In their earlier book, Extreme Ownership, former US Navy SEALs, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, shared 12 leadership principles that have enabled elite SEAL leaders and teams to achieve extraordinary results. One of these principles is about managing and balancing the dichotomy of leadership. In this book, the authors use examples from the battlefield and their consulting business to help leaders understand the nuances in leadership and how to embrace the inherent contradictions in leadership to lead and win. In The Dichotomy of Leadership summary, we’ll give a quick overview of these 12 principles. For the full details, examples and tips, do get a copy of the book, or get a detailed overview with our complete book summary bundle.
Introduction: The Dichotomy of Leadership
Extreme Ownership means taking 100% ownership and responsibility for everything in your world. Great leaders don’t blame others for mistakes; instead, they identify what went wrong and find solutions to ensure the mistakes aren’t repeated. This paves the way for continuous improvement.
Yet, effective leadership requires balance, not extremism. Effective leaders take extreme ownership, but are not extreme in their attitudes or actions. They balance the forces that pull them in opposite directions. We’ll now outline the 12 principles of the dichotomy of leadership in 3 parts.
Balancing Your People
1. THE ULTIMATE DICHOTOMY
The biggest and toughest dichotomy in leadership is to care deeply about your people, yet have to make decisions that may put them at risk for the wider mission. It’s about building strong relationships with your team without letting your feelings stop you from doing what’s necessary; it’s about driving results without pushing too hard.
Leaders who get too emotionally-attached to people can’t do their jobs effectively, e.g. failing to take people to task for bad behavior. On the other extreme, leaders who focus only on the mission may also hurt team morale and loyalty, e.g. overworking people with no regard for their well-being. Great leaders truly care for their people and feel responsible for their livelihood. The ultimate challenge is to balance between doing your best to take care of your team while being prepared to expose them to risks to achieve the mission. For combat leaders, such risks could literally involve life or death.
In 2006, Willink and Babin were fighting against insurgents in Ramadi, Iraq, when a SEAL was killed during an attack. Babin—who was the platoon commander for that mission—was distraught. He regretted leading his men into battle. Willink reminded him that if they had stayed out of the battle and left other comrades to fight alone, the death toll might’ve been even higher. As leaders, they could do their best to mitigate the risks, but they couldn’t eliminate them fully. As combat leaders, they had to send their men into danger no matter how much they cared for them—that was the burden of leadership they had to bear.
The manager of a mining company was in a dilemma—the mines were losing money but he didn’t want any of the employees to lose their jobs. Willink explained the dichotomy of leadership and pointed out that the manager had tipped too far to one extreme: he was caring too much for his people at the expense of the wider mission (to ensure the mines stayed commercially viable). HQ had already closed 1 of the 6 mines; if the manager still refused to let go of excess staff, more mines may be closed, leading to more jobs being lost (including the managers’). The manager finally saw the light and made the hard decision to let go of 80 employees; the company’s profitability improved and the remaining 600 employees kept their jobs.
2. OWN EVERYTHING BUT EMPOWER OTHERS
Great leaders balance between extreme ownership and decentralized command, to find the equilibrium between taking too much ownership (micro-management) and too little ownership (hands-off approach).
3. BE RESOLUTE BUT NOT OVERBEARING
Leaders must know when to stand firm and when to allow some flexibility. It’s about finding the equilibrium between being too lenient vs too tyrannical.
4. NURTURE PEOPLE BUT KNOW WHEN TO LET THEM GO
Leaders must do their best to improve each member’s performance, yet know when it’s time to let someone go for the wider good of the team.
Balancing The Mission
5. TRAIN HARD BUT TRAIN SMART
Effective training must be hard enough to push teams beyond the existing limits, yet not so hard that it demoralizes/overwhelms people to the point they can’t learn.
6. BE AGGRESSIVE BUT NOT RECKLESS
Be aggressive (or proactive) by default, but balance it with a proper evaluation of the risks and benefits.
7. BE DISCIPLINED BUT NOT RIGID
Discipline, SOPs and repeatable processes/actions can help a team to maneuver quickly, but they must also be balanced with the flexibility to adapt to realities. Leaders must apply common sense and creative/critical thinking instead of rigidly following SOPs.
8. HOLD PEOPLE ACCOUNTABLE BUT DON’T HOLD THEIR HANDS
Many leaders rely on accountability (i.e. personally supervising everything) to ensure things get done. This must be balanced with education and empowerment, so people understand why they are doing something and are empowered to do the right things without constant oversight.
9. BE A LEADER AND A FOLLOWER
Good leaders can take charge and make hard decisions. However, they can also listen to and follow others. They can recognize, respect and navigate disagreements instead of bulldozing their way through.
10. PLAN BUT DON’T OVER-PLAN
For a mission to succeed, you need careful planning, i.e. find solutions to prevent/mitigate controllable risks and manage contingencies. Yet, if you try to develop solutions for every possible problem, you’d be overwhelmed.
11. BE HUMBLE BUT NOT PASSIVE
Humility is about (i) realizing that you don’t know everything, and (ii) seeing beyond your own needs to consider the wider strategic perspectives. However, taken to the extreme, it can lead to passivity, i.e. failing to take a stand or push back on things that truly matter for the team or mission.
12. BE FOCUSED BUT DETACHED
Leaders must pay attention to details without getting so lost in the details that they lose sight of the big picture.
More Details in The Dichotomy of Leadership summary & book
In The Dichotomy of Leadership summary, we outline the 12 dichotomies with at 1 short combat and business example each. These examples (with additional stories) are illustrated in vivid detail in the book, to help you see the principles at work. For more details about the book or the authors’ consulting firm, please visit
Do get a copy of the book for the full details, get The Dichotomy of Leadership summary bundle for an overview of the various ideas and tips, or check out more resources/details at www.echelonfront.com.
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