A Reflection on Extreme Ownership

The leaders who actually gain followers are the ones who stick up for their team, and the ones who take it upon themselves to help a team improve.
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In our latest visit to New York City, my wife and I visited a couple of comedy shows in Greenwich Village. During one of those shows, I was introduced to Nathan Macintosh, and in his routine, he made a very interesting (and funny) point about pizza. He conveniently also performed the same bit in the first minute in an appearance on The Tonight Show (see below).

I, like Macintosh, have rarely found a slice of pizza I didn’t like. That’s why I was surprised to learn about a decade ago that there was one particular brand that others were down on.

“The Pizza Turnaround”

In late 2009, Domino’s Pizza released an ad campaign titled “The Pizza Turnaround. In a series of videos, including the one below, Domino’s employees are seen reviewing customer reviews that are less than stellar. Polls and focus groups revealed that customers did not see this pizza giant as a symbol of quality food.

Most companies wouldn’t dare reveal terrible customer reviews to the public, let alone in a nationwide ad campaign. Domino’s Pizza decided to own up to the fact that their “cardboard” pizza was terrible. And it paid off. Between 2010 and 2016, their stock price rose from $8.76 per share to $160 per share.

Follow the Leader

Domino’s Pizza’s turnaround provides a valuable lesson to leaders of organizations whose brands are flailing. It can also provide a lesson to individuals who are in a career rut. How so? The Domino’s Pizza Turnaround, as most processes do, provides us a blueprint we can follow.

  1. Remember what business you are in.

Domino’s Pizza is not just a pizza-making company. It is also a pizza delivery company. This means that aside from making quality pizza, Domino’s must be a technology business, too. Therefore, in addition to the pizza and the team of delivery employees, the company has focused on utilizing the latest technology to ease its customer’s ability to order pizza. Aside from the Domino’s app, customers can order via Twitter and even by texting an emoji.

Defining identity is important for all brands. There are many businesses that have trouble remembering the business they are in, and — Spoiler Alert — customers catch on very quickly.

2. Reinvigorate your brand.

Domino’s knew that delivery was important, but they could not ignore the other essential part of their brand — the pizza. In customer feedback, the message was clear: the pizza was bad; that feedback is on full display in the Domino’s Pizza Turnaround video above.

The Problem with Major League Baseball (MLB)

At the end of every baseball season, as ten playoff teams battle it out to emerge as the World Series champions, the other twenty teams are left at home watching their peers potentially reach the zenith of their careers. Those twenty teams also begin the process of thinking about their strategic plans for the next season and beyond, and one thing that is always expected is personnel changes.

Since the last month of the regular season, six managers were fired from their jobs or did not have their contracts renewed: Andy Green of the San Diego Padres, Joe Maddon of the Chicago Cubs, Clint Hurdle of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Brad Ausmus of the Los Angeles Angels, Mickey Callaway of the New York Mets, and Gabe Kapler of the Philadelphia Phillies. Additionally, general managers Dave Dombrowski of the Boston Red Sox and Neal Huntington of the Pittsburgh Pirates were fired. Why? There’s a variety of reasons — some understandable, and others because general managers and owners have failed to take extreme ownership of their teams.

At the surface level, most of those dismissals make sense. If a team is under-performing, it makes sense to hold the leader accountable. However, holding the on-field manager solely responsible for under-performance is debatable. Unlike the National Football League (NFL), the on-field manager rarely has a say in the personnel moves the team makes. The general manager and the team owner make those moves and place the burden on the on-field manager to make the team function well enough to achieve the organization’s goals. Managers are fired quite often in MLB for not achieving those goals.

In reality, failure should be owned by those at the top.

US Navy Seals

In 2015, Navy Seals Jocko Willink and Leif Babin published their now-famous book Extreme Ownership about how the leadership lessons and principles they learned in combat easily translated into leadership in the civilian world. Pierre-Yves Hittelet, the writer for the business magazine Inc., summarized the 12 leadership lessons he found in Willink and Babin’s book.

His second takeaway — that there are no such things as bad teams, just bad leaders — really cuts into the heart of the book’s message of extreme ownership. In the book, Willink describes a training exercise performed by Seals (Basic Underwater Demolition Seals, or BUDS, training) and one specific experience that taught the Seals a leadership lesson. One group was consistently struggling, and their leader blamed the team’s performance and unwillingness to listen to the members of the team, rather than on himself. When the leader was swapped with one from a higher-performing team, the struggling team improved dramatically.

Leaders often take credit for successes, but are often reluctant to take the blame.

Beyond Business

Whether or not you found Domino’s marketing campaign appealing, I found it refreshing. I started to wonder, “Imagine if our politicians were that forthcoming. Imagine if our politicians practiced extreme ownership.” In recent weeks, I’ve been working on this blog, I actually have found a couple of examples.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma in 2005, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida held a press conference where he discussed recovery efforts for those affected. A reporter asked him about comments that the Mayor of Miami-Dade County, Carlos Alvarez, had made criticizing FEMA’s response. Bush didn’t take the bait.

“I’m going to have a ‘no-criticize zone’ established as we focus on recovery, and if anybody wants to blame anybody let them blame me.”

More recently, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, was on a debate stage as he seeks the 2020 Democratic Presidential Nomination. He was asked about his handling of a police-involved shooting in his hometown. A lot of politicians masterfully pass the blame elsewhere, but he didn’t.

“I dropped the ball,” he said.

Regardless of your personal and political opinions about specific candidates, it’s certainly refreshing when leaders — specifically political leaders — exhibit extreme ownership…

…And that’s because it’s rare.

When I was interning at a school, I witnessed a leader who personified extreme ownership. There was a complaint that one of the girls’ restrooms was not cleaned properly. Apparently, this was a complaint that was given often, as it made its way up to the principal of the school.

Some leaders would call the employee in and berate the employee who did not fulfill his/her responsibilities, but this man was different.

The principal called in the responsible janitor and walked with her down to the girls’ restroom. After ensuring that there was no one using the restroom, they both entered and saw the sources of the complaint — an uncleaned floor (more than usual I suppose) near the sink.

The principal — in his tailored three-piece suit — got down on his knees and demonstrated how he wanted the floor cleaned in the restroom. Rather than offer a punitive punishment, he assumed that the employee was not properly trained, and took ownership of a responsibility that was not originally his.

Again, this principle exhibited extreme ownership and took on the responsibility of his employee upon himself.

Leadership obviously comes in different forms. But the leaders who actually gain followers are the ones who stick up for their team, and the ones who take it upon themselves to help a team improve.

True leaders exhibit extreme ownership.


Harvard Business Review: “How Domino’s Pizza Reinvented Itself,” by Bill Taylor

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