Leadership Caffeine™—“It’s Not What You Preach, it’s What You Tolerate”

The title of this post is drawn from the book, “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win,” by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. These warrior heroes do an outstanding job relating the lessons from life or death circumstances to our significantly safer corporate and business pursuits. The lessons on ultimate accountability and the many examples and approaches of leadership in action are incredibly relevant for all of us.

The theme of “extreme ownership” is an appropriate clubbing over the head that you as the leader own every problem, miscue, misfire and general problem on your team. It’s not the fault of your team members if something goes wrong, it’s your fault as the leader. If the results fall short, it’s not because your team members failed, it is because you failed to plan, clarify, communicate, teach, train or guide execution properly.

Too many of us are quick to point our fingers when it comes to explaining why something misfired. Just a few of the many excuses for poor performance I’ve encountered in the past few months:

  • “Corporate did not provide us the investment we need,”
  • “The budget passed down from on high was unreasonable,
  • “The mid-market sales team failed to execute their plan,”

In all three cases, it is the leader’s  job to execute the assigned mission, regardless of investment and personal opinion of the budget. As for the team, if they failed, it’s the leader, not the team.

This tendency to assign and not own fault is a failure of leadership and leadership character.

The next time you are tempted to look around and explain why something on your watch failed, stare into the mirror and own up: “I failed. It was my fault, and here’s what I am going to do to fix it going forward.”

We need more extreme ownership in this world.

The phrase, “It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate,” is a wake-up call for any leader dealing with a poor performing team or one of those brilliant but toxic characters that are found in almost every workplace. We allow problems to linger or performance to suffer, applying duct-tape and band-aids and a heaping helping of hope, and when nothing improves, we grow frustrated, looking for others to blame for the shortcomings and shortfalls.

Part of extreme ownership is recognizing that we truly do get what we tolerate. If we tolerate the aberrant and toxic behaviors of one team member, we will end up with a dysfunctional team. If we apply different standards of accountability to groups or individuals, we will get varying levels of suboptimal results.

Ironically, I see this leadership and accountability issue manifest most often at senior levels, where many CEOs struggle to get their direct reports to play nice together in pursuit of strategy and execution. In reality, the CEO who is struggling with this issue has made it clear that she tolerates lack of unity.

The results never change when you tolerate something less than high performance.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

In a world filled with finger-pointing politicians, broke state and city governments and vexing global challenges, it can truly be said. “we get what we tolerate.” Whether it’s in business or in our public institutions, let’s adopt an extreme ownership mentality to promote positive change. Anything less is a prescription for failure.

text signature for Art


See more posts in the Leadership Caffeine™ series.

Read More of Art’s Motivational Writing on Leadership and Management at About.com!

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

book cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

By |2017-07-04T15:16:19+00:00February 14th, 2016|Leadership, Leadership Caffeine|5 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. Virendra sinha February 15, 2016 at 10:43 am - Reply

    Extremely thought provoking atricle.Thanks

    • Art Petty February 15, 2016 at 10:47 am - Reply

      My pleasure. Thanks for reading and commenting. -Art

  2. Pat February 15, 2016 at 1:57 pm - Reply

    How do they suggest handling demands that are clearly impossible? In the military, they are used to missions that may be extreme. In civilian life, impossible missions get staff quitting and the leader ends up with no followers.

    • Gregory February 20, 2016 at 12:22 pm - Reply

      I think I can answer the question if I’ve interpreted it correctly, as in ‘What does a middle leader tell his/her team when the leader’s boss has unreasonable expectations?’.

      The first thing the lower leader needs to ask is ‘Is this really impossible?’. For the purposes of answering the question that was asked, we’ll assume ‘yes’, but in real life it needs to be thoroughly examined. If a competitor can get the same amount of work out of the same number of people for the same amount of money, then it’s not impossible.

      When tasked with something impossible, the lower leader has to perform what the military calls “expectations management”. Frankly, the lower boss has to stand up to the upper boss, and clearly communicate what’s possible and what isn’t in a effective and tactful way. Usually, the upper boss is reasonable – he or she is there for a reason. Also, the lower boss should attempt to pass on the pressure, make sure the team understands the situation. Communication is key.

      If the upper boss is toxic, there are still options, but requires a proportional amount of shady behavior to the upper boss’s toxicity. If the problem is that the upper boss isn’t an expert in the team’s function, the lower boss can try the “Montgomery Scott” method of intentionally overstating time estimates so that when the upper boss cuts the time requirement it goes from too long to normal rather than from normal to too short. If the problem is that the upper boss is arrogant, the lower boss has to use subliminal body language, like slightly nodding one’s head in the ‘yes’ direction when asking for more resources.

      It needs to be reiterated however that that lower boss needs to be positive the initial request was impossible. The order of effort should be: First, reexamine the situation and compare with peers. If the demands are not being asked of any peer, then communicate the issue to the boss in a tactful manner. *Only* in the rare event that fails should you get creative.

  3. Toby Bishop February 15, 2016 at 8:59 pm - Reply

    Extreme disownership seems to be the norm these days. It is rare to find any bigwig taking responsibility for anything: they seem to want only to take the credit when things happen to go right, never the responsibility, let alone the blame, when things go wrong. The most common exceptions seem to be sports players and team captains, who appear to recognize their own pivotal role in their outcomes.

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.