going to take a step. You give them the solution of what you're going to do to solve the problem and then it's okay to put on them, “I know my natural tendency is to do this. If you see me doing this, please let me know because I want to do better than this, but I'm not perfect. I'm going to fail. Please hold me accountable from that perspective.” I would say to your question, don't put all of the onus on them. You need to solve the problem yourself. If you have a little check and balance and say, “This is something that if you see me doing, I’ve got to do better. Please let me know.” I think that's totally fine.
Dustin
I’ve got a big smile because that's how the conversation went. That was good. You mentioned, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, authors of Extreme Ownership. I wanted to ask you, in a general context, not necessarily the book. Is it as simple as extreme ownership that I take responsibility for everything in my life or is it more than that?
Flynn
One of my colleagues, Dave Berke, talks about this. If you haven't read the book, Extreme Ownership, I can summarize it for you in four words, “It's all your fault.” That's fundamentally the core of it because what other mindset helps you? Does it ever help you to blame someone else? What you want to do is win. The winning mindset is to take ownership of everything that impacts your mission and get it done. That doesn't mean you're perfect. No organization, no SEAL platoon, no company you worked with is perfect. What’s consistent is that there are problems that come up. It's what you do with those problems. It’s what helps you win in the mindset of, “I am not going to cast blame. I'm not going to point fingers when something goes wrong. I'm going to learn from it and change my behavior so that it never happens again.
When the next problem comes up, I can work on that as well. It's building an organization where that's unacceptable and that mindset, you've summed it up nicely. You could go half the words, it's all your fault in the end. That's what it is. It's a little cheeky but that's the winning mindset. The reason they called the book, Extreme Ownership, is we talked about 69 leadership principles and what we teach. There are laws of combat, which are the action behaviors that you see from the best teams and best leaders. One is the Cover and Move, which is like teamwork. Other simple such as keep it simple stupid, simple communication, simple plans. That's what works. Those are some action behaviors and some mindsets.
One of those mindsets is extreme ownership. The reason they called it Extreme Ownership is because Jocko was running all of these SEAL Platoons through West Coast SEAL Training. He had this awesome leadership laboratory to where he'd be in a platoon and a platoon of SEAL is exactly the same. It’s the same officers, same weapons, same tactics and resources. You would see the number one defining characteristic of whether they were going to be successful or not was this idea of ownership. Everyone had problems. It's what they did with those problems and how they learned from it. If Jocko saw someone pointing finger or casting blame, whether it's a platoon commander or even down the chain of command, the frontline the machine gunner. Casting blame and pointed fingers are not good, but the platoons were the ones that took ownership of the problems and they got the problems solved. That's why they called the book Extreme Ownership.
Dustin
There are no exceptions because this is a way of life.
Flynn
The one exception would be around some illegal stuff. There's some stuff like some ethical things as well. Although, if it's in your organization, it's fundamentally on you to solve that problem. You still take ownership of that when we get into that. There are some exceptions, but 99.9% applies.
Dustin
I can’t imagine what you haters are saying, I mean skeptics. They are like, “This is easy, Flynn, for you. Military environments people sign up for this or other environments. They have to be there. What if I got team members that don't want to be there, but they're there. You’ve got team members that are not as motivated as you know or adopting this mindset as others. What do you do in that environment? The leaders that cause if we adopt this mindset, but we don't have these A-players on the team at least mindset-wise, how do we win?
Flynn
It's a common question we get. It's a misconception about what the SEAL Team is like. There are still SEAL platoons full of all A-players that have all these pipe hitters. That wasn't the case. In our organization, every platoon is a bell curve like any other organization. If you were lucky to have 2 or 3, a SEAL Platoon is 16 to 18 SEALs. If you had 2 or 3 pipe hitter guys who are legit and good to go A-players, you're doing pretty well. You have the vast majority, the middle 80%, those guys are going to follow the leadership and you had a percentage that probably didn't need to be there. People will make it through. We didn't wake up and eat, sleep, breathe, whatever it is this idea of, “We're here for the big win for America.”
Our mission is important. We understood we had an important mission. It was a job and it was a hard job. We had to get up day in, day out and what we did is we end up doing it for each other. We end up doing it for our families because it was a job to find a paycheck and provide stability for our families. As a leader, if you have a team, a house, it's easy for the SEALs, but we're never terminator robots. In the organization we work with, you're never going to have A-players. What you have to do as a leader is to figure out what motivates your individual members of the team and have conversations around that. Even in the SEAL platoon, there were people aware of, “We’re all in the game, all in about America's great mission. We're doing America's work.” There are other guys who were like, “I wanted to do something. I want to try out.” For others, it was a job. There is so much that I had to do it as I had to connect what they did in the mission in a way that they understood.
Fundamentally, that might have been, “If you’ve got a construction company, you've got some frontline employees who are 19 to 20-year-olds who are looking to make a paycheck.” Here's the deal. I understand it’s a job for you and that's great. The reason it's great because it provides you whatever it is you're looking to do. By the way, you know there's some room for growth and you provide a path for growth. Whether that's development, whether it's growing in the organization. There are all sorts of organizations that do well. Think about fast food. I can think about Chick-fil-A, they do a lot different than some of the other fast-food restaurants. It's because they provide a path and a vision for what this becomes. This is a platform and a springboard to your career and we understand you're not going to stay here forever. That's okay. Understand your battlefield, set up processes, procedures and structure that helps you get the right people in and build that mindset. When they leave, that's not the worst thing in the world. That was what’s cool about McKinsey. We've talked all the time about leaving. I talked with my bosses about it and the guys are working on, “What is this company offered to come in or a new opportunity?”
We'd have a conversation because they understood that if we attract the best people, we're not going to keep all the best people. We want to make sure they have a good opportunity to go and do some other great things. If we do that, it becomes this cool cycle of, “We're going to develop you and we're not going to be all upset when you leave.” We're going to help you find a good job when you leave. From a business perspective, for long-term, ten years from now, when I'm making decisions on whether to ring McKinsey or BCG or all of the other consultants. That's why I had a great experience with McKinsey. Let's bring them in. Apple does it well. Google does it well. It's this idea of what we're good people. We're going to bring in, we're going to develop them and find an opportunity for them to be successful, whatever that looks like.
Dustin
In my previous walk of life, I would have been mad or I would have thought differently about that. I'll tell you here, we've had people come through and we encourage that at WealthFit. I don't know if a lot of people know that, but it’s like, “We teach entrepreneurship.” “Come here, learn, get skills, learn from guys like you and then go out and start that business and we want nothing more from it.” It's a little bit of a headache when I have to go and do the hunt, but that’s ultimately what we want.
Flynn
They go out and they tell who they tell. They totally developed me and helped me build up and all of a sudden, they're sending people and you're getting references from top quality people. That's what happens with the big firms and big companies whose been doing this for a long time. For smaller companies, it's more painful if you lose that appendage. That's legit. What you need to be doing the entire time is this idea of training your people, developing them, giving them the guardrails that are as wide as possible and paying every buck that if you do those things, it's not detrimental to the organization. It becomes a net positive return.
Dustin
If I adopt this mindset of Extreme Ownership, is it wrong to think or have a sub-mindset of like, “I can bend people's wills to mine or to the mission?
Flynn
I don’t know if it's wrong. Leadership and manipulation can be similar. What are leaders trying to do? They are trying to manipulate behaviors. The key difference, which is all the difference in the world is that leadership is about the organization winning and what's best for the team and what's best for that individual. That's why you're doing that. That's why you're trying to influence. That's why you're trying to flank them. That's why you're trying to take different approaches and conversations and adjust. It's for the good and the betterment of the entire organization. Manipulation is about the betterment of yourself. There are a lot of similarities, but the biggest difference which makes all the difference in the world is that leadership and the way we talked about is it is the team winning. If you're trying to talk when you call a little bit of the mental flank. I know Dustin has a big ego so I'm going to use that ego against him. From a perspective of trying to get him to things that get them to start doing the things that help him win and help my team win and help the organization win. Absolutely, there are some bending of wills. That's good leadership as long as it's centered on helping the organization win it and not destroying anyone to get it done. There is definitely some overlap there.
Dustin
You've said humility, teamwork and ownership are most likely to get you killed if you do them wrong. It seems very profound to me. How so doing these things? How can you do humility wrong? The teamwork, I can get, and ownership a little bit, but how can it kill us?
Flynn
We talk a lot of companies and people about leadership and humility is the number one characteristic of a leader. It’s the most important characteristic of a leader. The reason that's the case because if you're not humble, it changes the way your brain operates. If you're not humble, “I'm the boss and my guys have a good idea. I want to change anything to do something differently.” I did your job for many years. I know. You don't need to tell me what's going on here. You can't take feedback from your people, your peers, maybe you have a region and another region is like, “We tried this new thing and it worked out really well.” Your region, this is Southern California, you don't know. He's talking about Midwest stuff. We do things differently. You can't take feedback from your peers. You can’t take feedback from your boss. The boss who's in their ivory tower, sitting in the corporate headquarters telling you to do certain things. You don't know what's going on. You're so far away. You're so disconnected from our battleground. You have no idea what's going on here.
If you can't take feedback from your boss, you can't take feedback from your peers and you can't take feedback from your people, you don't get any better. That’s number one and two, if you're not humble, you can't look in the mirror and do an honest self-assessment. If you can't do that self-assessment and you come in and you try to take ownership, you try to do all these other stuff, it doesn't work because it's inauthentic. This idea of humility, of thinking you've got it all figured out, “I don't need to prove. I'm not going to get any better,” in combat, that's the biggest killer. We're not going to change these Al-Qaeda guys who are running around their Adidas tracksuits and tennis shoes and rusted out AKs. “We have night vision. We have body armor. We have surveillance. We have all.” They can't do anything to us. If you underestimate them, you'll get killed.
Unfortunately, that's happened over the last several years, underestimating the enemy. It doesn’t mean you fear them. I'm not saying that, but you don't underestimate them. They are highly adaptive and the reason they're still alive and operating is that they've been pretty effective at doing that. There's this idea when you look at your competitors and learning from them. Don't feel fear, but you better learn and understand what they're doing and you better adapt what they’re doing. As soon as you become the big dog, as soon as history is littered with organizations and leaders who have a blockbuster Blackberry, the list goes on and on. They had a massive market share. They had a massive advantage, but they stopped getting better. They stopped improving. They thought they had it all figured out.
If you don't have it figured out, in combat, there is a good chance you'll die. In business, there is a good chance you’ll die and honestly, I think relationships as well. You stop trying to improve and get better for your wife. What happens to that relationship? It's the biggest killer of relationships. You think you've got all figured out, “We're good. I've been good to my wife for the last several years. I'm going to take a break for five years.” That doesn't work. I fall victim to this as well. You get this idea of victory disease. “We've been successful. We don't need to be better.” As soon as you start doing that and allowed that to creep in, you get complacent. When you’re complacent, you cut corners and when you cut corners, the enemy overtakes you. That’s a long answer to that.
Dustin
That was good. The thing that popped into my head is twofold. I'm the leader and I hire this hotshot sales guy. He has a big ego but he's making it rain. That's one scenario I want to ask you about. The second scenario is I'm on a team and I’ve got that hotshot sales guy. How am I supposed to operate in both of those? What's your advice on that? In some positions in sales, it takes some healthy ego and we've all been around people that got too much. How do you operate if you're the leader and gut check that person or if you're a team member?
Flynn
With the person who has a big ego, for sales in certain roles, that it's important. Ego is a good thing. We talk about ego and we don't say don't have an ego. You are a Navy SEAL and I work with the fighter pilots. You have to have an ego to do this stuff. You have to be crazy, but ego drives you to do things that people say you can't do. To do things that are better and are unachievable. That's what you go do. That's what ego does. We don't say, “Don't have an ego.” I say, “Check your ego. Keep your ego in check so you can improve and get better.” The best way to check someone's ego, who might be doing a great job, one thing is you start to put them in charge on some stuff. Give them some additional responsibilities to humble them in certain ways. Maybe things that are a little outside that box that they can't quite do yet. That's a tactic you can use to help someone on your team check their ego a little bit, “I don't have it all figured out. Maybe I can work a little better with my teammates.”
That's one scenario. That's one little tactic when you're the boss and if someone has a big ego. You don't have as much legitimate authority over someone on your team that has a big ego and so it's hard to get people to check their ego. What you can do and what we talked about is you want to mitigate the risk of that ego. The question that I would ask if someone asks me questions is like, “What is his or her big ego? How does it impact you?” Probably what we're talking about here is someone who's got a big ego as well. There's this budding of heads of egos. What the best way to get him or her to check their egos and probably, for you to check your ego and start doing things a little bit different with that person to build a better relationship, to support him or her. If you know, he or she's got a big ego, use that against them. Not for your own personal gain, but for the betterment of the team so you know how to operate with this. It's a little bit of a trick question. When someone asks me that, “I've got this guy and my team's got a massive ego. How do I get him to check his ego?” “Why do you care about his ego?” There's a little bit of, “Look in the mirror, what can you do differently? It's hard to do that.”
Dustin
I love this duality of discipline equals freedom. A lot of people think freedom is laying on the beach undisciplined essentially but you say the organization Echelon Front has this concept of discipline equals freedom. Can you break that down?
Flynn
Everyone wants freedom in life. That's what you want. Do you want financial freedom? How do you get financial freedom? It is through making good investments. It's through working hard. It's through saving. It's through not buying a bigger house than you need. At some point, if you do those things over a long period of time, you actually will have the freedom to buy whatever you want. The most precious commodity in the world is time. Do you want more free time? How do you get more free time? It is through discipline. You wake up maybe a little earlier. It's through time blocking, getting a time management schedule, sticking to that schedule so you're not clicking on the next YouTube video of cats that pops up. It's real estate so that eventually you have that free time. It's the same thing with organizations. We've worked with small tech companies were super agile process is like a four-letter word for them, “We don't want to do process because that's what big companies do.”
I get what they're saying there but this idea of discipline allows you to be free in the SEAL Teams. We had standard operating procedures for everything we did. The way that we lined up Humvees. The way we got in Humvees. The way we started the Humvees and where we got out of Humvees. The way we labeled them. The way we stacked up on buildings. The way we cleared the buildings. The way we communicated and all the stuff. You think that having all this discipline procedure would make you rigid in combat and in reality, because we had that discipline, we’re very agile. We could go ahead and target building A, the guy wouldn't be there. I go, “Dustin, take your guys and target building B. You go, “Roger that,” and that will be the extent of the conversation. You take your guys. You go over to win that.
I wouldn't have to ask you how many guys you’re bringing. I wouldn't have to ask you what weapons you're bringing. I wouldn't have to ask you how you’re going to clear the building. You would go do that. We'd be very agile and flexible in combat, in a chaotic environment because we had that discipline. It applies to businesses. What are the standard operating procedures or processes that you need to put in place? You don't want to overdo it because you will do restrict people and constrain them and it will become too rigid. What are the things you do consistently that you should have a process in place so that you can execute it more seamlessly, which then will allow you the freedom to be more effective and more responsive to your clients, to your customers, to your employees? Those processes allow you to be more responsible.
Dustin
My understanding is another thing you say is every second of every day you play to win. It has a context or an implied thing like you're always on. Correct me if that is an assumption there, but the question is, is there ever a time to recharge? You’re going 24/7, is there taking a break? How's that play into this concept?
Flynn
It's funny because Jocko and Leif, we've said a bunch of things and even the book, Extreme Ownership. That's not exactly what we're talking about here. The reason why the second book is called The Dichotomy of Leadership is that people are already wired that way. If I'm the owner and everything, they saw this book come out, it's called Extreme Ownership. Jocko and Leif go and takes ownership. “I'm going to take this.” You take everything from your team and start micromanaging everyone. No one can make a decision. No one could solve a problem because you're the single point, your own and everything. In the same breath, we talked about this idea of decentralized command, which was pushing to make the decision down and the answer is a balance. That's why the second book was called The Dichotomy of Leadership. There are opposing forces at play and those opposing forces aren't both wrong. You need to be able to do both. You have to slide up and down that scale. It’s very second and everybody played a win.
When you're on, how do you play to win? Let's not burn yourself out. You can't be every second, every day to play to win if you don't get any sleep at night. If you're crushing your people because you’re like, “We’re going to go win.” That doesn't work. You need to think long-term. Every second and every play to win, maybe the caveat, the denim is long-term, strategically. You have to absolutely take breaks. You have to do what's right. One of the principles we talked about is default-aggressive, which is aggressive towards solving problems and towards opportunities. Once you make a decision, make a default aggressive move. It works in combat. You don't go halfway. You fully flank or you fully do that maneuver because the enemy's constantly maneuvering. You need to make a bold decision and do that. That doesn't mean you go run to your death. You have to balance that. You have to mitigate risks to get to all those things, but some of it maybe comes from that. There is a little bit of a caveat every second of every play to win. You can't do that if you don't have the space to recharge.
Dustin
I want to go a little deeper here. There's this like, “We're going to go out. We're going to win.” At a point in anyone's life, especially the business owner, the entrepreneur or even the investor, there comes a point where you’ve got to abandon the mission. You’ve got to cancel it. That sounds counterintuitive like, “Why are we giving up?” If we're subscribing to this aggressive mindset. How do you balance that? How do you know when it is a point to abandon or cancel the project, the business or the thing that you're on?
Flynn
What do you think gets in the way there?
Dustin
Mindset.
Flynn
It’s a mindset, but the biggest hindrance you get is the ego. That gets in the way because this idea of winning, it's not a project. Winning is a long-term perspective. It's a long-term mindset. If you get to throw good money at a bad project because you don't want every second and every day play to win every project, I'm going to go in every investment and I'm going to win. You keep throwing money at it. Does that help you in the long-term? No, because you're missing out on all other opportunities from deploying your capital or your time, which is even more important. I had a conversation with a guy in Australia who owns a big sheep farm. He has 45,000 or something heads of sheep. It’s a massive sheep farm. He's like, “It's tough to do the work.” He’s a third-generation sheep farmer, which is cool.
He's got a son who's twenty who finished up the university and is going off to do investment banking. His son brought some ideas, saying, “We got all this land. Sheep farming is hard with the way that it's no more subs to anyone and a bunch of other stuff going on. We should create a solar farm. Let's get rid of sheep. Let's put a bunch of solar panels and generate electricity.” We have this conversation. It's exactly the conversation you're asking. His issue was ego. He's the third generation. His grandfather built this company. His dad ran it and scaled it. He took it to the next level and now it's like, “Are we going to abandon ship on the sheep, which made us successful to go do this?” I didn't know the answer. I didn't tell him the answer. I said, “If ego’s getting in the way that you needed to remove ego to make a decision for long-term winning.” I asked him the question, “What does winning look like? Is it having the biggest sheep farm in Australia?” “It is creating wealth for my family.” “If that's winning, forget about how you're getting there. Let's not get tied to how we're getting there. Let's talk about what winning is and let’s think about how to get there the right way.”
Dustin
What I noticed in that conversation is you asked a key question. I know that's one of your things and that key question got to the root of the matter. It wasn't about being the biggest sheep farmers, it is about wealth. You're big on questions. We talked a little bit about, you've got to tell them the why, but it's more than that. You've got to couple that with questions. Why is fostering and having your people ask you questions important if you're giving them the why behind the mission or the project?
Flynn
Most leaders have been doing the job of those that work for a number of years. A leader's context on the situation, context on the why, the context of the overall problem set is normally going to be different than the people that work for them. While that'd be crystal clear in your mind when you say, “The reason we're doing this project is X, Y and Z. You're giving them the why. “This is the commander's intent. This is what success looks like.” In your mind because of your experience, that is clear, concise, simple, but your people don't have the same experience that you do. That might not resonate in the exact same way. We know one of the things we talk about. There's this absolutely following up and asking questions. When you follow up and ask questions, we teach leaders and a lot of times just junior leaders. They put out a plan and in the end they say, “Any questions?”
Dustin
I've been there.
Flynn
I've done this too. I've put up the operation, “Any questions about tonight's operation?” No questions. They don't ask questions because why? What are you attacking?
Dustin
Fear.
Flynn
You're attacking their ego. It’s like, “I spent twenty minutes talking about this plan, what questions do you have about it? Did you listen?” Worse than do you have any questions is, “Do you understand?” You're asking the question like you're attacking their ego. In that situation if your team doesn't ask you questions, what you do? I say, “I just put out the plan. I'm asking you guys a couple of questions to ensure that I put out the plan the way you can understand it. It's not to check whether you're listening.” There's a little bit of that. You check whether they’re listening, but you're not checking whether you're listening. You're checking whether you communicate in a way that they can understand. If they don't understand, they can't execute.
As a leader, the way you communicate, people hear things differently. They need a lot of body language. You're an expert in body language and all sorts of stuff. You communicate in a lot of different ways. It's something verbal, some nonverbal, some text and some email. What you have to do as a leader is to adjust and ensure that you're communicating the way that your people can understand. If they don't understand, it's on you. It's your fault. This ties back to Extreme Ownership. It's your fault that they don't understand because you didn't spend the time explaining why in a way they can understand. You didn't spend the time asking some follow-up questions to ensure that you explained it in the right way, not that they were listening. That's an important caveat when you ask these questions again. That's the coaching that we give some leaders on that.
Dustin
I wanted to squeeze in one more. You’ve got three kids and I’ve got three kids. I'm new and I'm learning and I like this mindset. I think that the context of this question is like, everyone's concerned about this generation coming up, the young ones. I'm sure this happens over and over again, but they're softer or they're distracted by video games or they're not teaching this mindset of taking ownership. There's more of a handout mentality, some people could say. Based on what we've talked about here, how are you getting this information to your kids? How are you trying to instill this attitude of, “You can be a cause in your life or you can be a victim?” How do you do that with kids?
Flynn
What I love about this idea of Extreme Ownership and what we teach, it applies exactly the same way. Kids are hard-wired not to take ownership. Anyone's got kids, I’ve got a six-year-old daughter teaching her how to clear the table. We get some plates. She's clearing the table. She drops a plate. It’s shattered on the ground and her hands are still in air with plate in her hands and the first words out of her mouth, “I didn't do it.” That was the first words out of her mouth and the plate is broken at her feet. We're hardwired. It's a natural defense. It's a hierarchy of survival. We're hardwired not to take ownership. It's hard to do because my excuse radar is very tuned after doing this for a number of years. I go in and work with a company and I hear all sorts of stuff. I was like, “That's an excuse.” My ownership radar is insane for my kids. Sometimes, it's hard for me to do it myself. I'm emotionally tied to these kids. The most emotional connection I have in my life is my kids and my wife.
It's hard to get that detached where it comes full circle. It's hard to get that detachment of emotions out of the decision in a conversation. I know we’re up on time, but we struggle with this as well. I teach this for a living and it's hard to do. It's simple to say, “Take ownership,” but it's hard to do. I travel a lot and I had a week off. I was like, “I'm going to help my wife.” She sat me down and said, “Sometimes when you're home, it makes it harder for me because you changed the routine.” I'm like, “That's a red flag.” I’m too far away. I need to start doing more. I'm like, “This week, I'm going to take the kids to school every day. I'm going to start contributing. Take some off her plate.” On Monday, we're late. I don't like being late. On Tuesday, we're late. I’m getting more frustrated. On Wednesday, we’re late again. Every time I was like, “Kids, you need to do a better job. You get up early like I do.” I tear into them in the car on the ride because we’re late again and here comes Thursday. The way that you get people to take ownership is taking ownership. The answer here is, “What are you doing? We’re here. We're going to be late again on Thursday.”
We get in the car and I thought, “Let me apply the principles that I teach.” I said, “We've been late every day this week and I’ve been blaming you throughout the week for certain things you've been doing. This is all on me. I'm the dad. I'm your father. I decide on certain things. I'm ultimately in charge here and it's not your fault. I need to do things differently. I'm going to wake you guys up a few minutes earlier. I'm going to spend a little more time. I'm going to get myself ready before I wake you guys up as well so I can dedicate my time to you.” I talked about how I'm going to solve the problem and my oldest goes, “It's actually not your fault. It's my fault. I went and played Legos for fifteen minutes this morning. I went and played with this toy. If I didn't do that, I would have it on time.”
My middle son, which you met, he's like, “It's not your fault either. I couldn't find my shoes. If I would put my shoes in the shoe bin where they're supposed to go, I wouldn't have spent fifteen minutes looking for the shoes. I would've been on time. I can do that differently.” My daughter who’s six and she's like, “You're right. It's all your fault.” She's still a little cold, but we're still trying to get this idea of ownership with her, but it works. If you want your people to take ownership, you have to step in and take ownership. As a leader, if you do that, people will follow you and it won't be 100%, but you'll get 99.20%. If you get a bunch of people on board, the excuses aren't allowed in the organization and you can't cast blame. You're just going to get the job done. If you get an organization like that, other people who don't want to take ownership there, they'll go away. They'll self-select out because it would be too uncomfortable taking the blame.
Dustin
I appreciate the time. It's good to hear that you are human. In addition, I'll still say superhuman, but a human when you're late with the kids because that happens to me. Thank you big time for that strategy. Thanks for being on the show. Thank you, guys, for tuning in.

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