“The Dichotomy Of Leadership” by Jocko Willink & Leif Babin

“The Dichotomy of Leadership” is the follow-on publication to Willink and Babin’s first venture, “Extreme Ownership.” Many of the lessons from the first book are repeated in this book but the authors take a closer look at the dichotomies that appear to leaders at all levels. Leadership, just as in life, takes a certain level of balance across multiple spectrums. If the scale tips too far in one direction or the other, an entire ecosystem can be in jeopardy. At first glance, the lessons preached in “Extreme Ownership” can seem just that, extreme. Upon closer inspection the reader will find that “extreme” is analogous to “all-encompassing.” None of the character traits like aggressiveness or humility are useful if taken to the extreme. But if the individual owns the actions and consequences of their entire world to an extreme level, they can only be successful if they understand and are successful in balancing the dichotomies of leadership. Three of my personal favorite dichotomies are Aggressive but not Reckless, Confident but not Cocky, and Humble but not Passive.

  1. We discovered firsthand that the principles of leadership are “simple, but not easy.” There are strategies, techniques, and skills that take time and practice to utilize effectively. The foremost requirement for potent leadership is humility, so that leaders can fully understand and appreciate their own shortfalls.
  2. In most cases, rather than extremes, leadership requires balance. Leaders must find the equilibrium between opposing forces that pull in opposite directions. Being aggressive but cautious, disciplined but not rigid, a leader but also a follower—it applies to almost every aspect of leadership.
  3. The goal of all leaders should be to work themselves out of a job.
  4. If mistakes happen, effective leaders don’t place blame on others. They take ownership of the mistakes, determine what went wrong, develop solutions to correct those mistakes and prevent them from happening again as they move forward.
  5. The first Law of Combat: Cover and Move. This is teamwork—every individual and team within the team, mutually supporting one another to accomplish the mission.
  6. It doesn’t matter if one element within the group does its job: if the team fails, everybody fails.
  7. The second Law of Combat: Simple. Complexity breeds chaos and disaster, especially when things go wrong. And things always go wrong.
  8. The third Law of Combat: Prioritize and Execute. When multiple problems occur simultaneously (which happens often), taking on too many problems at once results in failure. It is imperative that leaders detach themselves—pull back from the details—and assess to determine the highest priority to the strategic mission.
  9. The fourth Law of Combat: Decentralized Command. No one leader can manage it all or make every decision. Instead, leadership must be decentralized, with leaders at every level empowered to make decisions, right down to the frontline troopers in charge of no one but themselves and their small piece of the mission.
  10. To empower everyone on the team to lead, team members must understand not just what to do but why they are doing it. This requires clear and frequent communication up and down the chain of command—and most importantly: trust.
  11. “The fact that you care about your people more than anything—but at the same time you have to lead them. And as a leader, you might have to make decisions that hurt individuals on your team. But you also have to make decisions that will allow you to continue the mission for the greater good of everyone on the team.
  12. Here are the commons symptoms that result from micromanagement: 1. The team shows a lack of initiative. Members will not take action unless directed. 2. The team does not seek solutions to problems; instead, its members sit and wait to be told about a solution. 3. Even in an emergency, a team that is being micromanaged will not mobilize and take action. 4. Bold and aggressive action becomes rare. 5. Creativity grinds to a halt. 6. The team tends to stay inside their own silo; not stepping out to coordinate efforts with other departments or divisions for fear of overstepping their bounds. 7. An overall sense of passivity and failure to react.
  13. The mission, the goal, and the end state must be explained in a simple, clear, and concise manner.
  14. I should have explained that more clearly to you,” I said. “Leaders can actually take too much ownership. Yes, with Extreme Ownership you are responsible for everything in your world. But you can’t make every decision. You have to empower your team to lead, to take ownership. So you have to give them ownership.
  15. There were times when I let things slide, confusing the idea of “taking care of your people” with allowing them not to work as hard.
  16. There is a time to stand firm and enforce rules and there is a time to give ground and allow the rules to bend. Finding that balance is critical for leaders to get maximum effectiveness from their team.
  17. the most important explanation a leader can give to the team is “why?” Particularly when a leader must hold the line and enforce standards, it must always be done with the explanation of why it is important, why it will help accomplish the mission, and what the consequences are for failing to do so. It must never be done with the attitude of “because I said so.” To do so will result in far more pushback and more difficulty in getting the team to achieve the standards you are trying to enforce.
  18. While a leader must do everything possible to help develop and improve the performance of individuals on the team, a leader must also understand when someone does not have what it takes to get the job done.
  19. Most underperformers don’t need to be fired, they need to be led.
  20. The goal of any leader is to get the most out of every individual—to push each individual to reach his or her maximum potential so that the team itself can reach its maximum potential.
  21. A leader must be loyal to his individual team members and take care of them, but at the same time he must be loyal to the team itself and ensure that every member of the team has a net positive impact and doesn’t detract from mission execution.
  22. Leadership—at every level—is the critical factor in whether a team succeeds or fails.
  23. The best leaders—often those who learned through experience what worked and what didn’t—looked out for the long-term success of the team and the mission. They didn’t shy away from tough conversations to correct underperformance. They held the standards high and ensured the team was fully prepared for the worst-case scenario. Leaders who pushed their people to excel, to continuously learn and grow, enabled their teams to become comfortable in situations where they were previously uncomfortable.
  24. As in everything, leaders must find the balance in training and focus on three critical aspects: realism, fundamentals, and repetition.
  25. Training must be continuous for everyone. Each person gets better with iterations, so it is important to plan repetitive training over time that challenges each member of the team—particularly leaders.
  26. The best training programs are not orchestrated from the top but driven from the bottom—the frontline leaders who are closest to the action and the lessons learned.
  27. Make time for the things that are important.
  28. Aggression is not always the answer. Aggression must be balanced with logic and detailed analysis of risk versus reward.
  29. While being aggressive is a great default attitude to have, it still must be balanced with caution and careful consideration to ensure it is not a case of excessive risk with limited reward.
  30. Problems aren’t going to solve themselves—a leader must get aggressive and take action to solve them and implement a solution. Being too passive and waiting for a solution to appear often enables a problem to escalate and get out of control.
  31. The best teams, don’t wait to act. Instead, understanding the strategic vision (or commander’s intent), they aggressively execute to overcome obstacles, capitalize on immediate opportunities, accomplish the mission, and win.
  32. Losing your temper is a sign of weakness.
  33. The aggression that wins on the battlefield, in business, or in life is directed not toward people but toward solving problems, achieving goals, and accomplishing the mission.
  34. It is a leader’s duty to fight against this victory disease so that the team, despite its success, never gets complacent.
  35. While a leader wants team members to police themselves because they understand why, the leader still has to hold people accountable through some level of inspection to ensure that the why is not only understood but being acted upon.
  36. If a subordinate is not performing to standard, despite understanding why, despite knowing the impact on the mission, and despite being given ownership, then a leader must hold the line.
  37. The leader must drill down and micromanage tasks in order to get the subordinate on track. But the leader cannot stay there. The leader must eventually give subordinates leeway to perform based on their own intrinsic drive—not because they are being held accountable, and not based on the micromanagement of the leader, but because they have a better understanding of why.
  38. Use accountability as a tool when needed, but don’t rely on it as the sole means of enforcement. A reliance on heavy accountability consumes the time and focus of the leader and inhibits the trust, growth, and development of subordinates.
  39. “Leading” didn’t mean pushing my agenda or proving I had all the answers. It was about collaborating with the rest of the team and determining how we could most effectively accomplish our mission.
  40. Every leader must be ready and willing to take charge, to make hard, crucial calls for the good of the team and the mission. That is inherent in the very term “leader.” But leaders must also have the ability to follow. This was a difficult dichotomy: in order to be a good leader, you must also be a good follower. Finding that balance is key.
  41. When the team wins, much of the credit goes to the leader, whether or not that leader was the person driving the operation, tactics, or strategy, and a good leader pushes the praise and accolades down to their team.
  42. You should strive to have the same relationship with every boss you ever work for, no matter if they are good or bad. Whether they are an outstanding leader whom you admire, a mediocre leader who needs improvement, or a terrible leader for whom no one on the team has respect, you must strive to form the same relationship with all of them.”
  43. The relationship to seek with any boss incorporates three things: 1) They trust you. 2) They value and seek your opinion and guidance. 3) They give you what you need to accomplish your mission and then let you go execute.
  44. Misery can be a remarkably effective teacher. And this was a lesson I would never forget: don’t try to plan for every contingency. Doing so will only overburden you and weigh you down so that you cannot quickly maneuver. Yes, contingency planning is extremely important.
  45. For planning, there is a dichotomy within which leaders must find balance. You cannot plan for every contingency. If you try to create a solution for every single potential problem that might arise, you overwhelm your team, you overwhelm the planning process, you overcomplicate decisions for leaders.
  46. Nothing breeds arrogance like success.
  47. There was a dichotomy to being humble: being humble didn’t mean being passive. It didn’t mean not to push back when it truly mattered. While I didn’t have the visibility or complete understanding of the strategic picture that the boss and his staff at the task group had, they also lacked understanding of how strategic direction or requirements impacted our tactical operations on the front lines. And it was up to me to push that information up the chain of command. Humility has to be balanced by knowing when to make a stand.
  48. While a leader can’t be passive, a leader must also carefully prioritize when and where to push back. Leaders have an obligation to support their chain of command and carry out the orders that come from above.
  49. A leader must be humble, must listen to others, must not act arrogant or cocky. But a leader must balance that and know that there are times to question superiors, to push back, to stand up and make sure the right things are being done for the right reasons.
  50. A leader cannot be passive. When it truly matters, leaders must be willing to push back, voice their concerns, stand up for the good of their team, and provide feedback up the chain against a direction or strategy they know will endanger the team or harm the strategic mission.
  51. Leaders must be humble enough to listen to new ideas, willing to learn strategic insights, and open to implementing new and better tactics and strategies. But a leader must also be ready to stand firm when there are clearly unintended consequences that negatively impact the mission and risk harm to the team.
  52. Where are you casting blame or waiting for others to solve problems that you should be solving?”
  53. Naturally, leaders must be attentive to details. However, leaders cannot be so immersed in the details that they lose track of the larger strategic situation and are unable to provide command and control for the entire team.
  54. Leaders must still be attentive to the details, understand the challenges of the teams executing the mission at the front echelon, and position themselves where they can best support their teams. This is the dichotomy that must be balanced: to become engrossed in and overwhelmed by the details risks mission failure, but to be so far detached from the details that the leader loses control is to fail the team and fail the mission.


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