Leadership lessons from the battlefield

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Chadwick Smith
  • 12th Missile Squadron
This story is comprised of personal viewpoints and in no way implies Air Force or Department of Defense endorsement of the company mentioned, its products or services provided.

“You must own everything in your world… there is no one else to blame,” the deep, gravelly and passionate voice of former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink echoed off stage. This mindset is at the core of the book “Extreme Ownership,” which he co-wrote with Leif Babin, another SEAL with whom he served in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2006. As the commander of Task Unit Bruiser, Willink led the unit to become the most highly decorated special operations unit from the war in Iraq. When Willink and Babin left the team, they took the lessons they learned on the battlefield – cover and move, decentralized command, leading up the chain, and prioritize and execute – and began a leadership consulting company to teach others how to dominate the battlefield or the boardroom.

Recently, a few members of Malmstrom Air Force Base were fortunate enough to attend the “Extreme Ownership Muster 004,” the fourth in a series of two-day leadership conferences in San Diego, California. Unlike standard Air Force professional military education experience, the muster focused solely on building leaders no matter their business, organization or position. The 450 attendees at Muster 004 represented 38 different industries, 39 states and six different countries, with leaders from the CEO level down to self-employed leaders of one.

Willink and Babin created the muster to give leaders the tools needed to dominate and win, in any environment. Although their experience on the battlefield played a central role throughout the conference, it was not specifically targeted to a military audience. They demonstrated how the leadership lessons learned in training and combat can be applied to any organization or company. The muster is making a noticeable impact, and the return on investment for leaders that have attended the first three conventions has spread rapidly throughout the business world and military departments.

Mornings at the muster started with reveille at 4:34 a.m., followed by 4:45 a.m. physical fitness sessions. Willink’s voice boomed in the quiet, humid air just off the San Diego shore, “free burpees! All you can eat! GET AFTER IT!”

After an intense workout, members were released to recover and reload prior to the start, with one warning: “We start on time. Not 8:05 or 8:12… ZERO EIGHT HUNDRED. Be there.” No slack given. Nobody was cruising in at the last minute, people were waiting in line for over forty-five minutes to ensure they had a great seat. The wait was worth it.

Loud heavy metal music filled the hotel’s ballroom as a two-minute warning sounded for people to find their seats. With a video clip of Task Unit Bruiser’s combat in Ramadi, and a very minimal introduction, Willink and Babin took to the stage and began providing leadership advice with the power and precision of a sniper’s rifle. The recounting of real-world lessons, including losing men on the battlefield, kept attendees on the edge of their seats. This was real, raw leadership lessons that they learned in training and on the battlefield, which they translated to apply to every day leadership situations.

Willink, Babin and their other two company members – Dave Berke, retired Marine Corps aviator, combat veteran and U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOP GUN) instructor; and J.P Dinnell, another Navy SEAL who served under Willink’s command – were available every break to answer questions. They all attended dinner on night one. They all attended the introduction to Brazilian jiujitsu on night two. They were all-in to make everyone who attended a better leader, no matter their battlefield. Everyone walked away from Muster 004 with a new sense of what it means to be a leader, no matter their level, and the tools to lead to victory.

If you get a chance, do whatever you can to get to the muster. However, if you cannot get there, pick up “Extreme Ownership” and give it a read, or listen to Willink’s “Jocko” podcast. There is nothing that can compare to or replace being at the muster, but the lessons learned through reading the book and listening to Jocko’s thoughts on leadership is the next best thing… and a good way to GET AFTER IT!