Today’s episode is an interview with Jocko Willink, a retired U.S. Navy SEAL officer and New York Times #1 bestselling author of several books including his latest, Leadership Strategy and Tactics. Jocko hosts the popular podcast Leadership and Discipline, as well as a podcast for young leaders-in-training called Warrior Kid. Upon retiring from the Navy in 2010, Jocko founded leadership consulting firm Echelon Front. There, he teaches combat leadership principles to help others build their own high-performance winning teams.
In the interview, we explored how applying leadership lessons from the battlefield can bring us extraordinary success in the workplace. I’ll call out some highlights here, but I encourage you to click the audio player above or listen on your favorite podcast platform. You’ll be motivated by Jocko’s endless energy and enthusiasm as you listen to my chat with a leadership legend.
“Leadership, is everyone,” Jocko says. It’s not about your title. So, if you’re not in a formal leadership role, know that this conversation is still very much for you.
The Four Laws of Combat inspire leadership
Many of Jocko’s ideas originate from the Four Laws of Combat he developed in the Navy and passed on to other SEALs. These are:
- Cover and move. Embrace the power of teamwork and know the importance of showing care to everyone on the mission.
- Keep things simple. Remove complexity wherever possible to ensure everyone fully understands the mission and the shared direction.
- Prioritize and execute. Remain a step or two ahead of problems to avoid failure. Thoughtful planning allows us to move resources wherever they’re needed.
- Decentralize command. When our team members understand what they’re doing and why, they become empowered to make smart decisions on their own.
Jocko shared some sage advice around detaching from our egos to make better decisions, taking extreme ownership for the outcomes we desire, and leaning into observation and humility to reveal the best version of ourselves.
Detaching from ego and emotion—easier said than done
As we’re in the thick of work, we have to make decisions, have conversations, and give or receive feedback. Jocko is a big believer in the importance of detachment—separating the emotional from the rational. But boy, is that easier said than done!
So, how can we make that happen? Jocko says that people do get “wrapped up around their emotions. He offered some great advice:
“You have to learn to take a step back. I recommend you do it physically. So [then] you [can] detach from it mentally, too… Step back, look around so you can see what’s actually happening and make a real decision based on logic, not based on emotion.”
You have to learn to take a step back. I recommend you do it physically.
I appreciated his advice to take the physical act of stepping back. It’s easy to overlook the connection between mind and body, but sometimes a physical movement can trigger an emotional one, a mental step back.
Being detached helps us make choices for the greater good, or as Jocko might say, in service of the mission.
Why does it feel so hard to decide and make a move?
Making smart decisions is a critical component of success at work. Yet, it’s also one of the most common challenges. We always want a little more information, one more piece of data, another opinion on the matter before we make the call.
You might not be dealing with lives [at work], but you’re dealing with livelihoods.
Jocko honed his leadership skills as a Navy SEAL. On the battlefield, lives are on the line, and you need to be decisive. How does that innate sense of combat urgency relate to work-life? “You might not be dealing with lives,” he told me, “but you’re dealing with livelihoods.
“Now, I was known as being very decisive when I was in the military. I’m still known as being very decisive,” Jocko said. But he admitted that his strategy is a kind of “cheat.” He makes the smallest possible decision he can make that moves everyone in the direction he believes is the right one.
Choose one step to take and confirm your footing before you keep on keeping on.
Often when we struggle to make a decision, it’s because the stakes feel too high, the possible consequence too risky. So don’t make the decision. Don’t plot out the full course. Make one small decision. Choose one step to take and confirm your footing before you keep on keeping on.
Jocko offered an example. Need to decide whether to build that store? Start by sending a couple of people to study the feasibility. Then try throwing up a kiosk and seeing how it performs. Same concept, less risk.
This is a great illustration of Combat Law #2—keeping things simple. By removing complexity, we can make smaller decisions with ease.
How can you balance decisive action with inclusivity and flexibility?
One of Jocko’s tenets is “Don’t dig in.” He encourages flexibility, an open mind and a willingness to listen to the ideas of those around you. “The concept comes from General Patton … he didn’t want his men to dig in. He wanted them to advance, advance, advance. That’s also a critical tool to use as a leader, to not dig in to some idea that you have. And allow yourself to be flexible.”
I’m ready to listen and execute other people’s plans all day long
Jocko says that his mind is always open. Rather than digging in (or waffling indecisively), he listens to what others tell him and stays flexible. “Yes, there are principles that I am not going to move on,” he said. “Everybody around me knows what they are.” And yet, he explained that beyond those principles, people trust him to hear them out. “I’m ready to listen and execute other people’s plans all day long,” he said.
Ultimately, success isn’t defined by the idea that came out of your head, but rather the quality of the collective idea you’re able to harness. Harnessing great ideas means hearing them. And hearing means being able to step back and observe.
Use the power of observing
Part of what I find so compelling about Jocko is the simplicity of his ideas. Much of his insight comes not out of complex or extensive research, but simply from observing what happens around him and extracting lessons.
As a bit of an action-addict, I admire his powers of observation. I asked for advice on how to create this discipline for ourselves. Jocko says the answer is detachment, one of the earliest lessons he learned as a leader.
I would be detached watching it unfold, which gave me a clear picture of what the problem was.
“When I was watching things go wrong with other platoons or watching things go right with other platoons … I would be detached watching it unfold, which gave me a clear picture of what the problem was.”
Part of what made Jocko such a strong military leader was this power of detachment combined with observation. And it’s yet another lesson from the battlefield we can all harness at work.
And now, it’s time to “get some.”
“Get some” is Jocko’s sign off. It’s the tagline I most associate with him. And it’s a simple phrase I strive to embody each day. For me—and for my whole family because yes, my husband and two young daughters follow Jocko as well—“Get some” serves as a shorthand for “hey, if you see something you want, you’re responsible for making it happen. You’re empowered. You’re accountable. So, get to it!”I asked Jocko what “Get some” meant to him.
I’m going to go out and make things happen. I don’t expect that anything is going to be given to me.
“I’m going to take advantage of every second of every minute of every day, of every week, of every month and of every year,” he said. “I’m going to go out and make things happen. I don’t expect that anything is going to be given to me. … I don’t expect anyone to lay out a red carpet for me anywhere. I’m not expecting any of that stuff. Whatever I want in the world, I have to go and make happen. … I will not squander one second of this gift of life that I’ve been given. I’m going to take advantage of every second.”
And with that, Jocko dropped the mic.
So, readers, I can only hope you find Jocko as inspiring, insightful, and sage as I do. And with that, allow me to invite you to “Get some!”
Jocko Willink headshot credited to Echo Charles