Leaders Show, They Don’t Tell

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead & Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

“Show, don’t tell” is a common refrain among writers and writing critics, at least in the spaces I came from. Accomplishing an MFA in creative writing was a purely selfish pursuit on my part, part of a dream that included penning the next great American novel and sharing humanity’s best stories through the perennial medium that is the written word. Yep, I was idealistic and had a good time studying a wide range of fiction and nonfiction, workshopping my projects and getting feedback from writers of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences. As a military person, working alongside 20-somethings fresh out of BFA programs and 60-somethings pivoting post-retirement, I felt liberated to finally express my own ideas without fearing judgment of my professional worth or intellectual discouragement. I received neither, but did hear plenty “show, don’t tell.”

Wait, what?

Show, don’t tell. If you’ve studied writing or had your writing critiqued, you may have heard this once or twice before. Most often, it means you’ve spent too much time describing or explaining a scene … vice writing the dialogue and actions of the scene, and letting that image coalesce in the reader’s mind. It’s a subtle distinction for the uninitiated. Writing is a craft, and there’s art and science to it. Leadership is the same (see what I did there?), there’s an art and science to it. And it’s a craft to be honed. But despite the near-infinite number of ways someone can successfully lead a team, I’ve come to believe there are a subset of principles by which leaders should abide. There are things leaders should never do if they hope to earn and keep the respect of their team members, peers, and senior leaders.

Jocko Willink and Leif Babin are retired naval officers and both members of the SEAL special operations community. SEAL, an acronym that stands for “Sea, Air, and Land,” describes a small but very tight-knit group of men who leave traditional Navy life for one of the world’s most difficult training and development programs. Their preparation includes a heavy emphasis on mental resilience, adaptation, and a visceral hatred of defeat. SEALs (and in fairness, their special operations brothers and sisters across the services) push forward when most other units can’t or won’t. We ask SEALs and their brethren to undertake missions not only with a high-risk of casualty, but a higher-than-average risk of failure and severe political fallout. To grow up in such an environment is to expose yourself to a whole new level of performance pressure. So what type of leader do you think the SEALs are looking for? What type of leader succeeds in this type of team? Perhaps not the type you would think.

Willink is an imposing figure and maintains an image that leads many to believe he’s among the meanest humans to walk the Earth. Yet many who know him quickly debunk this myth as they explain how good of a husband and father he is, how good of a trainer he is, and how emotional he becomes when he talks about the men he’s lost in combat. Listen to almost any episode of the Jocko Podcast and you’ll quickly find a leader who is not afraid to expose vulnerability. Among Jocko’s books, Extreme Ownership stands out as his first and best introduction to a guiding philosophy that I think most leaders shun–and often for the wrong reasons.

Willink and Babin wrote the book after working as leadership consultants and fielding questions about packaging their lessons for wider consumption. What results is a collection of stories from their deployment to Ramadi, Iraq in 2006 mixed with examples from the corporate world and exposition of each principle they present. At the heart of the message is a call to take “extreme ownership” of your role as the leader. Doesn’t matter the environment, task, or mission. Doesn’t matter your level of experience, your team’s level of experience, or the interpersonal drama at play. What matters is your willingness to step forward and take responsibility for what happens, especially if what happens isn’t what should’ve. It’s easy to take ownership for good results; the challenge–and what leaders owe their teams–is taking ownership when the results are bad.

So what does this have to do with show, don’t tell? When a leader steps forward and takes ownership for the team’s failures–their lack of training and preparation, faulty communication and assumptions, loss of trust from senior leaders–their role and position is obvious. Taking “extreme” ownership communicates clearly to every team member: not only is this person ready and willing to take care of the team, but this person is also someone I can trust and respect. Teams built on trust and respect, up and down the hierarchy, face challenges head on and do not spend time on extraneous disputes and territorialism. These teams are better-equipped to adhere to the principle called “Unity of Command,” an idea that implies we all know who’s responsible for the team and each function–and we’ll defer to those individuals at the right time, without argument. Leaders of these teams have shown themselves to be a good leader, a leader worth trust and respect.

By contrast, some ‘leaders’ have to rely on reminding their team members who they are and what authorities they have. Have you ever heard your manager or supervisor tell you that they’re the manager or supervisor? As the leader of this team, it’s my job to … I was lucky to learn this lesson early, while still a military trainee in college. Never tell your team, let alone remind them, that you’re their leader/supervisor/commander. Demonstrate your willingness and capacity to lead by doing, acting on the team’s behalf and leaning forward in making decisions that support what the team needs. If you feel compelled to remind someone of your job title or description, that’s a sign the person doesn’t trust or respect you in that position.

As for the book … Gift It. This one’s a keeper; it’s simple in layout and message, profound in the number of situations to which the lessons apply. I received this book as a gift myself and have since gifted it or distributed it in bulk to students.

Published by Arun L. Chittur

I'm a teacher, writer, and coach with 20 years' experience in the military, biotechnology, and education. My mission is to help leaders build themselves and have lasting impact on their teams.

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