Empowering others when much more than your job depends on it

Inspired by what I learnt about empowerment climbing mount Snezka in shorts, I went back to two of my favourite books about leadership. Without being fully aware of it before, I am realizing that my favourite leadership books deal with leadership under extreme conditions: long-distance yacht racing in Team Spirit and combat in Extreme Ownership. Both accounts describe a leadership style that empowers others.



Team Spirit by Brendan Hall


Team Spirit is the story of Brendan Hall who embarks on his first round-the-world race as a skipper and manages to forge a group of amateur sailors into a winning team. Although hardly comparable to the tough decisions of a Navy SEAL commander in combat (the leadership context of Extreme Ownership), the challenge of racing a boat with amateurs, strangers living on what must have felt like a sardine can, under the extreme conditions of hurricane-type storms on high seas thousands of miles away from land, with the skipper thinking to himself ‘People die in conditions like this’ … well, that sounds extreme to me and is probably a solid litmus test for how to lead people.


Three insights on an empowering leadership style from Team Spirit:

  • Leadership is about people management first and foremost, for a skipper this means “20 per cent sailing skills and 80 per cent people-management skills” (p. 12). The classical way to get to a leadership position, whether in a company or politics, is through promotion which acknowledges past performance. A typical pitfall for newly promoted leaders is to not shift focus away from performing the technical/functional job and towards people management. Brendan Hall describes how all successful skippers he interviewed in preparation conveyed the importance of people management to him. He also describes how he learnt what this meant the hard way. Sometimes he would slip into the job of a sailor or navigator, all the while needing to take care of their racing strategy and managing the crew. More often than not, this left him overwhelmed and the team ineffective. The solution: focus on people management, let the team get the job done.

  • Remaining self-aware of your mood & behaviour. Because it rubs off on your team: “The shadow you cast is great and you need to be self-aware of your moods and how they affect others” (p. 83). Do you lash out when stressed, irritable when impatient? Everyone who has been on the receiving side of it (I have) knows how much it can demoralize people. This is true for the leader bringing down his team, but also individual team members bringing down everyone else. Hall quotes Churchill: “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” How aware are you in critical situations?

  • Giving complete responsibility to the team. As a skipper, Hall delegated tasks gradually. But he also knew he had to make sure the team was able to get the job done without him, in the not so unlikely case that something would happen to him:

“I trusted my crew, entirely. This trust was not given easily – they earned it over the previous six months and had proved to me time and again how capable, persistent and resourceful they were. […] As a leader, reaching this point can be a long struggle, but it is my firm belief that reaching a stage where the team working for you can function without your presence is something all leaders should strive for." (p. 204)

Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin


In Extreme Ownership Jocko Willink and Leif Babin distil what they learnt about leadership in combat and show how the principles apply beyond the military:

  • Ineffective team? Ineffective leader! While leadership books and consulting tend to define characteristics of the effective leader, Willink & Babin stress from the outset that “without a team […] there can be no leadership. The only meaningful measure for a leader is whether the team succeeds or fails.” (p. 8) If the team succeeds, the leader is effective; if, however, the team fails, then the leader is ineffective. This is where leaders get it wrong, if they make up excuses (I certainly have), blaming anything from underperforming team members to insufficient resources to get the job done. This is where the radical idea of the book comes in:

  • Extreme ownership. A leader takes ownership for everything that happens, more specifically, for everything that goes wrong.

  • The mindset brings continuous improvement. A team member is not up to the task? Train, coach, help them get there; if they don’t and put the mission at risk, replace them. Your resources are insufficient? Be creative, find out what is possible, what is not, confront your superior with it. Your team member made a mistake? Take ownership – should you have communicated the job more clearly, trained the individual better, allocated the task to someone else? Figure out together what can be done to be better the next time.

  • The mindset builds trust & loyalty. You stand up for your team, stand in front of them, if necessary. You take ownership for when things go wrong and give credit to the team when successful.

  • The mindset – and the attitude and behaviour flowing from it – sets an example, and, thereby encourages junior leaders to emulate and take ownership: “Extreme Ownership – good leadership – is contagious.” (p. 59) This is when the magic happens: an empowered team taking full ownership, not finding excuses but finding solutions.

  • ‘Decentralised command’. This is the flip side of taking extreme ownership: to taking full responsibility for the performance of the team without performing the job. It requires clear communication of not only what to do but also the why behind it, being positioned not too closely to the action to get dragged into it, but also not too far away to not know what is going on. It empowers the team by leaving execution and potential adaptations to the team. Together with the mindset of extreme ownership, the team will not just do the job but strive to continuously become better.


And so I am left asking myself: if a leadership style that empowers others to make their own decisions and take ownership is successful even in hostile environments, what makes us think we cannot lead like this under more benign circumstances?

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