🧠 #108: Extreme Ownership

This week, I faced an Extreme Ownership opportunity. Would I protect myself and my team, and make clear what was not our fault, or would I own the situation and focus on fixing it?

These weekly updates share life with OCD as part of my Mental Work Health project to reduce stigma around mental health, especially at work.

As with any sufficiently complicated software, the team I manage is responsible for a small portion of our overall application. This week, we had an incident where our page was completely inaccessible to users, showing an error message. The worst part of the problem was that it was live for hours before we found out by hearing from some of our customers.

I felt awful.

I was embarrassed, upset, indignant, afraid, and defensive. We hadn’t changed anything, so we weren’t sure how it had happened or why it was failing. A couple of my engineers started looking at it, and quickly realized that whatever had caused it, the issue began with the release from another team the day before.

Immediately, I recognized that I had a choice to make. I could point out that my team hadn’t changed anything, and there was no possible way that we had broken the page. I could make sure that it was clear that we were not to blame. But while that might have helped us feel better, or possibly protected our team’s image, it wouldn’t have done a damn thing to fix the problem.

One of my favorite podcasters and authors these days is Jocko Willink, who wrote Extreme Ownership. This is a concept I’ve been talking about with my team, and I realized that I had a chance to put it into practice.

Just as Jocko talks about, I tried to think of the issue as if it was completely my fault. Doing so allowed me to see clearly what I could have done to prevent the problem from happening. It also empowered me. Instead of sitting back and being bitter at what life had dealt me, I could take action and make change.

While I’m sure that I didn’t handle things perfectly, I focused the rest of the day on making clear that this was our problem, and we were going to solve it, and prevent it in the future. My engineers stayed on a call for a number of hours, working with other teams and troubleshooting until we had things back up and working again. Never once did they complain about this not being our problem—they just focused on resolving it. I was so proud.

These kinds of issues are never fun to deal with in the moment. They are stressful and frustrating. But I was also grateful that we were going through it. I’ve only been here a month, and now I’ve already dealt with a production issue and have learned about the processes involved and am better prepared for the next one. My team performed superbly, seeking for, and getting, exactly the help that was needed.

At the end of the day, I took a nap before going home. I was exhausted, but satisfied.

While I’ve believed strongly in the principles of Extreme Ownership, putting them into practice and seeing the impact on myself and people around me strengthened my certainty that this is the way I want to live.

I’m sure I’ll fall short and fall back on blaming others at times. But I have tasted the sweet fruits of owning a failure and am eager to do so again.

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