Home 9 THIS STUFF WORKS 9 This Stuff Works Ep 1: Sarah Armstrong

THIS STUFF WORKS Ep 1: Sarah Armstrong

Each month a new guest sits down with Leif Babin to share how the principles of Extreme Ownership worked for them whether in their personal lives or in business.

By Leif Babin

The audio version is available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google Podcast, and RadioPublic


Leif Babin (00:00:00):
Welcome to This Stuff Works podcast. When we started talking about at Echelon Front, the idea that we get to engage with leaders all the time. We get to learn from leaders all the time. We get to see how so many different leaders in just about every type of business across the full spectrum of industries, we see it with first responders, we see it in healthcare, we see it in the military, we see it across the broadest range of leadership, in education, in nonprofit organizations, and so we get to see the impact these leaders are having in their world when they lead to the principles of extreme ownership that we wrote about, that we talk about, that we teach at Echelon Front. We talked about, why don’t we have a podcast that actually talks to these leaders so they can actually talk about how these leadership principles have impacted their lives, the impact it actually has had, the changes that they’ve been able to make, the successes that they’ve had, where they’ve actually struggled implementing some of these things as well, to share that with other leaders?
As we started thinking about this, I thought there’s absolutely no better leader that I could possibly talk to as the first guest on the podcast here than Sarah Armstrong. I just want to give you a little background about Sarah. Sarah has almost 30 years experience in finance and operations in corporate America. Sarah, you’ve been the CFO for six years now at Mesa Technical Associates. Before that, you were at 13 years at WHAM Systems. You’ve been the VP of finance at a startup. You’ve been a senior accountant at Bell Atlantic and Deloitte, so you’ve got a massive amount of experience in the finance and operations world. More than anything, you are an extraordinary leader and a trooper in the game, as we like to say, for those people that follow the Jocko podcast. One thing that’s awesome about our Extreme Ownership Academy that where we meet online, there’s a hashtag in there in those Zoom links that people always talk about, which is #SarahKnows, and people put that in there.
What I love about that is you’re a leader, not only for me, but for everybody on the Echelon Front team. We have tremendous admiration and respect for you, for your knowledge, for your understanding of the principles that we teach. You’re able to share that with people with lessons learned from your own personal experience, but also, just to provide some guidance and affirmation with so many different leaders. The fact that we’ve gotten a chance to meet you at Mustards and see you in person and get to know you and see the impact that you’ve had on your world, I thought this was just an awesome opportunity to talk to you about your experiences with these leadership principles that we teach, how they’ve been implemented, where they work, where you’ve struggled to implement them and made adjustments and where you’ve been able to share them with other people with success as well. Thanks for coming on the podcast, Sarah. Thanks for inspiring this entire thing to happen.
Sarah Armstrong (00:02:55):
Oh, well, thank you Leif. It’s such a pleasure to be here and spend some time talking with you about something that’s very important to me and a lot of people, which is leadership.
Leif Babin (00:03:05):
We decided to title this thing This Stuff Works based on your recommendation because it’s something that we hear all the time from people that we work with. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Sarah Armstrong (00:03:15):
Oh, certainly. That is something that a lot of people talk about during the Extreme Ownership Academy as they give a situation report. So they’ll go over something that they learned on the academy or reading the books, and then they will implement it. Then they will come back and sometimes somewhat surprised, will say, “Wow, it works!” Over time that this stuff works regardless of your industry, regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman, regardless of how many years you’ve been in your position, these tools that we are taught on the Extreme Ownership Academy, you start to realize the right tool for the job when it comes to leadership. So This Stuff Works, to me, really indicates the benefit of all of the lessons that we learn on a weekly basis through the Extreme Ownership Academy.
Leif Babin (00:04:15):
What I loved about it, when you made that suggestion, I had to smile because I remember going through our workup cycle and tasking a bruiser, when Jocko was my boss as our tasking commander, I was the SEAL Platoon Commander and we were preparing to deploy overseas. This is before we actually went to Ramadi in 2006, so this is back 2005. Jocko would give me a piece of leadership guidance and say, “Hey, why don’t you think about doing this?” because I’m a stubborn person and I’ve got an ego, sometimes I would think to myself, “Well, that doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know how that would work.”
But I was smart enough at least to suppress that and think, “You know what? Jocko hasn’t steered me wrong. Let me actually try to implement this.” So I would give that a shot, I would take his suggestion. I would implement that leadership guidance, and I would say, “Dang, man. This stuff actually works.” I would say that to him all the time, “This stuff really works.” when you suggested that and that became a hashtag that people use and make reference to on the academy, I thought that was awesome. I thought it was the perfect name for what we’re talking about here, the examples of where these leadership principles have been implemented and the impact that they’ve delivered.
Sarah Armstrong (00:05:21):
I want to just touch briefly on the #SarahKnows, because it’s awfully kind of people to say that, but it’s really because I have a lot of experience. I’ve put in leadership reps, and I’ve had exposure to a lot of situations. Over time, I’m 52-years-old, 30 years in business, almost 30 years married, you start to really develop a skill of pattern recognition. So it might seem like I know things that someone else doesn’t, it’s that I’ve put in the reps. There’s a really good quote, which is, “There’s no compression algorithm for experience,” so I have a lot of experience.
That quote, while it’s to a large extent true, the one thing I can say is that training is an accelerator. Leadership is an art and a science, and it can be taught and you can get better at it. I like to say on the Extreme Ownership Academy that every day’s a school day. I’m a student, I’m 30 years in at this point, and I learn something new every single week that I attend the academy that I can apply in my personal life, with my family, with my friends, in my community, in volunteer activities and at work. It’s a nice thing that people say, but I’ve put in a lot of reps at this point in my career.
Leif Babin (00:06:52):
Well, you’re very humble about that, Sarah. What I say is “When Sarah talks, we listen.” That’s certainly when you have perspective to share, it’s extremely valuable to people. I think one thing, you’ve had tremendous successes. You’re in a great leadership position. You’ve proven your leadership skills as a result. What I love about what you demonstrate all the time is what we often talk about the most important quality in a leader, which is humility. When we say in life, “It’s be humble or get humbled,” I think with your years of experience, you’ve recognized what works and what doesn’t work. You are open about sharing these things about other people’s perspectives. I think the most valuable thing that you often do if I’m talking about a leadership concept is, you will help people understand the perspective.
Particularly from the finance world, I think that’s very unique when you provide a perspective of, “Hey, here’s what your CFO’s probably concerned about.” When you’re frustrated that you can’t run this thing up the chain, or they’re not vectoring the resources to get this thing that you think is important when we’re talking to a leader, and yet you’re having them see the world from other people’s perspective, and you do that not only from the business side, but as a parent, as a daughter. You talk about interaction with your parents, your kids, and how this applies on the home front as well. It’s super valuable, and that’s why I’m listening when you provide that perspective, because it’s always valuable and always helpful to me.
Sarah Armstrong (00:08:18):
Oh, well, thank you Leif. I think, again, a lot of that is just putting in all of this time. I’m an amateur learner regarding behavioral psychology, and I think I’ve picked up so many skills in that arena just from all of the opportunities that I’ve had to interact with people. Again, it’s that pattern recognition. It’s saying, “Okay, this person appears to be acting very angry,” and then being able to detach for a minute and say, “You know what? I actually think it’s coming from a place of fear. They’re not angry, they’re scared. So how can I interact and lead this person through this situation recognizing what’s really going on? What’s the root cause of what is manifesting is anger, but is most likely fear? They’re scared about something.” Maybe I’ve been fortunate enough to go through quite a few M&A, mergers and acquisitions activities in my career, and I am very, very sensitive to how information gets rolled out to employees because the minute they hear that their company was sold, they get scared.
They immediately will think, “Am I going to lose my job?” It’s just so important as a leader in an organization to be thinking multiple steps ahead about how people will likely receive information and what can you do to head things off at the pass so that they go away feeling really good about potential opportunities for career growth and not going home that night to maybe tell their spouse who might just have bought a new car, they might want to buy a new house, they go home that night and they’re like, “My company was sold. I don’t know if I’m going to have a job next week.” So that’s our responsibility as leaders to make sure that we’re always thinking a couple of steps ahead about how people will be receiving information.
Leif Babin (00:10:25):
That’s super valuable, and you’ve shared that with a number of leaders on Extreme Ownership Academy. I think what’s cool about that is having learned from experience, I think a lot of leaders, they don’t think about it that way. They’re saying, “Hey, this is awesome. Our company is sold. This is a great opportunity for everyone,” and they don’t see how it could be viewed in the negative. So they’re not even taking action for that contingency until you help them see that perspective. I think that’s the power of detachment. It’s the power of thinking strategically, one or two steps ahead as you talked about, instead of just getting caught blindsided by the fact that people now are worried about their jobs when you didn’t even anticipate that was an issue. So that kind of perspective, I think, is super valuable and that’s where that #SarahKnows comes from because I think people have taken that and run with it and realize, “Hey, this was powerful. This helped me prevent a bad situation from materializing before it even began.” That’s helped a lot of leaders solve problems, which is awesome.
Sarah Armstrong (00:11:19):
That’s a tremendous part of the value of the academy is that we’re discussing real-time events. I did a calculation as I was preparing for this talk today, and I started in the academy in April of 2020 right as COVID hit. So honestly, having even done 30 years of progressive corporate experience, nobody anticipated what changes were coming to the corporate world with COVID. So here we are able to discuss, what does work from home look like? How are we going to lead through this, and what is happening to our business financially?” And, “Hey, has anyone applied for a Paycheck Protection Act Loan? Can we help each other as leaders through some of these things?” Now two years later, having joined the academy and doing … I’m there three times a week, and three times a week for two years, that is about two full-time months of leadership training that I’ve had.
I could have easily wasted that time, an hour here, an hour there, scrolling social media, watching something silly on television, but instead, investing in learning more, learning how to be a better leader. The payback on that has been tremendous. The ROI on that investment for me, for my team, for my company, for my family has been tremendous. But now we’re talking about things like, “Okay, who has successfully been able to do the return to office, and what does that look like, and what are you hearing from your people?” As the leader, like I said, if you’re trying to anticipate three steps ahead, maybe somebody there is already three steps ahead, and they’ll share that information with you.
So I love the fact that it’s real time. We’ll have people talk about one thing if you read a lot about leadership is with your team, you always want to explain the why. We had someone last week who said, “Well, I told this employee, and I explained the why. He felt like he checked all the boxes of being a good leader.” The value of the interaction is you say, “Okay, well why don’t we peel that back a little bit?” When you explain the why were you explaining why it was good for say, the company as opposed to why it was good for the person? What does that really mean? Let’s dig a little bit deeper. I just love that because I’m always learning something and that I can take back and apply for myself and maybe help my team as well.
Leif Babin (00:14:16):
That’s awesome. We’re learning right there with you too, which is what I love about those sessions. Absolutely. Sarah, let-
Sarah Armstrong (00:14:22):
Discipline, we do talk about discipline a lot. The Latin root of discipline is pupil, student, learner. So that’s what we’re all doing to continue with being disciplined and in the good sense. Discipline’s a little bit of a tough word, especially if like me, you went to Catholic school, and if something went a little sideways, you had to see the disciplinarian. I’m being disciplined. It always had a little bit of a negative connotation to it, but the reality is that the discipline equals freedom is just so true in every aspect of your life. Those are the types of things we talk about weekly, and I personally just love it.
Leif Babin (00:15:07):
That’s great. Yeah. Disciple, the translation is learner, absolutely, so that’s-
Sarah Armstrong (00:15:13):
Right. Right.
Leif Babin (00:15:14):
As opposed to apostle, which is the sent ones. Those are cool things to dig into those root words and see where they come from.
Sarah Armstrong (00:15:21):
It is. It is fun. Like the word decision. What is something that makes someone an exceptional leader? It’s being good at making decisions, making the best decision you can with the information and timely. I’m a big advocate of timing, and the word decide actually means to cut off. If you make a decision, you’re actually cutting off all of the other things. That takes us back to one of the four laws of combat and leadership, which is prioritize and execute. So I’m going to be a good leader by making good, timely decisions, which means I’m going to cut off the things that don’t really matter, and I’m going to prioritize and execute on getting this thing done for my family or for my team.
Leif Babin (00:16:18):
Yeah, that’s outstanding. Great to think about where those things come from.
Sarah Armstrong (00:16:22):
Yeah. When you know the way broadly you see it in all things. We talk about that sometimes and that can be a blessing and a curse. So it’s so helpful to suddenly become self-aware. That’s the really important part of what Extreme Ownership is about, personal accountability, but also when you start realizing, “Okay, that person’s not taking ownership, that person’s not taking ownership,” that’s where some of those … you can get tripped up sometimes. We talked about that a little bit. When you are a student of Extreme Ownership, that you can sometimes go too fast at trying to share that message with others and occasionally have to dial that back a little bit, that people have to be ready for it and see the value of it. So there’s a good way to do that and then there’s a way to do that, that you can turn people off. That’s an important thing that we also talk about.
Leif Babin (00:17:21):
Effective and ineffective, absolutely. So your background and upbringing, I know your dad was a Marine and he served in the FBI.
Sarah Armstrong (00:17:28):
He was. Yes.
Leif Babin (00:17:29):
Let’s talk about how you were brought up, how you got to be where you are today. I just want to give our listeners some insight into that.
Sarah Armstrong (00:17:39):
Sure. Sure. Yeah. Well, I got a couple of great parents, so I recognized it right out of the gate. I’m very fortunate. My dad was in the Marine Corps, as you said; FBI, 32 years. He ran the organized crime and narcotics division of the Philadelphia FBI. My mother was our county sheriff, so that’s a very unusual thing, but-
Leif Babin (00:18:02):
I didn’t realize that. That’s amazing.
Sarah Armstrong (00:18:03):
Yeah, my mom was our county sheriff for eight years. She was actually the sixth female in our country’s history to be elected to sheriff at the time. This is going back, she’s actually, after she completed her term as sheriff, she ran for Court of Common Pleas. She’s been a judge up until just last year when she retired, and she’s close to 80 now. My parents are both retired, and I’ll give you some tips later, Leif, on how old Marines can be a little bit easier on their kids when they get older. But they’re great, they’re great parents. I’m very blessed, and I recognize that. But a lot of my formation, and this is something you don’t know, Leif, probably, is that I was a competitive figure skater growing up. I was very, very dedicated to that sport, and that, I think, was very formative in my discipline-
PART 1 OF 4 ENDS [00:19:04]
Sarah Armstrong (00:19:03):
… Was very formative in my discipline and what is today my leadership skills. I’ll never forget that, it’s going back 35 years now. I had a great coach and he said to me once, I was probably complaining about something. My laces were loose on my skates or the ice was too soft or something. And he said to me, “Sarah, it is a poor athlete who blames his equipment.” 35 years later, I still remember that. And that was the lesson of we don’t play the blame game, it’s you. You are accountable. It was the message of extreme ownership that I received as a young figure skater and I was quite dedicated to it. So I did go to the point where I went through what is the Olympic trials for the 88 games in Calgary and then after that stopped. So I didn’t make the Olympic team, went further than I expected.
It was a great experience. I was definitely kind of a free range kid. My mother had gone to law school and I started skating because she needed somewhere to park me after school in an after school program while she was going to law school. So she signed me up to take a bus to the ice rink when I was in third grade. Little did they know that would be so… That one really stuck with me and that certainly created a lot of discipline in my life. And the tip I would give to parents out there and I have a 28 year old and a 26 year old, is that getting your child involved in sports, some activity that they really, really love and especially one that has milestones to it, is so helpful informing them as a future adult. And an example of that is I will give anyone that is coming for, submits their resume for a job at our company that’s an Eagle Scout, automatic interview. You may or may not get the job, but you get an interview because just seeing Eagle Scout tells me that that is a person who has been dedicated to a goal over a period of time. So you know, see a kid that’s been in jujitsu, you see someone who has gone to a certain level in piano, whatever it is to… As a leader, when I see certain things on a resume, I’ll say they get an interview that that person has that grit. They’ve got that sticktuitiveness that sometimes it takes at work to really get through problems to be able to dig deep. So that’s a lot of my formation and some Catholic school thrown in their life. So you definitely learn some discipline there as well.
Leif Babin (00:21:51):
As a graduate of Catholic high school, I can certainly empathize there. It was a great program for me. I didn’t realize about your figure skater background though. That’s very cool. And I love the idea of that message from your coach of a poor athlete blames the equipment. Jocko often say that we didn’t have anything new. Everybody is eventually going to learn what works and what doesn’t work through experience in trial and error. And I think that even if you’re not using the term extreme ownership, that’s a hundred percent right. And when you realize, hey, people are just, as long as you’re going to cast blames ours are going to make excuses, you’re never going to actually take ownership of those problems, implement a solution to get those problems solved. And I think it applies everywhere. That’s why we say, the two measures that matter, effective and ineffective. So I think that’s a great example of that.
Sarah Armstrong (00:22:41):
So right though about you’re going to figure these things out and will if you’re dedicated to your craft. That being said, it’s kind of the lessons of Extreme Ownership, the things we talk about on the academy, it’s kind of like the difference between your car having a GPS or not. So I’m not sure if you started driving when there were no GPSs, right?
Leif Babin (00:23:07):
Sarah Armstrong (00:23:07):
Like if you think about driving and the equivalent of the path of leadership, yeah, you’re going to… Back in the day, no GPS, you could wind up at the wrong destination and you’d turn around and you’d say, okay, maybe I need to pull over and pull out a map. And ultimately you get there, maybe you’re late, maybe you’re haggard by the time you get there. And now with GPS in your car, the minute you make a wrong turn, it says rerouting.
And I think about that sometimes with the path of leadership. It’s like if you’re going in the wrong direction, wouldn’t you rather hear rerouting right at the beginning before you get all the way to the wrong destination. And that’s using the tools that the Echelon Front team teaches. It is your personal GPS to say, hey rerouting. Like that is the wrong, you are going in the wrong direction. You have to be open to receiving that message. If your GPS in your car says rerouting and you turn it off, well then you’re going to wind up at the wrong destination. So you have to be humble. You have to check your ego and say, I am going in the wrong direction and these people are willing to tell me and they are willing to help me get back on the path. So that’s another one of the real benefits of what your company offers to all of us.
Leif Babin (00:24:34):
Well, as I said, we’re learning from you as well. And I think that’s so awesome to me is the affirmation of this stuff actually works. I mean, we got a chance. When Jocko and I were both running training in the SEAL teams. We talk about that. That was the most incredible leadership laboratory to see different leaders to come through the same training and to see who actually succeeded and who failed. And you’re talking about putting them under very high pressure, difficult situations that’s outside of their comfort zone. And you can clearly see what works and what doesn’t work.
And so I think that’s what I love at Echelon Front is getting a chance to see that now is now in the civilian world, outside of the military, we have the best leadership laboratory in the world. Because we get to see this all over the place all the time. And one of the things that I love most about it is everybody thinks their problems are unique. I think that’s probably the biggest excuse that any of us give ourselves, right? Well, it’s harder for me than it is for other people and my problems are unique and well, that maybe doesn’t apply here. And when you realize, hey, everybody else has the same problems and yet they’re figuring out a way to implement solutions, it opens your mind, definitely.
Sarah Armstrong (00:25:42):
Right. We’re all athletes blaming our equipment at the end of the day. And the minute you start opening your eyes to that and saying, it’s probably not the fault of the ice, it’s probably not the fault of the laces in my skates, it’s probably something I’m doing wrong. So let’s figure that out and let’s fix it and let’s face it. I think that’s a hard thing for a lot of people to really face the fact that maybe they’re not living up to their best potential, that there’s so much more. And that’s the other thing about extreme ownership in the academy is that it teaches the framework, the structure and the vernacular for all of us to be able to communicate in a language that we can all understand. And I’ll give you an example. So you have an employee, for instance, that is not good at making decisions and you could bring them in and just say, “Hey, you really get stuck making decisions. You got to make decisions.”
Okay. Or you could bring that person in and say, “Hey, I want to teach you the OODA loop. I want to talk to you about this tool. And I’ve noticed that a lot of times you’re really good at observe and orient, but then you get stuck right here. So let’s talk about how we can get you to move through this OODA loop. And that sort of vernacular and being able to talk to someone, it changes the whole conversation from being accusatory direct and confrontational to being an indirect. It’s something that I can teach you. This is something you can get better at. It’s not a personality flaw that you have, it’s just a tool that you don’t have in your toolbox. So let me give you some more tools for your toolbox. So that’s another thing that I think about a lot with what we learn.
Leif Babin (00:27:37):
That’s outstanding. Talk to me, Sarah, about how you got to where you are today in your professional career. I mean, there’s a lot of people that have tremendous experience in the accounting world, but they don’t ever make it to the CFO position. What are the things that have enabled you to get promoted up the chain to be in a significant leadership position like that?
Sarah Armstrong (00:27:54):
So my accounting career, finance career is somewhat very typical of someone who studies accounting graduates with an accounting degree. I’m still a licensed CPA. I keep that license active. I did all the work to get it. I’m holding onto it. And if you were to look at my resume, it’s kind of a very standard, progressive career path for accountants. That being said, there was definitely a point in my career where I really recognized that something I had held onto pretty tightly for a long period of time was in fact not true. Which is probably the first maybe 10 years or so of my career. I’m in accounting, I’m in the finance department, maybe I’m overseeing some other kind of back office functions. But what I am not is I am not in sales. I’m not in sales, I don’t need to know about the product.
I don’t really need to know about what’s going on in the sales department except for reporting the numbers. And then all of a sudden I realized that is not true. If you really want to take your job and turn it into a career and really take yourself to the full potential of what you can do in your career is you really have to understand all aspects of your business. And that includes sales. So that doesn’t come to me naturally. It’s something that I recognized was missing in my tool toolbox. Better understanding the products that we sell, better understanding how we go to market, better understanding how a customer uses our products, understanding what challenges they might have. And is that challenge actually an opportunity.
If a customer says, “Hey, this is not compatible with this other thing.” All right, that I could look at that and say that’s a problem. Or I could say, “All right, how do we source and sell the product that bridges those two things?” So that’s one tip I would give to anyone out there that kind of likes to put up a wall between I’m in this department and you’re in that department. That might be true early in your career as you’re getting in just some experience in what your job is. But to get to the CFO level, you really have to understand sales, the product and the customer.
Leif Babin (00:30:25):
I think what’s really cool about that is we often say that the opposite of cover and move, our first law of combat cover and move. The team actually working together, putting the team and the mission first. And I summarize cover and move by saying, it’s not about you, it’s about the mission. But the opposite of cover and move is that’s not my job. And I think when people see that as I’m in a silo organization, I don’t do that. What enabled us to be successful in the battlefield was going and building relationships with the Marines and the soldiers who had a very different job than we did, but learning about what they do. I was never going to actually drive tanks in combat or manipulate a main gun on an M1 [inaudible 00:31:03]. But I need to understand how those things work so that I could better support them, so that they could better support us and I could better understand how to utilize them.
And I think that when you just open your mind up or it’s not just about me, it’s about all of us being successful here. And so the more that I can understand and know about what people do, I can work to help them and I can utilize them so that we can all be successful.
Sarah Armstrong (00:31:27):
Absolutely. Absolutely. And that takes some time to get to that realization. And also when you get to the CFO level is you’re in sales for yourself. You represent your company. So when I’m out talking to a group of people or an industry conference or anything, I’m selling us, what we could do for the customers. So you’re in our sales role, even though I don’t actually go out and try to sell the product and try to get a signature on the bottom line of the contract, I’m still in sales.
Leif Babin (00:32:07):
That’s outstanding. So I know the first time that I remember interacting with you was via Twitter. And I had launched a Twitter account shortly before we published Extreme Ownership in October of 2015. And Jocko at that point was viciously opposed to all social media. I think my wife, Jenna, and our now chief operating officer, Jamie Cochran, had dually created his Twitter and Instagram accounts unbeknownst to him at the time because he was so vehemently against it. But I remember interacting with you on Twitter and how you were promoting Extreme Ownership. You were talking about Extreme Ownership and how this stuff was implemented in your world. You were sharing it with other people and that was a really cool thing to be able to interact with you. But I’d love to know, where did you first encounter Extreme Ownership? Where did you first hear about what we do at Echelon Front? Do you remember the first moment that happened?
Sarah Armstrong (00:33:00):
I do. I’m a little bit of a podcast junkie and my husband was training for a half marathon. I’m not a runner, but I do like to go walking every day. So we had gone out. I said, “You run, I’m going to listen to a podcast.” And it was the Tim Ferriss podcast with Jocko. And I’m scrolling through and I thought, oh, this looks interesting. And I’m certainly very open to that sort of message with my parents for years teaching me discipline. And I’m very patriotic and I love our military. So I thought, okay, this’ll be interesting.
Well, I listened to the whole thing and my husband set me up with a Twitter account so that I could send Jocko a note. And I just said, “This is an important message that people need to hear. Thank you.” And that’s really what it is. I’ve never been someone to join master classes or do anything like that. I mean, I was working, I was raising children. So I’ve always been very busy. And so hearing that message though, I was like, this is very important for our youth, for people that want to live their lives to their fullest potential. The message just really, really resonated with me deeply. And so I’ve kind of been around since that time, listening and learning.
Leif Babin (00:34:28):
What message in particular resonated with you from that initial podcast?
Sarah Armstrong (00:34:33):
Discipline equals freedom. It’s that simple. It’s a Bible verse, the truth shall set you free. The sentence before it though is, but it’s going to be hard. So discipline equals freedom equals truth. The real truth, the things that really matter at the end of the day, as I’ve gotten older, it’s very easy to start cutting things out of your life that really aren’t that important. Material things, just things that aren’t that important. Maybe people that aren’t helping you achieve your goals and your mission. And so I think that message just really resonated with me being a wife, being a mother, being a friend, being a volunteer, being an employer, being an employee, all of it. It applies to everything I think is in a nutshell.
Leif Babin (00:35:32):
Yeah, that Bible verse is, people are so familiar. In fact, some people don’t even know that’s a Bible verse. The truth will set you free. But I believe-
Sarah Armstrong (00:35:39):
At first it’s going to hurt.
Leif Babin (00:35:40):
Well, the exact verse I believe, or to quote it is, “If you’re truly my disciples, then you will keep my commandments. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Which is exactly what you’re talking about. It’s going to take tremendous discipline to keep the commandments. And without discipline, you’re not going to be successful.
Sarah Armstrong (00:35:58):
But that’s everything, right? If you go to the gym and do burpees, you’ll get stronger. But the burpees aren’t easy. If you go to leadership training, you’re going to become a better leadership. But you might learn some hard things about yourself in the meantime that you got to fix. That’s okay. We’re all works in progress. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Leif Babin (00:36:16):
And I think for that discipline though, that’s one thing that I love about you. Every time we log in, and we usually do that three times a week on the Extreme Ownership Academy with those live Zoom calls, we’re putting out some information and we open it up for questions. And you’re on almost every single time. You’re on those things with very discipline. And I know it’s late for you when you’re in London and it’s late evening, I’m sure you could be going out to dinner, you could be doing other things.
Sarah Armstrong (00:36:45):
Or I could be watching television or I could be scrolling social media. And that’s the important thing. It’s an investment in myself. And that’s so important to me. And like I said, now I’ve put in two full- time months of two months of 40 hour weeks over the course of two years, becoming a better leader. It adds up. It’s a whole bunch of reps that I have that I wouldn’t have had if you hadn’t produced this product for us. I’m so thankful.
Leif Babin (00:37:18):
Well, I we’re thankful for you. And I think that’s such valuable perspective because I think a lot of people think of leadership as like, well, either you it or you don’t. Either have it or you don’t, born with it or you’re not. And I think we know that leadership’s a skill and it’s a skill that you have to learn and work on and develop all the time. And I think some people, even if they realize it’s a skill, they think, oh, I can just read a book and now I’m good to go. Or I can listen to a seminar or workshop, now I’m good to go. I can sit in a keynote presentation now I’m good to go and I can come to a muster now I’m good to go. And instead of the recognition of, you have to work on it all the time. It’s a skill, but you’re either going to improve that skill by working on it with discipline. And just working out, you’re not-
PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:38:04]
Leif Babin (00:38:03):
… that skill by working on it with discipline and just working out. You’re not going to show up to the gym one time and be in the best shape of your life. It’s going to take weeks and months and years of doing that, consistently three or four or five days a week, in order to be in really good shape and maintain that. And the moment that you stop going to the gym for several weeks, now all of a sudden you got to dig yourself out of that hole as well. So I think that’s the other thing about leadership being a skill, it’s perishable. If you’re not thinking about it all the time, then you’re not developing, you’re not growing, you’re not improving.
Sarah Armstrong (00:38:31):
Yep, and what you did mention is you can also plateau. Right? So it’s not just always about up or down. The real grind is, if you have a plateau and you’re trying and you’re trying and things don’t seem to be working and you have to keep reaching in and grabbing tools from the toolbox and maybe you just don’t have that one tool, you say, “I know I need a screwdriver to fix this problem, but I don’t have a Phillips head.” And that’s the kind of thing we’re learning every week. It’s like the discussion as I said about, I explained the why. Okay, so that was your screwdriver, I explained the why, that was the tool I used. And you’re like, “Yeah, but it’s a little bit different. It’s a little different. So let’s talk about that.” And this is why you need the Phillips head. You need to explain their why because that’s what matters to them.
You explaining your why or the company’s why or the team’s why, helpful but it might not elicit the response that you want. It might not compel that person to take the action that you want them to do. You have to, as you guys always say, build relationships. Right? If you really do a good job building relationships with people, you know their why, you know what will get them to take action. It usually comes down to something that’s good for them and their families. Right? So whatever it is that you’re trying to do, you have to figure out, from an honest direction, how can I communicate this so that this person understands that if everybody works the extra shift, it’s not just that the company can ship our product on time and we’re going to make money?
It’s that, “Oh, when the company makes money, we can fully fund the annual employee bonus program, which means that everyone here that puts in a little bit of extra time now will make their full bonus, or maybe they’ll get 110% of their bonus at the end of the year, which means that they can have a nice Christmas with their family.” So that sort of thing, you have to take it a little bit deeper most of the time. And I love the fact that we talk about those things, with these real-life situations. A lot of times it’s, “Hey listen, tomorrow I have to have a difficult conversation and here’s what has been going on. What sort of advice do you have for me so that I can help this person and also get them to do the thing that the team needs them to do?” So that’s the hard thing when you plateau as a leader and you’re just kind of throwing tools at a problem and you just really have to get some advice.
Leif Babin (00:41:16):
Yeah, I think that’s such great perspective, Sarah. What I love about that is… Jocko and I got asked shortly after we wrote Extreme Ownership, someone asked us a question, “When were you at your best?” Which I thought was a very puzzling question. Maybe they thought that from a “Hey look, I’ve never been in better shape than when I graduated BUD/S in our basic SEAL training program. That’s hard to replicate. That level of physicality, I probably won’t ever achieve that again as a 46-year-old. But the idea that like, “When am I at my best?” I’m never at my best, I’m always trying to learn. I’m always trying to get better all the time.
I think it’s only when you feel like you’ve got it all figured out, that when you get there and your vision going to encounter something, as we said, be humble or get humbled. I mean that’s the biggest lesson that I probably learned through my combat experience is, it was incredibly humbling. The things that I thought I was prepared for that I thought we were totally good to go on, and I realized just how hard combat actually was and how much more preparation we needed to do. Which is why when as Jocko and I came back and ran training, we really implemented that for the next generation of leaders.
What I love about what we do now at Echelon Front is that you get to interact with so many leaders and we see the people that are encountering an issue and they’re trying to use the tool… We talked about Extreme Ownership or explain the why, but what I love about the academy and those live sessions is being able to refine that so that we can really understand the problem. Because at the end of the day, there’s what works and there’s what doesn’t work, and we can help them solve that effectively. And you do an amazing job of even just replying to people’s questions in the chat, and then in person, actually giving people some insight that I think can make those really find adjustments to the tool that people are using so that they can actually get those problems solved.
Sarah Armstrong (00:43:09):
Well, it’s also certainly a lot of fun. I mean that’s the other thing about the academy, is that it’s a great group of people. I would say, I mean you used the phrase like-minded thinkers, but not that we think alike in our beliefs or anything like that, what we are like- minded about is that we realize that leadership is a skill that can be taught. We are all there giving our best selves to try to help each other and to provide advice and to really get as far as we can get on the path of leadership. So that’s the really nice thing. It’s such a diverse group. I mean it’s just great to see how many different people are on there. You’ve got CEOs, you’ve got solo entrepreneurs on there, men, women, people at all different phases of their career, some young folks, some older folks. It’s just such a diverse group of people from all different industries. It’s really quite something that you’ve put together.
Leif Babin (00:44:16):
We got a unique group of people from around the world as well that are on from Asia or the Middle East or Africa or Europe. I mean we got people in Australia, they’re waking up at four o’clock in the morning to be on those calls, and the people that are super late in Europe or Asia as well to be a part of the live sessions as well.
The reward for me, what I love most is when… The real reward for me is when I see those situation reports that you’re talking about, sitrep as we would call in the military, which just stands for situation report. And when someone’s posting, “Hey, this problem that we talked about two weeks ago, I implemented the solution, we made the adjustments. I was having some issues with it, and now we got this problem solved. I’m able to build better relationships. I’m able to move forward and be successful. I’m able to get the team on board with this new direction or strategy. I’m able to get the resources vector that we needed to actually open up these opportunities and move in the right direction for our team to be successful.” When this stuff works, hashtag is used in the Zoom chat, it’s just phenomenal to see. Because it’s very rewarding to see how so many different leaders and so many different walks of life are implementing that stuff and making a difference. It’s awesome.
Sarah Armstrong (00:45:33):
My favorites are always the ones where someone says, “I did this. I need to fix this problem.” They get the advice that they need and they come back with their situation report and they say, “I took accountability. I said I was sorry and that it was my fault, and here’s what I was going to do to fix it. And nobody thought less of me.” And they’re always surprised, that saying, “You know what? I messed up here. This was my fault and I’m going to fix this.”
It’s just so great to see people realize that, hey, we all make mistakes. But we also know when someone’s blaming something that’s probably really that person’s fault actually and they’re blaming something else. So I just love those in particular where suddenly, their eyes are fully open to the fact that Extreme Ownership works and saying, “I can do better. I made that mistake and I’m going to fix it. It’s not going to happen again.” I love the fact that they’re just so surprised like, “This stuff works.” Yeah, it does. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. You just own it and you fix it and you move forward.
Leif Babin (00:46:47):
It’s awesome to see that stuff. And I think people, it’s a constant struggle though. Jamie talks about the barriers to Extreme Ownership and how people are so scared that they’ll lose respect for me. If I take ownership, then when you ask them the question, “Okay, well, who do you have more respect for someone, the person who’s casting blame and making excuses and saying it wasn’t their fault, or the person who actually takes ownership of that problem and explains the solution they’re going to implement going forward?” Of course everyone knows that you gain respect for the person that actually takes ownership. That, to me… Even trust, you can build trust. That’s always a perplexing one of people. This bad thing happened, but if I take ownership of this and explain the solution that we’re implementing going forward to make sure it doesn’t happen again, I can actually build trust with the people around me. I can build trust with my boss. I can build trust with a client or a customer. I could build trust with my team because they know that we’re going to get that problem solved going forward.
Sarah Armstrong (00:47:42):
The concept of leadership capital is something that we talk about a lot. And I really like the way that has been described in that it’s almost like a bank account. As you build relationships, you’re constantly putting deposits into your leadership capital account. And then when you do something that’s not great as a leader, that takes a little bit out. If you don’t communicate a change in someone’s benefits, if you don’t do a good job explaining what post-merger something’s going to look like for your employees, those are the withdrawals from your leadership capital account.
I think that is so helpful, especially for young leaders to start almost visualizing it that way, that I’m putting deposits, deposits, deposits. And even if something goes wrong, it’s not necessarily a withdrawal from your leadership capital account. As you just said, if something’s not going right as the leader and you say, “Guys, I messed that up. I’m sorry. You did send that email, I missed it. That was my mistake. I’m sorry I asked for that again,” that’s not necessarily withdrawal. They’ll say, “Oh, don’t worry about it. I know you get 300 emails a day. It’s easy to miss stuff.” But I do just love that concept.
We were talking about that one day and someone said, “Well, how do you know your balance in your account?” In your bank account, you can look and say, “Okay, I’ve got a hundred dollars,” or, “Oh, I bounced a check.” I said, “Well, the way I like to think about it is caller ID.” I said, “So if someone calls you and their name pops up on your cell phone, how do you feel about taking that person’s call? Are you like, ‘Oh, not him send a voicemail?’ Or you’re like, ‘Oh cool, Leif’s calling. This is awesome.'” That’s how you can tell your balance. Are you in the positive or are you in the negative? Are you making deposits, you making withdrawals? If you’re constantly being sent to voicemail by people, you might want to reassess how you’re treating your team.
Leif Babin (00:49:43):
You said that a while back on a live session, and it was very humbling for me to think about it. I’m like, “Oh, interesting.” I need to think about that because it is, that’s something you’ve got to think about. You got to… I love to talk to people. I love to ask how people’s families are doing and catch up with people. I know people on my team are busy, so it helped me think like, “Okay, I need to be a little more efficient with my time when I talk to people, so I’m not tying up people that are trying to do 35 things and get that done, and I’m not tying up a bunch of their time with needless small talk,” which doesn’t mean that… It’s great to build relationships with people, it’s great to ask about their families, but just to be conscious of their time is really important, for sure. So that was a great perspective, very humbling for me to consider that as well when you shared it.
Sarah Armstrong (00:50:35):
I won’t send you to voicemail, I promise. Well, so then as a leader, if we discuss that on the academy, we would get some feedback in the chat that would say, “Hey, next time you call, just start the conversation with, ‘Hey, how much time do you have to talk?'” And if they say, “Listen, I’m swamped today, I got two minutes,” and then you say, “All right, I’m just hitting you with what I need.” If they say, “Oh, I’m not busy at all, it’s actually a great day. I’m actually out taking a walk, so what’s up?”
So those are the kinds of things where we really dig in when someone says, “I’m challenged when… I feel like sometimes people… I talk too much or whatever,” and then you say, “All right, well, here’s how to fix it. Here’s the tool for your toolkit here. I got one for you. So that’s really the fun thing about it, is that there’s always someone. Because you’re coming at it from a detached perspective, I’m not the one that feels that way so it’s easy for me to just kind of say, “Okay, well, here’s something you could try, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll try something different. But here’s something you can try the next time, and report back with a sitrep.” And that’s what’s so much fun about the whole interaction.
Leif Babin (00:51:49):
That perspective is so valuable too, seeing it from others’ perspective, what they’re thinking. And also from Extreme Ownership, you can also take ownership of that situation. If you’re calling me and I’ve got to jump on a Zoom call with a client 10 minutes from now, then I need to say, “Listen, Sarah, I got eight minutes. What do you got?” So right out the bat you don’t think I’m being rude when I have to cut you off eight minutes from now. And I think that’s something that is very valuable that some of us fail to do that, because you feel like, “Hey, you don’t actually know what my schedule is and so I can’t assume that you do and I need to be open about that.” And that’s something that you can take ownership of as well, I think, to help solve some of those problems.
Sarah Armstrong (00:52:32):
That’s a great point. There you go. So these are the types of things we do on a weekly basis. We have these interactions that are so much fun and say, “Yeah, that’s a great point. I hadn’t thought about that.” I’m the one that should say, “Hey, I would love to chit chat because I’m out taking a walk. It’s my lunchtime and it’s a great time for us to catch up, up,” or not.
Leif Babin (00:52:54):
Absolutely. You talked about the investment in yourself and how that’s paid certain dividends. You talked about it both professionally and personally. Can you talk about where you’ve seen in your life the impact of Extreme Ownership and the laws of combat and the leadership principles that we teach at Echelon Front?
Sarah Armstrong (00:53:12):
Absolutely. There’s certainly a few tools that I pull out of the toolkit a lot. There’s some that I use occasionally and some that I use daily. And I find that all the tools have been helpful in all aspects of my life, my relationship with my children. They’re both graduated, they’re out in the working world, so I’m able to use a lot of what we talk about at Extreme Ownership to help them in their career, challenges that they’re having. As a matter of fact, just yesterday, my daughter was explaining the situation and I used the famous Leif Babin quote. I said, “Just try to focus on what winning looks like here. If you’re going to have a conversation with your boss, first of all, does it have to happen today?” As I said earlier, I’m a big fan of timing. I said, “Is today the day? Because you seem a little wound up, so maybe tomorrow, tomorrow might be better. And really focus on what winning is going to look like.” She called me back a day later and she was like, “That was so helpful.” I was a little spun up.
So it has certainly helped me with coaching my children, my relationship with them. I’m really fortunate. My husband’s just a great guy. He’s also completely bought into Extreme Ownership. I’ve told you before, a lot of the reason that I’m currently living in London is because my husband, at his company, he rolled out Extreme Ownership to his team. It was incredibly well received and he was actually recognized as his company’s outstanding leader of the year. He got an award for that. And through that, he was recognized as someone that really should be doing other things for the company. And before you know it, I’m living in London for a few years. So I’m very fortunate that he’s also a student of Extreme Ownership, and that’s certainly quite helpful.
But it’s helped me personally quite a bit. I’ll give you a quick example. When we first moved here to London, as people may know, cars come from the other direction, and it’s very scary to me, especially when we first moved here. There’s something about the timing of crossing the street. So muscle memory, I’ve always looked the same way to across the street. But my husband’s very comfortable with it. A lot of times he goes and I’m like, “Nope, I’m not. I’m going to stand here.” So we’re literally on the two separate sidewalks, and I’m looking at him like, “What? That’s how you get killed. That’s how you get killed. You move to a foreign country and get killed.” I kept saying, “You should not have crossed, you’re going to get hit by a car.”
And then one day I realized I’m not taking any ownership of my feelings here. I said to him, “When you do that, I get really scared. I get really fright…” Because he would be like, “I’m not going to get hit. I know how to cross the street. I’m 52, I’m good. I have no issue with the cars.” And I realize it’s me, it’s not him. It has nothing to do with his ability to cross the street. It has to do with the fact that it really frightens me because I don’t feel capable yet of doing it. I mean I know how to cross the street, but it is a little disconcerting at first because cars seem to come from everywhere. But that sort of thing to just be like, “Oh…” For me to recognize that it’s not him, he’s not making a mistake, I’m not owning my own feelings about this, has been really wonderful.
And there’s been other times where I’ve come down and just been kind of like off and I’ll say, “You know what? I got to go upstairs and get myself sorted. I’m going to come down and I’m going to try this again because I’m not taking ownership of anything that’s going on here right now and-
PART 3 OF 4 ENDS [00:57:04]
Sarah Armstrong (00:57:03):
I’m not taking ownership of anything that’s going on here right now and clearly I’m not in the right head space. So personally, it’s made a lot of difference as well, and certainly at work. It’s been wonderful because a few of my coworkers have attended the Women’s Assembly. So, it’s been great that Jamie has started this program, which is essentially Extreme Ownership Academy, which is a women’s assembly and some of the women have joined in on those as well. And so, now we also have more vernacular to share and talk about things like decision making and prioritize and execute. So just really across the board, it’s been very additive to my life.
Leif Babin (00:57:44):
That’s awesome to hear. There were a number of ladies that were at our last muster who were there as a direct result of the Women’s Assembly and hearing Jamie and hearing you and all those leadership lessons that are being learned. I think they would’ve looked at me and Jocko and said, “Hey, these guys are meat heads and they’re SEALs. How does that really apply to me?” And so I think that’s such an amazing thing to reach a whole group of lady leaders out there, female leaders that are actually making a difference, implementing this stuff and leading and being successful in what they’re doing.
What you’re talking about on the home front is so important too. By the way, having walked around in places like England and Japan, other places where they drive on the opposite side of the road, we’re pre-programmed to look left, but before you step off the sidewalk. When you do that like you do in America, you’re going to get mowed over. I’ve had a couple close calls, so I know exactly what you’re talking about.
Sarah Armstrong (00:58:42):
Yeah, so have I. Yeah.
Leif Babin (00:58:42):
But I think taking ownership of, “Hey, your husband is a mind reader,” he doesn’t understand how much of a concern this is to you. That’s such a hard thing to do because when it comes to our kids, when it comes to our spouse, when it comes to our siblings or our parents, the people that we’re closest to, we have this deep emotional connection with, it’s so much harder to detach emotionally from those situations. And yet, it’s also most important because these are the people that matter most in our lives. You have to be able to learn to do that. It’s a hard thing for me. It’s a hard thing for so many people to do, but it’s a really valuable point I think to share with people.
Sarah Armstrong (00:59:25):
Yeah. I think we can exacerbate it by thinking, ” Well, if you really loved me, you’d know what I was thinking.” Well that’s not fair, right? And yet, there’s often kind of that underlying current. It’s like, “I’m definitely not a mind reader. Sure, I know how you like your coffee. Sure, I know most everything about you, but maybe today you feel a little bit differently about something,” and that’s why it’s just so important. No, we are not mind readers.
I actually give that sort of feedback to people a lot that they just assume that someone else is thinking a certain way, they have an opinion about you, whatever it is. And I say, “No, you really have to communicate. You have to talk effectively.”
So, you’re right. I mean it’s all the stuff we accomplish at work is wonderful and very additive to our lives, but at the end of the day, it’s really your family, your close friends, your community, right? Bloom where you’re planted. I’m currently planted here. I can take care of what’s right outside here. I can take care of my family.
When you said just a little bit ago the question of what was it? When were you at your best? Right? I became at my best when I realized that my children love each other, each other. That to me was a big transition point in my life because we are all going to die one day and that’ll be the end of me. But knowing that I’ve created a life for my kids and each other and their relationship, that they will be there for each other after I’m gone, that was the moment that I realized I was at my best, leading them, leading my family and teaching them all the things that I can. So, that’s really winning.
Leif Babin (01:01:28):
That’s a great strategic perspective of what winning looks like. I know you’ve got some great kids. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting your daughter, but I certainly met your son, Steven, that you brought to muster with you. Was it DC?
Sarah Armstrong (01:01:40):
I did. It was wonderful. DC-
Leif Babin (01:01:42):
Yeah. Back in the day.
Sarah Armstrong (01:01:42):
… and the timing was perfect. So, he was a rising senior in college at the time. And so, he’s a junior and he’s always gotten this sort of message from me and my husband his whole life. But suddenly to hear it from someone else, to all the GI Joe’s up on stage at the time, telling him the same thing that mom and dad have taught him for 18 years, 19 years at that point, it was so effective. It was just great. Yeah, I mean they’re really thriving and they are certainly also students of Extreme Ownership and I do dial back at times about Jocko says, Leif says, whatever. So, you always get credit, but it’s, “What does winning look like here?” So it really gets them in the same sort of mindset of being able to detach from their problems and realize that the emotionally satisfying outburst is never helpful. It’s never going to move the needle on improving a situation. Those are the types of things that through Extreme Ownership, we can teach our children. That’s the ultimate end game.
Leif Babin (01:03:00):
Well, the real credit to us and the real measure of our effectiveness we’ve always said is when people are doing this stuff themselves and they’re not really even thinking about where it came from. Maybe they don’t even remember. So I don’t certainly need any credit for that. I learned that from others. But I think the lesson you shared with your daughter about having her detach and think strategically about what winning looks like before she goes in and has what could potentially be an emotional conversation with the boss and burn some bridges. You don’t want have to learn those lessons firsthand, to experience that, “Hey, that’s not a good thing to do. That’s not going to help me in the long run.”
So that’s a testament to your leadership as a mom, Sarah, that you’ve raised great kids and the fact that they’re willing to listen and learn from you. You’re taking that indirect approach as well because I think when people start to bash folks over the head with, “Jocko said this,” or, “Leif said that,” or, “Here’s what I read here,” or, “Here’s what I learned on the podcast.” That turns the people off. You can certainly get a little too aggressive with that and cause some issues. Our goal is that you take these things and share them with people so that it’s effective and you do an amazing job of that.
Sarah Armstrong (01:04:07):
You have to meet people where they are. You really do. It’s very, very difficult to get someone to do something that you want them to do if they don’t. And so, you have to meet them where they are. That might mean just giving them a little bit or really just modeling the behavior yourself and ultimately someone says, “That person seems to have things going in the right direction. I wonder what they’re doing. I could talk with them about that.” And you could just say, “Hey, here’s a book. You want to read it? You want to talk about it? Maybe you don’t want to read the book and I’ll just kind of go over a few of the things with you. You want to join me for one of the Academy and see what it’s all about and see if that’s something you’re interested in joining?” There’s lots of ways to meet people where they are and bashing them over the head with Extreme Ownership is often not the right approach.
Leif Babin (01:04:59):
That direct approach, as we talked about, is usually the wrong approach. Are there leadership principles that you’ve tried to implement that have been unsuccessful or you had to make adjustments on or you had to back off or take a more indirect approach on? Is there anything that comes to mind?
Sarah Armstrong (01:05:22):
Nothing right away. I want to clarify something about direct and indirect is that I’m often very direct in my choice of words. That’s not what we mean when we’re talking about direct and indirect. The direct approach that we talk about a lot of times is that confrontational approach of like, “Hey, you’re not good at making decisions.” You immediately put people back on their heels when you go direct at people that way. The indirect approach being, “Hey, I’d like to help you because I want to teach you this OODA loop skill because it really helped me because I often found myself not being able to take action. I got stuck on that part of the OODA loop. So let me explain that to you.” That’s the indirect approach that we’re talking about.
That takes time because a lot of times people confuse direct as I’m very direct because I’m very clear. I’m telling you what’s on my mind. You don’t have to guess what I’m thinking. “Oh okay, you’re really coming at me with that,” is how people can take that a lot of times. And so, you want to be clear and precise with your language. You want to directly pick the words and not confuse people about what the outcome that you need, but you have to do it in a way that gets buy in. That’s the big difference, how to approach someone so that you get their buy in to what ultimately needs to be accomplished.
Leif Babin (01:07:04):
You’ve asked some great questions around this for some clarification on our Extreme Ownership live sessions on the Academy. I think it’s something that needs clarification because people, they think of direct as like, “Well I told the truth and that’s great.” And yet as Jocko says, “What good is the truth if nobody’s willing to listen?” I think I can bash you over the head with the truth to say, “Hey, you’re not good at doing this,” or “Hey, you screwed this thing up,” and all that’s going to do is make you defensive, create a rift in our relationship, cause issues.
Whereas the indirect approach, then people think of that as like, “Well you’re not telling the truth. You’re not actually being truthful to people.” That’s not what we mean at all by that. I think the terms you used for this was direct means confrontational. That’s how we’re using it, right? And so if I’m confrontational with you, we’re causing frictions where it’s me versus you. That’s not going to be good for anyone. We can’t move forward together and mutually support each other to accomplish our mission and win. That’s going to cause all kinds of problems. So, that’s almost never the right approach to take.
Then the indirect approach, we don’t mean not being truthful, we just mean, I think the word you used was inquisitive or asking questions. We always talk about asking earnest questions, which is a question that I really actually want the answers to. You gave an example of using a question that I’ve often asked, which is, “What does winning looks like? What does winning look like in this situation?” What you’re doing is letting someone reveal the truth to themselves, rather than you coming at them with a cold hard truth as if it’s like a hammer that you can hit them over the head with.
And so, when you ask a question where people are revealing the truth to themselves, you’re just trying to shine a mirror back at them so they can kind of see what that looks like for themselves. And so for your daughter to realize, “What does winning look like? Well it’s not going in and having a confrontation with the boss. That’s for sure not going to help me out. So let’s think what we actually want to do. We want to build a better relationship. Okay. How do we do that? We need to deescalate and here’s a better approach maybe to take.” I think asking those questions, it leads you to the better outcome.
Oftentimes people go direct because they think that’s more efficient and yet it’s far less efficient because I have to dig myself out of a hole, do a bunch of damage control to rebuild our relationship. Whereas if I take the indirect method, ask the questions, you come to the conclusion yourself, then it’s your plan. You got ownership of that plan and you can go implement the solution to get that done and make the changes necessary to be successful. So I think how you define that is a great way of, by direct what we mean is confrontational. That’s not a good call. Indirect, we mean by being inquisitive, asking earnest questions so that people can reveal the truth to themselves.
Sarah Armstrong (01:09:47):
Yeah, and tying it all back with the leadership capital discussion, you almost have to envision every time you bang one of your employees with the hammer of truth, that’s a withdrawal from your leadership capital account. You should almost hear that ching, ching, ching as you’re spending all of your leadership capital when you do that to one of your people. And how would you like that? I mean, as you start to grow in your leadership journey, when you think about how you’re treating people, it really is, “Would I want someone to talk to me that way or would it be better for them to mentor me, to help me to give me a tool to use?”
That’s really the approach that has allowed me to have the career path that I’ve had. I’ve never been worried about someone replacing me. I’ve always been helping someone to replace me because, and I have said this before, if you’re irreplaceable, you’re unpromotable. I have to help people in order for me to be free to go do the next interesting thing. So it all ties together. It’s very interesting as you really get into the study of leadership, how these things all relate to one another. It’s fascinating to me.
Leif Babin (01:11:08):
What I love most about this too is that a lot of people that come to us, whether it’s coming to a muster or coming to one of our field training exercise program, these in-person training events or a keynote that someone comes up after, talk about a question that they have or through the Extreme Ownership Academy, when they’re engaging with us and asking these questions, people often feel like they’re in an impossible position. And that this is, “I’m at an impasse. I don’t know what to do. I can’t get this person on board with the new strategy. I can’t get my boss to listen to me to go in this direction that I know that we need to go in to be successful.”
When you realize that all of these problems, they’re ultimate leadership problems, leadership is the solution to these problems. That’s what I love. When you can reveal to people, when they can detach from that, the emotional reaction and they realize, “Hey, there is a solution to this problem.” And then when they go and implement, we’re talking to the problem with them, we kind of understand, we give some recommendations on how to actually go and implement that solution. Then when they come back and they say, “This stuff works.” I mean, that to me is the most rewarding thing that could possibly happen. They were at this impossible place and they realized, “I got that problem solved through leadership,” and now their minds are open and they’re willing to learn more because they realize, “I can solve other problems through leadership as well. There is an actual solution to these problems.”
Sarah Armstrong (01:12:34):
And we’re all cheering for them. It’s great on the Academy and people will say like, “Hey, how’d that conversation go? I know you said you were going to have that tough conversation,” and we’re all cheering for each other. That’s great when you lose that scarcity mindset that there’s a limited or a finite amount of success in the world and that someone being successful doesn’t mean that someone else is not successful and to just be able to say, “All right, we’re all on this journey together and it’s a lot more fun to go on a ride with friends and here we are all. We’re going to take turns driving.” It’s just such a wonderful thing to see so many, like I said, like-minded in that we’re supporting each other on this journey of leadership and ultimately being the best that we can be in all aspects of our lives.
Leif Babin (01:13:32):
Any final thoughts that you want to share before we close this thing out?
Sarah Armstrong (01:13:38):
Leif, I really just want to thank you and the entire team for the important work you’re doing and sharing all these lessons that you all learned in very, very challenging situations. I also want to thank you all for your service to our country and just keep up the great work. It’s important work and I’m personally very thankful.
Leif Babin (01:13:59):
Well, thank you so much, Sarah. I want to thank you. I mean, this is the reason we do this and we’re inspired by leaders like you. As I said, when you talk, we listen because we have tremendous respect and admiration for you, for your leadership experience and for the success that you’ve generated through implementing these principles. It’s been so awesome to have engaged with you on Twitter in seven years ago and then met you at muster, follow on that and then continue to connect with you and stay in touch with you, and the fact that we get to, even you’re all the way across the Atlantic Ocean from us in London here, but I get to see you every week, Extreme Ownership Academy, is outstanding.
I get to learn from you as well. I mean, I can’t thank you enough for how you have taken and spread the knowledge of what we do, shared it with other people and talked about the lessons that you learned and how that’s helped other people. It’s helped me. I learn from you every day. So thank you so much for all that you do. We appreciate your friendship and we appreciate your leadership and it’s an honor to have you on. You inspired this podcast to come about. So, thanks for making it happen and we wouldn’t be here without you. Really appreciate it.
Sarah Armstrong (01:15:08):
Well, it’s great to be with you. It’s great to see your beautiful family and everything that you’re doing and every day’s a school day. So I’ll see you on the Academy.
Leif Babin (01:15:19):
Looking forward to it. Thanks Sarah.
Sarah Armstrong (01:15:23):
Thanks, Leif.

Leif Babin

Leif Babin

President & Co-Founder of Echelon Front

Leif Babin, a former U.S. Navy SEAL officer, is the President and co-founder of Echelon Front LLC, a leadership consulting firm. Leif is the co-author, alongside Jocko Willink, of the New York Times bestsellers, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win, and the Dichotomy of Leadership: Balancing the Challenges of Extreme Ownership to Lead and Win. Echelon Front teaches the principles of Extreme Ownership and the Dichotomy of Leadership to help leaders apply them in their world to solve problems, accomplish their goals, and achieve victory in business and life.

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