There is no better path to success as a misdemeanor prosecutor than to take “extreme ownership” of every case, situation, or trial that comes your way.
Fully owning absolutely everything in our sphere of responsibility (including any failure, miscommunication, or shortcoming) is a mentality that is vital to good leadership—leadership that yields results.
This is the crux of the argument made in Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s book Extreme Ownership: How Navy SEALS Lead and Win, in which those two experienced Navy SEAL combat leaders lay out 12 leadership principles that are both applicable and essential to sustained success as a misdemeanor prosecutor.
Willink and Babin led groups of U.S. Navy SEALS in their historic 2006 combat deployment to Al Ramadi—a mission that established security in the most dangerous city in Iraq and ultimately paved the way for the United States to succeed. They learned many of the principles in Extreme Ownership in the middle of highly volatile situations in which good leadership quite literally meant the difference between life and death.
The principles at play in the battlefield directly translate to a courtroom or prosecutor’s office. As co-author Leif Babin puts it, “Combat leadership requires getting a diverse team of people in various groups to execute highly complex missions in order to achieve strategic goals—something that directly correlates with any company or organization.” As a misdemeanor prosecutor, good leadership can mean the difference between winning and losing; getting the best outcome for a plea or getting a mediocre outcome; fearlessly seeing that justice is done or crumpling under pressure. And as we all know, sometimes what happens in the courtroom can have life-or-death consequences.
Misdemeanor prosecutors may not believe we can be leaders. If you’re not a chief or a supervisor, how can you be expected to lead? I challenge you to broaden your idea of leadership. Start by practicing just one principle of “extreme ownership.” While all principles in the book are important (there are no bad teams, only bad leaders, for example, and leaders must be true believers in the mission), one of the 12 stood out as particularly applicable to misdemeanor prosecutors: leading up and down the chain of command.
This can be summed up in one directive: Own everything in your world. I’ll explain in a couple of examples.
1) Lead up the chain of command. Let’s say your supervisor criticizes a decision you made and you complain that he “just doesn’t understand.” Most of us would just roll our eyes and stop there. But if you want to be an effective leader, you need to acknowledge that it was your responsibility to keep the boss in the loop regarding the circumstances of your decision and the thought process behind it.
In this situation, your first thought should be, “How could I have better communicated, clarified, or educated?” instead of blaming your boss, judge, or court chief for his supposed ignorance. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking of them as the infamous they—that only leads to discontentment and subordination. We’re a team, and we must treat our teammates with respect. Have enough respect for your supervisor to push situational awareness up the chain of command. Make sure those who have authority over you understand the strategic impact of your decisions. Use your influence, experience, knowledge, and communication skills while maintaining the highest professionalism.
2) Lead down the chain of command. Sure, you may not have someone who directly reports to you, but apply this principle more broadly to your other business relationships. For example, it’s tempting to blame an officer if he testifies poorly and it costs you a trial. It’s easy to write him off and move on, but a good leader doesn’t always do what’s easy.
If you’re upset that the officer did not testify well, consider how you could’ve communicated your expectations more clearly and why you have those expectations. Did you explain to the officer his importance to the success of the case or how his role contributes to the bigger picture? What about why you wanted to ask certain questions on the stand but not others? Could you have called him ahead of time or gone down to the station to meet with him personally? If you make yourself available and communicate the bigger picture early on, he will likely take more time to review his report and talk through any questions or concerns with you ahead of time. It is your responsibility to open and maintain the lines of communication while clearly and concisely explaining what your mission is and why it is important. The same principle applies to other witnesses, investigators, court partners, and support staff.
And that’s just one of the leadership principles we should practice. It’s astonishing to see how nearly all of our problems boil down to lack of good leadership. The solution is simple but not intuitive or easy, and it requires work and intention. As misdemeanor prosecutors, we should take extreme ownership of everything in our world, which can launch us from good employees to great leaders.
Extreme Ownership: How Navy SEALS Lead and Win by Jacko Willink and Leif Babin, St. Martin’s Press, 2015