Hard to imagine, right? Recently, I read a couple books on Leadership in the military. One such book, Extreme Ownership-How US Navy Seals Lead and Win, by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, surprised me as I saw examples of Lean Leadership practices laced throughout the book. In the excerpt below, you will see familiar concepts of Servant Leadership, Hoshin Kanri, and Genchi Gembutsu.

It is interesting that Leif Babin realizes the importance of his men understanding the ‘WHY’ behind the mission. He recognizes that if his men don’t understand the bigger picture, i.e. The Purpose, then he has failed them. From this, he understands that if he communicates the purpose to his troops, not only will they be better prepared to fulfill the mission but will likely have better morale. This is clearly more of a Servant Leadership approach and seems to invoke some “Hoshin Kanri – like” principles such as catchball communications and linkage of tactical elements to overall vision/mission.

Late in this excerpt, the author writes: “[Leading Down the Chain of Command] requires regularly stepping out of the office and personally engaging in face-to-face conversations with direct reports and observing the frontline troops in action to understand their particular challenges and read them into the Commander’s Intent”. Sounds a little like Genchi Gembutsu (Go & See). What do you think?

 “As platoon commander, I had detailed insight into the planning and coordination with the Army and Marine battalions and companies that was far beyond most of the SEAL operators in my platoon. Yet, if I didn’t fully comprehend or appreciate the “strategic impact” of what we had done, how could I expect my frontline troops—my junior SEAL operators not in a leadership role—to get it? The answer: I couldn’t. For a young SEAL shooter with a very limited role in the planning process who was out working on his weapons and gear, conducting maintenance on our vehicles, or building demolition charges for the breacher, he walked into our mission briefs wondering: What are we doing next? He had no context for why we were doing the operation or how the next tactical mission fit into the bigger picture of stabilizing and securing Ramadi.

I realized now that, as their leader, I had failed to explain it to them. Clearly, there was some level of strategic perspective and comprehension that would only come with time and reflection. But I could have done a far better job as a leader to understand for myself the strategic impact of our operations and passed this insight to my troops.

When Jocko saw my reaction to the slide and the presentation he had built, he too realized that he should have more fully detailed the strategic impact of what we were doing and why[…]”

“when a leader thinks his troops understand the bigger picture, they very often have difficulty connecting the dots between the tactical mission they are immersed in with the greater overarching goal.

Looking back on Task Unit Bruiser’s deployment to Ramadi, I realized that the SEALs in Charlie Platoon who suffered the worst combat fatigue, whose attitudes grew progressively more negative as the months of heavy combat wore on, who most questioned the level of risk we were taking on operations—they all had the least ownership of the planning for each operation. Conversely, the SEAL operators who remained focused and positive, who believed in what we were doing, and who were eager to continue and would have stayed on beyond our six-month deployment if they could—they all had some ownership of the planning process in each operation. Even if they only controlled a small piece of the plan—the route into or out of a target, the breach scene on an entry door, coordination with supporting aircraft, managing an assault force of Iraqi soldiers—those SEAL operators still better understood the mission, the detailed steps taken to mitigate those risks we could control, the Commander’s Intent behind why we were conducting that specific operation. The SEALs with little or no ownership were somewhat in the dark. As a result, they had a harder time understanding why we were taking the risks we were taking and what specific impact we had in the campaign to liberate Ramadi.

Looking back, one of the greatest lessons learned for me was that I could have done a far better job of leading down the chain of command. I should have given greater ownership of plans to the troops—especially those who were negative and weren’t fully committed to the mission. I should have taken the time to better understand how what we were doing contributed to the strategic mission. I should have asked those questions to Jocko and on up my chain of command. I should have put together a routine strategic overview brief and regularly delivered this to Charlie Platoon’s operators so that they could understand what we had accomplished and how our missions furthered the strategic goals of stabilizing Ramadi and securing the populace. With the physical hardship of operating in Iraqi summertime heat reaching 117 degrees Fahrenheit, carrying heavy loads of gear, and routinely engaging in fierce firefights with enemy forces, the SEAL operators in Charlie Platoon needed greater context to understand why that was necessary. Seeing the Ramadi overview slide that Jocko had built, I now understood what we had done and, more important, understood what leading down the chain of command was all about. It was a hard lesson to learn but one I will never forget.


Any good leader is immersed in the planning and execution of tasks, projects, and operations to move the team toward a strategic goal. Such leaders possess insight into the bigger picture and why specific tasks need to be accomplished. This information does not automatically translate to subordinate leaders and the frontline troops. Junior members of the team—the tactical level operators—are rightly focused on their specific jobs. They must be in order to accomplish the tactical mission. They do not need the full knowledge and insight of their senior leaders, nor do the senior leaders need the intricate understanding of the tactical level operators’ jobs. Still, it is critical that each have an understanding of the other’s role. And it is paramount that senior leaders explain to their junior leaders and troops executing the mission how their role contributes to big picture success.

This is not intuitive and never as obvious to the rank-and-file employees as leaders might assume. Leaders must routinely communicate with their team members to help them understand their role in the overall mission. Frontline leaders and troops can then connect the dots between what they do every day—the day-to-day operations—and how that impacts the company’s strategic goals. This understanding helps the team members prioritize their efforts in a rapidly changing, dynamic environment. That is leading down the chain of command. It requires regularly stepping out of the office and personally engaging in face-to-face conversations with direct reports and observing the frontline troops in action to understand their particular challenges and read them into the Commander’s Intent. This enables the team to understand why they are doing what they are doing, which facilitates Decentralized Command.

Excerpt From: Jocko Willink & Leif Babin. “Extreme Ownership.” St. Martin’s Press. iBooks.

I recommend Extreme Ownership and further recommend that you listen to the audiobook version. In the audiobook, Willink and Babin personally take the listener on a journey that is not only insightful in message but thoroughly entertaining as well.  

Alan Parsley is a LEAN/HR executive consultant, facilitator and speaker who leads LEAN improvement initiatives at companies from a wide range of industries. Alan is President of JaxHR Consulting and serves as a Sr. Associate for Honsha & Associates, a premier international lean consulting group. Alan gained the unique combination of operational and administrative experience over his 27-year career. Alan learned Leadership and Toyota Production System (TPS) methodologies while at Toyota’s Georgetown, Ky. Facility as well as the corporate headquarters in Erlanger, Ky.  Based in Jacksonville, FL., Alan has served as Vice Chairman of the Jacksonville Lean Consortium and is a member of the Board of Directors for the First Coast Manufacturer’s Association.