Jocko Willink: Why all your problems are leadership problems (and what to do about it)

I was talking to a potential client on a conference call a few years ago. They were a medium-sized company with about hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue each year. It was the CEO, the COO, the CFO, the CHRO, and a few other leaders on the line. They were explaining to me the problems they were facing in their company.

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“Our business units do not mind their P&Ls — half of them are barely profitable and several of them are actually losing money,” said the CFO.

“We have processes that are being used on the front lines that make no sense,” added the COO.

“Some of our people are in positions that they shouldn’t be,” the CHRO chimed in.

Then the CEO said, “On top of all that, we have middle management here that don’t understand the vision of the company. It’s ridiculous.”

I didn’t respond, in case there were any additional complaints that someone wanted to voice. The phone was quiet for a few moments until the CEO finally said, “Well what do you think, Jocko? We have so many problems. Where do you think we should start?”

I took a breath. “Well,” I told them all, “You don’t have multiple problems. In fact you only have one problem—and that is leadership. All your problems are leadership problems.

"Business units not paying attention to their P&Ls? That means you have leaders at your business units not prioritizing expenses versus income. Processes that don’t make sense? That means you have leaders that aren’t developing and implementing good processes.

"People in positions that they shouldn’t be in? That means leaders aren’t having tough conversations and making hard decisions when it comes to personnel. And midlevel managers that don’t understand the vision of the company? That means that all of you, the leaders on this conference call, are not leading; you all are not conveying the vision of the company in a way that the midlevel managers—and everyone else in this company—can understand.

And if you want to fix these problems, you won’t fix them by just looking at spreadsheets or doing time-studies on processes. A manpower analysis won’t put people in the right positions. And the company vision will not be understood and embraced by the troops through a mass-email. What you need to do — what all of you need to do — is lead.

“And if you want to fix these problems, you won’t fix them by just looking at spreadsheets or doing time-studies on processes. A manpower analysis won’t put people in the right positions. And the company vision will not be understood and embraced by the troops through a mass-email. What you need to do — what all of you need to do — is lead,” I said.

There was silence on the other end of  the conference call. I was wondering if I had been a bit too straightforward. The truth can sting when it hits close to home.

Finally, the COO spoke up, “Jocko, I’m not sure you really unders—”

“Actually, I’m not sure you understand,” the CEO cut off the COO, “Jocko is right. Every one of these problems need to be fixed through leadership. And yes … that means us.”

The CEO continued on, offering some ideas of where to start and changes they could implement quickly. With that, the conversation was open — and their minds were open as well.

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I spent the next few months working with the executive leadership team to help them develop strategies and tactics to align their leadership and thereby, the entire company.

And they made rapid progress in correcting their problems, once they recognized the simple truth that all problems in any organization are leadership problems.

Jocko Willink is a Retired Navy SEAL Officer, author of Extreme Ownership, Discipline Equals Freedom Field Manual, The Dichotomy of Leadership, Mikey and the Dragons, and the Way of the Warrior Kid series, and hosts the top-rated podcast: Jocko Podcast. He is the CEO of Echelon Front, the world’s premier leadership consultancy. Twitter: @jockowillink Instagram: @jockowillink Facebook: @jockowillink