This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: The Dichotomy of Leadership: Balancing the Challenges of Extreme Ownership to Lead and Win
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“Balance in leadership is crucial to victory,” decorated former Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin write in the introduction to their second collaboration, “The Dichotomy of Leadership.” The reason: “for every positive behavior a leader should have, it is possible to take that behavior to the extreme, where it becomes a negative.” Building up on the principles analyzed in “Extreme Leadership,” this sequel aims to help leaders “moderate the idea of leading from the extremes and focus on maintaining balance.”
So, get ready to learn how to become a respected leader while simultaneously being a worthy follower, and prepare to find the balance between humbleness and passivity, aggressiveness and recklessness, and discipline and rigidity.
The most difficult dichotomy of leadership is to deeply care about your people while still being willing to put them in risky situations for the sake of your mission. To achieve it, you need to be resolute, but not overbearing; to know when to mentor and when to fire; and to learn how to own the mistakes of your team while empowering its members to make theirs.
There are limitless dichotomies in leadership, but none is as central as this one: “to care deeply for each individual member of the team, while at the same time accepting the risks necessary to accomplish the mission.” In other words, in addition to building strong relationships with your subordinates, you also need to recognize that you are a leader with a mission, that you have a job to do. If you care too much about your objectives, you’ll neglect the needs of your people; but care about the team members more than necessary and you’ll compromise the success of the mission. A good leader always finds a way to drive their team to accomplish the mission without pushing them off a cliff.
Effective leaders take ownership of every mistake, and never place blame on their people – that’s one of the fundamental principles of Extreme Leadership. However, this doesn’t mean that you should make every decision for everyone on your team – that’s called micromanagement and is dreadful. The opposite – hands-off leadership – doesn’t work as well, because it usually leads to a cacophony of commands. Effective leaders always find a balance between these two extremes. “With Extreme Ownership, you are responsible for everything in your world” – Willink and Babin note. “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.”
Leaders should be neither lenient nor domineering. To find the balance between the two, they must learn when it is important to hold the line and when to allow some slack – and then carefully evaluate each situation. Two things should help you achieve this: understanding the concept of “leadership capital” and the power of “why.” The authors define leadership capital as the “finite amount of power that any leader possesses.” Instead of spending it foolishly on strategically unimportant matters, you should smartly allow your people to blow off some steam in some areas of less importance. The reason is simple: you’ll need to exert that power when push comes to shove. To be sure that your people will listen to you when it really matters – always give them a reason. This is the why.
“There are no bad teams, only bad leaders,” wrote Willink and Babin in “Extreme Ownership,” implying that what others consider a bad team is actually no team at all. A team is a cohesive unit: everything else is just a random and dysfunctional group of individuals. Team members who think otherwise necessitate a reaction. In many cases, mentoring them on the importance of “we” should be enough. However, “when a leader has done everything possible to get an individual up to speed without seeing results, the time has come to let that individual go. Don’t be too quick to fire – but don’t wait too long. Find the balance and hold the line.”
Balancing the mission starts before the mission itself – with training, which must be hard but also smart. Only aggressive and disciplined leaders are capable of attaining this balance – but they should be careful not to become reckless or rigid. Also, they must learn how to hold their people accountable for their mistakes – but also allow them the freedom to make them.
Hard training is critical to the performance of any team; after all, there’s no growth in the comfort zone. Consequently, training must be hard – it should push team members beyond the limits of their day-to-day “easy tasks” and prepare them for greater challenges. All good training focuses on three critical aspects: realism, fundamentals, and repetition. Realistic training means putting your team members into plausible and uncomfortable situations where they might not be sure what to do at first. It should focus on the fundamentals: often, people think they know them and want to skip through them, but the truth is our brain and memory don’t work that way. So, never skip the fundamentals unless you want your team to forget them. That brings us to the final point: training must be repetitive. Because repetition is the mother of learning – not merely the best, but also the only way to turn information into habits.
“An aggressive mindset should be the default setting of any leader,” write Willink and Babin. This is because an aggressive mind is a proactive mind. “Aggressive” doesn’t mean angry or irresponsible – it means one trained to react in the best possible way in the worst possible scenario. Navy SEALs know that the only aggression which wins is the one directed toward the problem, not toward the people. However, they also know that aggression shouldn’t give way to recklessness, even after many victories. Force yourself to never get complacent – no matter how many good outcomes your decisions generate. Overconfidence is the enemy.
Alexander Pope once wrote, “True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, as those move easiest who have learned to dance.” In other words, when you learn by heart the rules that should guide your steps in a dance, you’ll suddenly feel the full freedom of movement and walking would feel as easy as flying in a dream. Rules don’t stifle, but give freedom – of course, until they are too much of them. So, never forget: leading a team is about procedures and processes because discipline grants autonomy, but when you notice that it stops doing that – then consider eliminating some of the procedures.
Accountability is an important tool, but should never be the primary one. “Instead of holding people accountable, the leader has to lead,” note Willink and Babin. “The leader must make sure the team understands why. Make sure its members have ownership of their tasks and the ability to make adjustments as needed. Make sure they know how their task supports the overall strategic success of the mission. Make sure they know how important their specific task is to the team and what the consequences are for failure. A reliance on heavy accountability consumes the time and focus of the leader and inhibits the trust, growth, and development of subordinates.” On the other hand, balancing accountability results in empowerment and educated subordinates. And that’s the objective!
Balancing yourself as a leader is all about staying humble. Humbleness, however, doesn’t mean being passive – it means being open to suggestions and ideas. That’s why humble leaders are followers as well. They are also focused but never detached; and they know when planning becomes overplanning.
There’s a reason why you should never allow your subordinates to feel as subordinates: it stifles their creativity and incapacitates them to make a decision when they are expected to. You should train your subordinates to be latent leaders because sometimes your job will be to follow. “Leaders must be willing to listen and follow others,” inform us Willink and Babin, “regardless of whether they are junior or less experienced. If someone else has a great idea or specific knowledge that puts them in the best position to lead a particular project, a good leader recognizes that it doesn’t matter who gets the credit, only that the mission is accomplished in the most effective manner possible.” Often, the best leader is the one who creates leaders.
Usually, the winning team is the team capable of seeing one small step further into the future. Consequently, being able to plan ahead is an attribute of great leaders. However, there’s a limit beyond which planning becomes a burden. It’s, more or less, a physical limit. Unless you’re a chess player, you can’t remember millions of scenarios; and even if you are, you may forget the one you need when you need it the most, thus, losing due to overpreparedness. The trick is to choose three or four most probable contingencies for each phase and a worst-case scenario. Prepare for each one of them. Everything else is probably just an iteration, and you’ll do just fine when – or even if – it happens.
There’s a difference between being humble and being passive: the latter is one of the worst traits a leader might have and the former – one of their best ones. In fact, it may be “the most important quality in a leader.” A factoid that proves this: most SEAL leaders are usually fired not because of unfitness, unsoundness, or incompetence – but because of arrogance. However, you can become humble to a fault: passivity is usually the result of being too humble. Once again, it’s all about balance. “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,” write Willink and Babin. “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.”
Naturally, it’s always good to be attentive to details; however, once again, there’s a point after which this attentiveness becomes a liability. Just like you should never allow yourself to not see the trees because of the wood, you can’t risk not seeing the wood from the trees. This is what “focused, but detached” means: you must find a way to analyze the details of every situation, while still not losing sight of the big picture. For that’s the only context in which the details really matter.
A worthy follow-up to “Extreme Ownership,” “The Dichotomy of Leadership” delivers so well on its promises that one can even argue that it is better than Willink and Babin’s first collaboration. Inspiring and practical, this is a book you should definitely read if you want to become a leader as exceptional as two decorated Navy SEALs.
Not only in leadership but also life – balance is the key. Do nothing in excess.
Leif Babin is a former U.S. Navy SEAL, recipient of the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and a Purple Heart for his service. After retiring from duty, he founded Echelon Front, a leadership consulting company which he currently ser... (Read more)
Jocko Willink is a retired U.S. Navy SEAL commander, a bestselling author, and the host of the popular “Jocko Podcast.” For his service in the Iraq War, he was honored with the Silver Star and the Bronze Star. With fellow former SEAL Leif B... (Read more)
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