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Summary: The Dichotomy of Leadership: Balancing the Challenges of Extreme Ownership to Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

  • The book presents 12 dichotomies that every leader must balance in order to achieve victory, such as owning everything but empowering others, being aggressive but not overbearing, and being humble but not passive.
  • The book uses examples from the authors’ experiences in the SEAL teams and their consulting work with various businesses and organizations to illustrate how these dichotomies can be applied in different situations and contexts.
  • The book provides practical tips and tools to help leaders navigate these dichotomies and find the optimal balance for each scenario.

Jocko Willink and Leif Babin know a thing or two about leadership. As former Navy SEALs, they’ve experienced humanity at both its best and worst. After the success of their 2015 book “Extreme Ownership,” they felt the need for a follow-up, and that is what you’ll find distilled in this book summary. The Dichotomy of Leadership is more than a sequel; it’s a tactical crash course in the finer nuances of its predecessor. Here are the tools to personalize your leadership role in any area of life.

Two former Navy SEALs draw upon their field experiences to lay out a blueprint for leadership.


  • Want to understand not just the what of leadership but also the how
  • Are looking for a way to restructure your leadership
  • Need to step up your game but don’t know where to start

Book Summary: The Dichotomy of Leadership - Balancing the Challenges of Extreme Ownership to Lead and Win


The horrors of war are traumatizing and inhuman. They are also the toughest school anyone can attend. As graduates with honors, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin have internalized the subtleties of tactical combat and then some. Above all, they learned the value of leadership, and the humility required to maintain it:

To be an effective leader, one must be an effective follower.

Put another way: In order to give orders, you need to understand what it means to take them. Finding balance between too much aggression and too little is at the philosophical core of this summary.

When facing thick enemy fire, survival depends on your ability to be cool under pressure. In the hierarchy of a SEAL platoon, this is only possible when leadership is given at all levels. When everyone feels they have a voice and knows their voice will be heard, equilibrium becomes possible. Having a voice, however, means also owning up to your mistakes and to those taking place under your command. Being candid and forthcoming about your weaknesses leads to innovation, improvement, and progress.

Take any one of these principles too far, and positions get compromised. Effective leadership is a continual process of negotiation. No leader can manage everything. Which is why balance is the absolute foundation.

Balancing People

A young SEAL lies gravely wounded in a military hospital thousands of miles from home. Despite the prospect of losing his leg, he wants nothing more than to stay. Letting his team down just isn’t an option. Willink, as his commander, is heartbroken for the boy, whose selflessness is as instructive as it is futile. Fighting against the pity welling up inside, Willink deems it best to get this dedicated soldier back home, where he’ll receive far better medical care than is available on base. It’s a painful reminder that, while he’s there to protect his men, he’s also putting them in harm’s way at every turn.

The members of his unit are simultaneously his children and his brothers — a relationship so deep that inevitable losses tear everyone to emotional shreds. Each person killed in action undermines any delusions of omniscience. The integrity of the team matters more than their individual lives. Every casualty is a major blow, but in accepting their responsibility in those lost lives, those who survive earn their keep as leaders. The mission is bigger than all of them combined.

It’s a profound dichotomy to swallow: caring so much about your time that you’re willing to risk it for the mission. But if a leader’s only purpose under fire were to offer protection, then nothing would ever be accomplished. The same holds true in business: If by “leadership” you mean mitigating risk at every turn, you will never innovate.

Back in the field, Willink is realizing that his junior leaders have never stepped up to the challenge of leadership because he hasn’t allowed them to do so. Only when he concedes some of that leadership does he see how different operations might work (or not work) in tandem, and gain a better grasp of intelligence. Hence a shift from Extreme Ownership to Decentralized Command. Somewhere between micromanaging and employing a hands-off approach is the fulcrum on which the ideal leader sits.

Symptoms of micromanaging include:

  • Teams who are less likely to act without orders
  • Waiting for solutions instead of coming up with them
  • Failing to mobilize during an emergency
  • Fear of being bold
  • A lack of creativity
  • Self-compartmentalization
  • Settling into passivity as a default

To solve these issues, you must focus on mission goals and priorities, oversee without dictating, and observing how your team reacts under pressure.

Symptoms of hands-off approach include:

  • Lack of vision
  • Little or no coordination
  • Team members who exceed their brief
  • Lack of coordination
  • Nearsightedness when it comes to strategic trajectory
  • A competitive approach to leadership

In business, you can defuse these problems by outlining your company’s mission in simplest terms, setting clear boundaries, and assigning specific leadership roles across the board.

While seemingly endless details imposed by an overbearing leader bog people down and kill motivation, the disadvantages of being too forgiving can be equally detrimental to your business. In order to strike the right balance between enforcing the rules and allowing them to bend, you must have Leadership Capital in your toolkit.

Leadership Capital means acknowledging your limits as a leader. It means not wasting time lording your authority over insignificant things, instead building trust among your team slowly and surely. It’s not merely a question of being accountable, but also being prepared to answer the “Why?” question at any given moment.

If, for example, a CEO were to demand that everyone turn off their cell phones during meetings, but enforced this rule only because they wanted it that way, employees would naturally feel that their leader was imposing on their routines. Reveling in one’s power for the sake of it isn’t sustainable business practice. But if that same CEO explains, clearly and succinctly, why a “No Cell Phones” policy would be beneficial to productivity, everyone knows where they stand in relation to the larger goal.

Balancing the Mission

In the grind of SEAL training, less-capable trainees tend to get “task saturated.” When this happens, they lack the confidence to prioritize and execute, because they’ve lost sight of their priorities. Those who struggle to get through their training typically do so for no lack of passion. It’s more often because they haven’t been properly guided to success. Thus, leaders must take it upon themselves to recognize talent when they see it, nurture it when those who possess it don’t, and allocate it properly in the field.

The most effective leaders, then, prepare rookies and veterans alike to handle the most dramatic real-life situations. Training is invaluable in that regard, because it might just be the only time in a soldier’s life when mistakes don’t have fatal consequences. Those who make them learn just how lucky they are to have the opportunity to be reprimanded, and the strong will orient themselves in service of solutions from thereon out. A genuine sense of, and respect for, leadership is more valuable than the deadliest weapons, tactics, and confidence.

The most effective training is built on the same leadership principles that would be expected in actual combat. It’s challenging yet realistic, a time to hammer out inconsistencies, mistakes, and bad habits. It’s about pushing trainees outside their comfort zone to see how they react to their own errors, but not so far that solutions are impossible.

Comfort zones are not places for growth.

Whether you’re organizing a blitz against insurgents in Baghdad or hustling your team to meet a deadline, you must be realistic, repetitive, and principled. Just as a team of SEALs are as good as dead without a clear sense of direction, it falls upon any senior project manager without faith in their frontline leaders to train them better. Understanding potential risks and determining which ones are worth exploring is critical to success. A little risk is game-changing. Too much is suicidal.

And if you think that’s nerve-racking, imagine yourself in Willink’s shoes, trying to distinguish his own SEALs from a group of friendlies who’ve just shown up unannounced disguised in local clothing. He relays the situation to his overwatch element leader, who follows suit, only adding to the tension. It’s a stark reminder of something Willink has always conveyed in the training process: Always know where you are.

With some decisive and quick thinking, Willink and his team manage to capture an insurgent population and its weapons cache. In this case, the solution required aggression. Controlled aggression. Not reckless and violent, for fear of collateral damage, but proactive. Aggressive leaders understand their place at any given moment. They value well-considered strategy and analysis. It’s no different for the CEO considering expansion. Without a careful and honest assessment of company balance sheets, goals, and resources, progress is next to impossible. An undetermined risk cannot be overcome.

Effective leaders know how to observe and assess without feigning omniscience. Enough discipline is vital, but too much of it puts its hands around adaptability’s neck.

Case in point: A business relying on its phone sales force to acquire customers is in crisis mode. Sales are plummeting, and the phone calls aren’t helping. The problem is that the salespeople are too good at their job. They have their scripts perfectly memorized, answers to every rejection at the ready. All of which means they’re devoid of personality on the phone. They have become robotic about their work. Other factors, such as a minimum call quota, are encouraging salespeople to focus on quantity over quality. There is, in essence, an excess of discipline. It all comes down to a lack of proper training, and to a micromanaging mentality that keeps employees from doing what they are, in theory, best at: being themselves.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, Willink’s men are doing the opposite: lightening their load by removing heavy pieces of armor, especially back plates, for the sake of convenience, and because their confidence tells them it’s OK (“You won’t find me running from the enemy!”). Seeing that his men are cavorting around with less protection, he could easily blame them. Instead, he owns up to the fact that the fault is his for being so lackadaisical about gear inspections in the first place. It’s a wakeup call to lead better. By reminding them that they can’t ever know where the enemy might be at every moment, they concede. He has encouraged them see the value of protocol and found a way to make them want to follow it. Accountability is well and good, but it cannot work alone. When everyone knows the answer to why they do the things they do, there’s no need to helicopter them in the interest of improved performance. Accountability without empathy leads to a surplus of supervision — time better spent on logistics, analysis, and growth. Accountability is just one star in a constellation of approaches working in tandem for the whole.

Balancing Yourself

Looking back on his combat experience, Babin cultivates a deep respect for splitsecond decisions. Such decisions are only as good as the training behind them, and spotlight the importance of understanding the terrain as you go. You can prepare all you want by looking at maps or surveying potential combat zones, but you’ll never know the details until you touch down on the field and let its details speak to you.

Successful operations require the trust of subordinates whose own experience can lead to better knowledge. During his own training, Babin once asserted authority over a petty officer who was beyond confident that his strategy for boarding and clearing a ship was exactly what the mission required. Babin chose to ignore it, learning only after the fact that he should have followed the officer’s suggestion. He learned a vital lesson about following, one that all leaders should remember: They, too, will always have people to answer to. The chain of command must never be broken.

In business, this means treating every boss with the same respect your subordinates would expect of you. Without it, no boss will ever trust you, value your opinion, or give you the resources needed to fulfill your assigned tasks. One must plan not only for success, but also for failure.

That said, over-planning can actually hinder your mission: While unexpected obstacles can (and will) arise, contingency plans can only cover so much. Understand that the strategies put in place before you probably exist for a reason — they’ve been proven over time. That doesn’t mean you can’t innovate; it means only that your boss must give you to tools to do so, just as you should to whomever is under your watch. There are times to resist and challenge, but these must be selective and strategic. There’s only so much ammunition to go around.


Effective leadership requires humility. That doesn’t mean you must be passive, but honest about limitations. Put together a master team to compensate for your deficiencies. Be aware of details, but not so immersed in them that you lose track of the bigger picture. As on the battlefield, your gun sight limits your vision, which is why, as a leader, you should step back now and then to survey what others might be missing.

The point of extreme leadership is (ironically enough) to avoid extremes. Tip the scales too far in one direction, and the rest falls away. Just remember these golden rules:

  • Being aware of dichotomies is the first step to balancing them.
  • Be engaged enough to recognize when the scales are tipping.
  • Don’t overcorrect.
  • Don’t delude yourself into thinking that equilibrium, once achieved, will stay that way.
  • Prioritize the mission.

About the author

While serving as US Navy SEAL officers, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin experienced some of the most challenging combat imaginable. Off the battlefield, they have translated lessons learned on it into strategies not only for the benefit of future SEALs, but also for those in need of a leadership boost in their personal and professional lives. They know better than most that even within the military there are bad apples, and have used that knowledge to help businesses in the civilian sector. In 2012 Willink and Babin founded Echelon Front, a training company focused on building teams and skill sets within the corporate sector, and in that capacity have given thousands the ammunition they need to excel.


Motivational, Leadership, Business, Nonfiction, Self Help, Management, Personal Development, Military Fiction, Psychology, War, Self Improvement

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Introduction: Finding the Balance,
Chapter 1: The Ultimate Dichotomy,
Chapter 2: Own It All, but Empower Others,
Chapter 3: Resolute, but Not Overbearing,
Chapter 4: When to Mentor, When to Fire,
Chapter 5: Train Hard, but Train Smart,
Chapter 6: Aggressive, Not Reckless,
Chapter 7: Disciplined, Not Rigid,
Chapter 8: Hold People Accountable, but Don’t Hold Their Hands,
Chapter 9: A Leader and a Follower,
Chapter 10: Plan, but Don’t Overplan,
Chapter 11: Humble, Not Passive,
Chapter 12: Focused, but Detached,
Also by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin,
About the Authors,


The book is a sequel to the authors’ previous bestseller, [Extreme Ownership], which introduced the concept of taking full responsibility for everything that impacts one’s mission, whether as a leader or a follower. In this book, the authors dive deeper into the nuances and complexities of leadership, and present 12 dichotomies that every leader must balance in order to achieve victory. These dichotomies are:

  • Own everything, but empower others.
  • Care deeply, but be detached.
  • Be aggressive, but not overbearing.
  • Be disciplined, but not rigid.
  • Hold people accountable, but don’t micromanage.
  • Be a leader, but also a follower.
  • Plan, but don’t overplan.
  • Humble, but not passive.
  • Focused, but not myopic.
  • Confident, but not cocky.
  • Train hard, but train smart.
  • Resolute, but not overbearing.

The authors use examples from their combat and training experiences in the SEAL teams, as well as from their consulting work with various businesses and organizations, to illustrate how these dichotomies can be applied in different situations and contexts. They also provide practical tips and tools to help leaders navigate these dichotomies and find the optimal balance for each scenario.

I found the book to be very insightful and engaging. The authors have a wealth of experience and knowledge in leadership, and they share it in a clear and compelling way. The book is full of real-life stories and anecdotes that illustrate the principles and concepts of the dichotomies. The stories are not only informative, but also entertaining and inspiring. The authors also use humor and self-deprecation to keep the tone light and relatable.

The book is well-structured and organized. Each chapter focuses on one dichotomy, and explains its importance, its challenges, its pitfalls, and its solutions. The chapters are also divided into sub-sections that cover different aspects of the dichotomy, such as how it applies to individuals, teams, organizations, and missions. The chapters end with a summary of the key points and a list of questions to help readers reflect on their own leadership style and performance.

The book is not only relevant for military leaders, but also for anyone who wants to improve their leadership skills and effectiveness in any field or endeavor. The dichotomies are universal and applicable to any situation that requires leadership, whether it is in business, sports, education, or personal life. The book provides a comprehensive and practical framework for leaders to assess their strengths and weaknesses, identify their areas of improvement, and develop their optimal balance.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in leadership or wants to become a better leader. It is a valuable resource that can help leaders achieve their goals and lead their teams to victory.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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