Here is the full transcript of retired US Navy SEAL Jocko Willink’s TEDx Talk on Extreme Ownership at TEDxUniversityofNevada Conference. John “Jocko” Willink is an American podcaster and retired United States Navy SEAL, who received the Silver Star and Bronze Star for his actions in the Iraq War.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Jocko Willink on Extreme Ownership at TEDxUniversityofNevada
War is a nightmare. War is awful. It is indifferent and devastating and evil. War is hell.
But war is also an incredible teacher, a brutal teacher. And it teaches you lessons that you will not forget. In war you are forced to see humanity at its absolute worst, and you are also blessed to see humanity in its most glorious moments.
War teaches you about sorrow and loss and pain, and it teaches you about the preciousness and the fragility of human life. And in that fragility, war teaches you about death.
But war also teaches you about brotherhood and honor and humility and leadership. And unfortunately, war teaches you the most when things go wrong. And for me, one of the most impactful lessons that I learned from war was in the spring of 2006, in the city of Ramadi, Iraq which at the time was the epicenter of the insurgency, where brutal and determined terrorists ruled the streets with torture and rape and murder. And it was in one neighborhood of that city, during an operation that I was in charge of, when all hell broke loose.
We had multiple units out on the battlefield fighting the enemy. We had friendly Iraqi soldiers, we had US Army soldiers and US Marines along with small elements of my SEAL team. And then the fog of war rolled in, with its confusion and chaos and mayhem, and with its gunfire, and enemy attacks and screaming men and blood and death. And in that fog of war, through a series of mistakes and human error and poor judgment and Murphy’s law and just plain bad luck, a horrendous firefight broke out. But this firefight, it wasn’t between us and the enemy. This firefight tragically was between us and us — friendly forces against friendly forces — fratricide, the mortal sin of combat and the most horrific part of war.
And when it was over and the fog of war lifted, one friendly Iraqi soldier was dead, two more were wounded, one of my men was wounded, the rest of my SEALs were badly shaken. And it was only through a miracle that no one else was killed. And it was reported up the chain of command what had happened, that we had fought and wounded and killed each other.
And when we got back to base, things didn’t get much better. There was a message waiting for me from my commanding officer. And it said, “Shut down all operations.” It said that the commanding officer, the master chief and the investigating officer were inbound to my location. And they told me to prepare a debrief to explain exactly what had happened on the operation and what had gone wrong.
Now I knew what this meant. It meant that somebody had to pay. It meant that somebody had to be held accountable. It meant that somebody had to get fired for what had happened. So I began to prepare my debrief and in it, I detailed every mistake that was made and who made it. And I pointed out every failure in the planning and the preparation and the execution in the operation and I pointed out who was responsible for that failure. There was plenty of blame to go around. There were so many people that I could incriminate with guilt but something wasn’t right. For some reason, I just couldn’t put my finger on who was at fault and who specifically I should blame for what had happened. And I sat and I went over it again and again and I struggled for an answer.
And then when I was about 10 minutes from starting the debrief, that answer came and it hit me like a slap in the face. And I realized that there was only one person to blame for the confusion, only one person to blame for the wounded men and only one person to blame for the dead Iraqi soldier. And I knew exactly who that person was.
And with that knowledge, I walked into the debriefing room with my commanding officer, and the master chief and the investigating officer were sitting there waiting for me along with the rest of my men, including my SEAL that had been wounded who’s sitting in the back of the room with his head and his face all bandaged up.
And I stood up before them and I asked them one simple question: whose fault was this? One of my SEALs raised his hand, and he said, “It was my fault. I didn’t keep control of the Iraqi soldiers I was with and they left their designated sector and that was the root of all these problems.” And I said, “No, it wasn’t your fault.”
And then another SEAL raised his hand and said, “It was my fault. I didn’t pass our location over the radio fast enough, so no one knew what building we were in. And that’s what caused all this confusion. It was my fault.” I said, “No, it wasn’t your fault either.”
And then another SEAL raised his hand, and he said, ‘Boss, this was my fault. I didn’t properly identify my target and I shot and killed that friendly Iraqi soldier. This was my fault.” And I said, “No, this wasn’t your fault, either.” And it wasn’t yours or yours or yours, I said as I pointed to the rest of the SEALs in the room. And then I told them that there was only one person at fault for what had happened. There was only one person to blame and that person was me. I am the commander, I am the senior man on the battlefield and I am responsible for everything that happens. Everything! And then I went on to explain to them some new tactics, techniques and procedures that we were going to implement to ensure that this kind of travesty never happened again.
And I will tell you something: it hurt. It hurt my ego, it hurt my pride to take the blame. But I also knew — I knew that to maintain my integrity as a leader and as a man I had to take responsibility and in order to do that, I had to control my ego so that my ego did not control me. And you know what, I didn’t get fired. In fact, my commanding officer who had expected excuses and finger-pointing, when I took responsibility, when I took ownership he now trusted me even more. And my men, they didn’t lose respect for me. Instead they realized that I would never shirk responsibility and I would never pass that heavy burden of command down the chain and onto them. And you know what, they had the same attitude.