A former Navy SEAL called me out for making excuses, and it changed the way I think about leadership

Navy seals leif babin jocko willinkJoe Avella/Business InsiderFormer Navy SEALs Leif Babin, left, and Jocko Willink speak at the Muster event in New York City in May 2017.

In early May I had the opportunity to wake up before dawn to go work out with and learn from two former Navy SEAL commanders.

Jocko Willink was the commander of Task Unit Bruiser, the most decorated special operations unit of the Iraq War, and Leif Babin was one of his two platoon commanders. They took what they learned on the battlefield and brought it to the business world with their management consulting firm Echelon Front in 2010. Their 2015 book “Extreme Ownership” became a New York Times bestseller.

I attended their two-day “Muster” conference (they waived the roughly $US2,500 fee) along with 435 other people. Though I only attended the first day and the Brazilian jiujitsu session that wrapped up day two, I picked up some valuable insight about leadership. It all came together with brief conversations I had with Willink and Babin after the conference.

“The biggest takeaway that you can have from this is looking yourself in the mirror and thinking, ‘Where can I do better?'” Babin told me. “Taking ownership instead of blaming others, finding excuses, or maybe even denying that problems exist … And a lot of that is about checking your ego.”

Babin explained that ego can certainly be an asset — it can be the driver to compete and succeed — but it needs to be kept in check so that it doesn’t become a liability.

I saw this in action when I spoke with Willink. He mentioned our email correspondence from weeks prior, and told me he wondered why I hadn’t responded to his last message. The truth was, his message required a simple response that I had forgotten to send.

But instead of saying that, I immediately began an explanation of how I had to check in with an editor and wait for an answer and then — Willink stopped me, half-jokingly, and told me I needed to take ownership. It was a minor example but one that proved to me how easy it is to react to a question by making an excuse that deflects responsibility.

Willink has said many times on his podcast that even though he can isolate and teach this concept of “extreme ownership,” it’s something he will still occasionally fail to practice, and it takes effort to make it an instinct. He’s noted that when he does fail to follow his own philosophy — even if for a fleeting moment, the way I did — he’s at least trained himself to feel like something’s off when he makes a reactionary excuse, so that he can quickly correct it.

“Leadership is hard,” Willink told me. “It’s a skill. It’s a technique.” He explained that all of the other Muster attendees and I weren’t going to suddenly transform into the ideal leaders because we studied leadership for the whole day, in the same way someone who took a couple guitar lessons couldn’t suddenly play like Jimi Hendrix. But he did say that I should focus on the fundamentals and keep them in mind.

“And then you can go back into your world, you can continue to try and develop what you learned, and you can absolutely improve your leadership competency and capability,” he said.

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