By Chuck Violand
June 6, 2016
In their 2015 book, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, authors Jocko Willink and Leif Babin build the case for leaders taking 100% ownership of the decisions we make and the results produced by the organizations we lead. This principle applies to all levels of leadership throughout an organization, whether it’s owning the business, managing a division, or running a project. It also applies to all areas of a business, whether it’s sales results, jobs being completed on time, even morale within the company. If we’re in charge of producing results, we need to own the outcomes—both good and bad.
It might be helpful to mention that Willink and Babin are ex-Navy SEALs, that they fought in the battle of Ramadi, Iraq, and that the decisions they made on the job frequently determined whether the people they led would make it home safely—or at all.
While the decisions most of us make in business will never lead to such life-or-death consequences, the principal of 100% ownership still applies.
One of the points made in the book really got my attention. A story was told about a conversation with the Chief Technology Officer of a large corporation whose division was falling behind. The CTO was doing his best to deflect responsibility for the shortfall by making excuses and blaming others. The authors called him out by stating, “When it comes to performance standards, it’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate.” It’s what we tolerate; how true is that?! And who among us hasn’t been guilty, at least occasionally, of tolerating performance well short of a standard we had earlier mandated?
Punctuality’s a popular performance standard that many of us have addressed at one time or another. “If you show up late one more time, don’t even bother to come in!” we shout at the once-again-tardy employee. And in the heat of the moment, we mean it. But faced with having to cover for the employee when they show up late again, we’re tempted to let it slide (maybe there really was a traffic jam) and turn a blind eye to their tardiness one more time.
Throwing family relationships into the business mix, our tolerance for bending performance standards in our companies can make us question the value of setting standards in the first place. When you consider that as many as 90% of all business enterprises in North America are considered “family” businesses, this makes for a lot of standard bending! But we weigh the benefit of drawing a line in the sand when it comes to holding a performance standard against the odds of having a pleasant holiday dinner if we do.
Discipline is one of the characteristics that separates great leaders from the rest. Tolerating subpar performance, or not taking 100% ownership of our actions, is one of the deeper expressions of a lack of personal discipline.
When it comes to whether our companies are performing or falling short—be it due to a rogue family member or a tardy employee—it all comes back to the same thing: it’s not what we preach, it’s what we tolerate.