How to Use Combat Lessons From Iraq To Improve Your Business

Many business leaders overlook leadership lessons from the military because we don’t think they cross the chasm between the harsh realities of war and the world of business.

I would argue that, regardless of the differences in operating environments, the same leadership principles do apply. In fact, the leadership principles tried and tested in the most extreme combat conditions must be applied in the world of business! If business leaders are not leveraging leadership lessons from the military then we are doing ourselves and our organizations a great disservice.

For example, how many times have we seen a power struggle between two mid-level business unit managers while the leader of these managers is too scared or preoccupied to take action to resolve the situation. When the lack of action by the leader allows the squabbling to continue, inevitably the whole business suffers. Morale drops, production and sales fall, customer relations are hurt and eventually the bottom line of the business feels the impact. The inability of a leader to take decisive action to resolve internal strife will damage your business.

This inaction and lack of decisiveness is not tolerated in military leadership. Lack of decisiveness costs lives in combat. Plain and simple.

It seems pretty easy to transfer this lesson from the military arena to the world of business but what about other leadership lessons?

Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, from the business consultancy Echelon Front, have done a great job articulating the lessons they learned while leading SEALs through some of the most intense combat ever experienced in Ramadi, Iraq. They have distilled their leadership lessons down into 12 principles which I outline below (integrated with some of my thoughts).

Extreme Ownership – 12 Leadership Lessons

  1. Extreme Ownership – All responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader regardless of the size or type of organization being led. There can be no finger pointing or blame passing. The leader owns the results from organization they are leading.
  2. There Are No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders – You can turn around a bad team with good good leadership. Yes, there are bad players that will not change. A good leader recognizes this early and removes these bad apples and replaces them with solid contributors.
  3. Believe – A leader must understand and believe in the mission. This means that leaders must clearly define and continuously communicate the mission.
  4. Ego – Uncontrolled egos can cloud and disrupt all aspect of an organization. Egos are important but uncontrolled egos cannot be tolerated.
  5. Cover and Move – Teamwork makes the dream work! Everyone is responsible for activities and tasks and knows their role.
  6. Simple – Remove unnecessary complexity out of everything.
  7. Prioritize and Execute – Determine the highest priority task and execute. Don’t allow indecision to paralyze you.
  8. Decentralized Command – A leader must not have more than 6 to 10 people reporting to them directly. Any more than this, the leader loses focus and effectiveness.
  9. What’s the Mission – Leaders must absolutely understand the mission. They must then clearly communicate this to the rest of their team.
  10. Leading Up and Down the Chain – A leader’s job includes leading down in their organization to their reports, sideways with their peers and upwards with those they report to.
  11. Decisiveness Amid Uncertainty – A leader must be decisive and be adaptable. Similar to Principle 8, a leader must prioritize and execute and they must be willing to adjust course when new data comes in.
  12. Discipline Equals Freedom – Disciplined behavior, processes, systems, and application of tools results in a greater degree of freedom. Encourage employees to follow the systems where it makes sense and propose improvements when they see opportunities. I like to describe this as “innovation within established boundaries.”

Take Action

Take the time to study and thoroughly understand these leadership principles. Are there areas that you need to improve? What actions are you going to take today and this week to improve your leadership and your business?

If you have a lingering issue in your business, step up and take the appropriate leadership action today. Be decisive and take extreme ownership of the issue. Understand it, prioritize it, select a solution that is in alignment with your overall mission and take decisive action!

Finally, review these articles for more business leadership advice:


For years I have been accused of making snap judgments. Honestly, this is not the case because I am a profound military student and the thoughts I express, perhaps too flippantly, are the result of years of thought and study.” George S. Patton


What are your experiences with taking ownership of results in the workplace? Leave your comments below!


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2 thoughts on “How to Use Combat Lessons From Iraq To Improve Your Business

  1. Dave,
    I like this article and thanks for sharing it. As we come the end of industrial revolution where population and skilled force is increasing and at the same time jobs are disappearing such conduct will be very much required but will it? Will the office politics allow this kind of culture (may be as a façade). We need people with your kind of thinking to help foster such behavior.
    Thanks again for sharing Dave.