Jocko Willink is an intimidating customer. Weighing in at a 104 kilos of lean muscle, he’s a fearsome man-mountain with a freshly shaven head. He’s also a legend in the Special Operations world. The former Navy SEAL commanding officer led the most decorated special ops unit in the Iraq war (American Sniper Chris Kyle was their point man) and then oversaw the training for all the SEAL Teams on America’s west coast.
After retiring from the military, Jocko became a popular speaker on the corporate circuit on the subject of leadership. He’s subsequently published a succession of bestselling books – Extreme Leadership, The Dichotomy of Leadership and now Leadership Strategy and Tactics – and launched The Jocko Podcast, a wildly successful weekly chat about discipline and leadership in business, war, relationships and everyday life.
But somewhere along the line, Jocko – the man described by Tim Ferris as “the scariest Navy SEAL Imaginable” – became an unexpected spokesman on fatherhood (he has three daughters aged 20, 18 and 10, plus a 17-year-old son).
“I think it comes from a leadership perspective,” Jocko says. “People think that I have a decent understanding of leading because of my role with the SEALs. And that’s what you’re doing inside a family as a parent – as a mum or as a dad, you’re the leader of the family. So the principles that apply as a combat leader apply in a family as well.”
As a result, Jocko has written a children’s book series: Way of The Warrior Kid about a boy who’s bullied at school until his Uncle Jake, a Navy SEAL, steps in to teach him some valuable life-lessons. “That just happened because I could find very few books that actually espoused the values that I wanted my own kids to have,” Jocko explains. “So I eventually just took ownership of that and wrote my own books for the kids.”
The Father Hood: Your own dad was a teacher in New England where you grew up. How did the way that he lived his life influence your own approach to being a man?
Jocko Willink: I think my father was pretty hands-off as far as raising me. He worked a lot and my mom also worked a lot too, so, as kids, we had to be pretty self-reliant. That’s what I remember a lot when I was a kid we had to make stuff happen for ourselves.
TFH: What was the best piece of advice that your dad gave to you?
JW: “Don’t quit.” My dad did not like people to quit. Obviously when I was in the SEAL teams – especially in the initial training – there’s a lot of people that do quit. But that was never something that I ever thought about doing because of my father’s advice.
TFH: Parenting has obviously changed a lot over the years. How would you say that your approach to is different to that of your father’s?
JW: I try and do the same thing as my dad in so far as trying to make my children self-reliant. I often tell people, “If you’re helping your kids, you’re hurting them.” I don’t mean that in any extreme way – if your kid is doing something dangerous then, of course, you should help them. But if you’re doing everything for your kids and you’re helping them in every aspect of their lives… they’re not really going to learn how to contend with the world for themselves. That’s going to be a problem in the future.
TFH: You mentioned how people ask you for advice on parenthood because of your perspective on leadership. Surely there are some big differences between leading a team and leading a family?
JW: Well, the biggest difference is that with your family you’ll have a tendency to be more emotional because you have such a strong attachment to your children. And it’s not always a good thing to get emotional when you’re making decisions. It’s not a good idea to lose your temper when you are in a leadership position. So the biggest difference between leading a team and leading your family is that you have to pay more attention to keeping your emotions under control.
TFH: Sure, but kids do have a special knack of pushing your buttons. What do you do in order to keep calm in a stressful situation?
JW: I make an effort to try and detach mentally from the emotional situation. I recognise that getting angry is weakness. Losing control of your temper is a weakness. And setting the example that it’s okay to not be able to control your emotions – that is not going to help your children. So it seems pretty obvious to me that you need to keep your emotions in check in all situations.
TFH: What have you found personally to be the biggest challenge about being a dad?
JW: I think the biggest challenge about being a dad is that you’ve got to recognise and deal with the fact that your kids are not going to be exactly who you want them to be. They’re going to be who they are and who they turn into. You have some level of guidance over that and you can certainly give them some corrections to point them in the right direction. But if you think you’re going to be able to control each and every aspect of their life, well, you’re going to be sorely mistaken, and you’ll actually end up pushing your children further away from the direction that you want them to go in. The more you try and contain your children inside a box, the harder they’re going to push to get out of it.
For example, I’m passionate about Jiu-jitsu. And I definitely pushed my daughters too hard when they were young in Jiu-jitsu and made them train and compete all the time. What happened? By the time they were 12 years old, they didn’t want to do it anymore. So I did a bad job as a dad because I pushed it too hard. The lesson I learned was I had to give my kids some space. You can point them in the right direction, but you can’t force them to do things. The more you force them, the more they’re going to push back.
TFH: Talking about Jiu-jitsu – you’re a black belt and I understand that your son is pretty handy, too. Why do you think it’s a good idea for a kid to learn a martial art like that?
JW: Jiu-jitsu is a great thing for anyone to learn. You get some physical conditioning. You learn some real proper self-defence that you can utilise in situations that can literally save your life. But it also teaches you discipline. It teaches humility. In Brazilian Jiu-jitsu you will get humbled because you will get defeated. You will get tapped out. You will get beaten by people that are smaller than you, that are weaker than you, but have more knowledge than you. And there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s a very humbling feeling.
TFH: You wrote a book called Extreme Ownership a few years back. How do you teach that same principle of accountability to your kids?
JW: Well, when they make a bad decision, they’re going to suffer the consequences of that. And over time you realise that you better be more thoughtful about your decision-making process because you are ultimately responsible for what’s going on in your life.
TFH: Resilience is the other big parental buzzword at the moment. Any thoughts on building resilience in your children?
JW: You build resilence by not putting a bubble around you kids. You can’t protect them from all the bumps and bruises that life offers. If you don’t allow your kids to brush up against the guardrails and experience failure, they will not be able to contend with the vicious world that awaits them.
Obviously there’s a limit. If it looks like my kids are going to do something that’s going to negatively impact them in a massive way, then obviously you don’t allow it to. But you need to let your kids experience a few little bumps and scrapes along the way. That’s how they develop calluses that will protect them in the future.
TFH: Finally in three words, how would you like to be remembered as a father?
JW: Caring. That’s it. I did it in one word.
Leadership Strategy and Tactics: Field Manual by Jocko Willink (Pan Macmillan) $32.99 is published in January. Buy it here