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The Dichotomy of Leadership



O MUCH OF LEADERSHIP is managing tensions. Leaders must know when to adapt. This is where self-awareness plays a big part. In a word, they need balance. And that’s what The Dichotomy of Leadership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin is all about.

After the publication of their first book, Extreme Ownership, many people latched on to the aggressive implications of the word “extreme” and missed the more nuanced balance that a leader must have. “Leaders must find the equilibrium between opposing forces that pull in opposite directions.” The Dichotomy of Leadership is meant to help leaders find that equilibrium.

Extreme is almost never the answer. Anything can be taken too far. A leader must be able to where to be on any given continuum in any given situation. Steadiness comes to mind. Or as the Romans termed it: gravitas. Knowing what the tensions or the dichotomies are is the first step avoiding the trap of extremes. Willink and Babin offer twelve. We’ll review eight of them here.


The bottom line that leaders build on is the first dichotomy: To care about your people more than anything—but at the same time, 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.” This concept frequently gets lost on some discussing leadership. It’s easy to get this wrong. Getting it right is caring. It’s the job of leading.

Own it All, but Empower Others

The next tension is between micromanagement and hands-off leadership styles. You have to have to take ownership, but at the same time, give ownership. “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.” Leaders set the destination but ownership comes when people can help set the course.

Resolute, but Not Overbearing

When and where do you hold the line? “There is a time to stand firm and enforce the rules and there is a time to give ground and allow the rules to bend. They must set high standards, but they cannot be domineering or inflexible on matters of little strategic importance.” It’s about your leadership capital. “Leadership capital is the recognition that there is a finite amount of power that any leader possesses. It can be expended foolishly, by leaders who harp on matters that are trivial and strategically unimportant. Prioritizing those areas where standards cannot be compromised and holding the line there while allowing for some slack in other, less critical areas is a wise use of leadership capital.” It’s an act of strength for a leader—the opposite of insecurity.

When to Mentor, When to Fire

Knowing when to work with someone and when to let them go isn’t easy. “Most underperformers don’t need to be fired, they need to be led.” The balance when leaders remember that “Instead of focusing on one individual, there is a team—and that the performance of the team trumps the performance of a single individual. Instead of continuing to invest in one subpar performer, once a concerted effort has been made to coach and train that individual to no avail, the leader must remove the individual.”

Disciplined, Not Rigid

Rules can be imposed with too much rigidity that it stifles the team’s ability to think and adapt. Leading isn’t about following the exact procedure, but being able to think and do what makes the most sense so that you can support and lead your team. “Disciplined standard operating procedures, repeatable processes, and consistent methodologies are helpful in any organization. The more discipline a team exercises, the more freedom that team will have to maneuver by implementing small adjustments to existing plans.”

A Leader and a Follower

Following is a part of leading well. Babin recalls, “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. There were many times in my Navy career when, in an effort to prove my leadership, I failed to follow. And rather than strengthen me as a leader in the eyes of the team, it undermined my leadership.” Good leadership not only includes encouraging junior members of the team to step up and contribute but to support the boss even when you disagree with the decision and “execute the plan as if it were your own.”

Plan, but Don’t Overplan

Trying to plan for every contingency can create more problems than it solves. Plan you must, but “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 the leader. Therefore, it is imperative that leaders focus on only the most likely contingencies that might arise for each phase of an operation. Choose at most the three or four most probable contingencies for each phase, along with the worst case scenario.”

Humble, Not Passive

Humility is the leader’s most important quality. Be humble or get humbled. “An important part of being a leader is to be humble enough to see beyond his or her own needs.” And while humility means that you need to recognize that you are part of a larger whole and don’t have all of the answers, “being humble doesn’t mean being passive. It doesn’t mean to not push back when it truly matters. Humility has to be balanced by knowing when to make a stand.” That is, “willing to push back, voice their concerns, stand up to the good of the team and provide feedback.” Humility means knowing when to lead and when to follow. “Pushing back against an order or task from the boss should be the rarest of exceptions and definitely not the rule. Staying humble is the key to developing trust with the chain of command.”

When SEAL leaders had to be fired from “leadership positions in a platoon or task unit, it was almost never because they were tactically unsound, physically unfit, or incompetent. It was most often because they were not humble: they couldn’t check their ego, they refused to accept constructive criticism or take ownership of their mistakes.”

Other dichotomies they cover include: Train Hard, but Train Smart; Aggressive, Not Reckless, Hold People Accountable, but Don’t Hold Their Hands; and Focused, but Detached.

When you find that you are not managing well one of these tensions, the tendency can be to overcompensate. “When a leader moves to rebalance, however, caution must be exercised not to overcorrect. This is a common error: when leaders sense they have gone too far in one direction, they can react by going too far in the other direction. This is ineffective and can make the situation worse. So instead, make measured, calculated adjustments, monitor the results, and then continue to make small, iterative corrections until balance is achieved.”

Balance is never achieved once and done. You will need to move back and forth along these continuums to achieve the results you need because circumstances are always changing. “The leader must continue to monitor the situation, readjust as changes happen, and restore balance.”

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