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

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Written by former solider leader SEAL who became management consultant providing leadership guidance to CEOs. Highlights dichotomies of leadership throughout the book relating lessons learnt from war scenarios which can then be applied to business.  Being able to recognise the many dichotomies of leadership, for example being strong but not overbearing will provide you with an awareness of these two opposing forces which is a powerful tool to enable leaders at every level to lead and win.

Starts off with an example of a war zone scenario that captures your attention and highlights that even junior SEAL operators have to make decisions that impacted the direction of the entire operation. Therefore every individual operator (SEAL) needs the tactical and operational savvy to make important decisions quickly and confidently and a robust training process is in place.

First example is the dichotomy of trying to navigate between leadership and followership, be ready to lead, but also know when to follow. As a leader be prepared to follow at times Every leader must be willing and able to lead, but just as important is a leader’s ability to follow. A leader must be willing to lean on the expertise and ideas of others for the good of the team. Leaders must be willing to listen and follow others, 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. 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.

Another dichotomy is Taking Extreme Ownership of everything that impacts the mission, but also empowering others to lead with Decentralized Command. Perhaps the ultimate Dichotomy of Leadership that a combat leader must face: it is a combat leader’s duty to care about his troops more than anything else in the world,  yet, at the same time, a leader must accomplish the mission. A good leader builds powerful, strong relationships with his or her subordinates. But while that leader would do anything for those team members, the leader must recognize there is a job to do. And that job might put the very people the leader cares so much about at risk. If his relationships are too close and he can’t detach from his emotions, he might not be able to make tough choices that involve risk to his men. With that attitude, the team will get nothing done—that team fails the mission. At the other end of the spectrum, if a leader cares too much about accomplishing the mission, he may sacrifice the health and safety of his men without gaining any significant advantage.  The team may then think of the leader as callous and no longer respect and follow leading to the team falling apart.

If you micromanage too much the team shuts down mentally.

Symptoms 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.

If you see these behaviours in your team then take corrective action.

The key is to balance the dichotomy between taking too much ownership and not taking enough.

Principle micromanagement and hands-off leadership styles are obviously opposites. The micromanager tries to control every thought and action of each individual on the team. Micromanagement fails because no one person can control multiple people executing a vast number of actions in a dynamic environment, where changes in the situation occur rapidly and with unpredictability. This also inhibits the growth of subordinates: when people become accustomed to being told what to do, they begin to await direction. Initiative fades and eventually dies. Creativity and bold thought and action soon die as well. The team becomes a bunch of simple and thoughtless automatons, following orders without understanding, moving forward only when told to do so. A team like that will never achieve greatness. Book used example in business of a CEO micromanaging and taking too much ownership. The solution was to cut meetings and not to be an easy solution for your team.

Decentralised command vs extreme ownership. For leaders, it is often a struggle to know when and where to hold the line. 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.

Leaders, on the one hand, cannot be too lenient. But on the other hand, they cannot become overbearing. They must set high standards and drive the team to achieve those standards, but they cannot be domineering or inflexible on matters of little strategic importance. To find this balance, leaders must carefully evaluate when and where to hold the line and when to allow some slack. They must determine when to listen to subordinate leaders and allow them ownership, making adjustments for their concerns and needs.

A leader only has a finite amount of “leadership capital” which is a recognition that there is only a certain amount of power that any leader possesses. It can be expended foolishly, by leaders who harp on matters that are trivial and strategically unimportant. Leadership capital is acquired slowly over time through building trust and confidence with the team by demonstrating that the leader has the long-term good of the team and the mission in mind.

The most important explanation a leader can give to the team is “why?” – particularly when a leader must hold the line and enforce standards. Why it is important, why it will help accomplish the mission, and what the consequences are for failing to do so. Don’t possess the attitude of “because I said so.”

In any organization, and especially in the military, the harder a unit trained, the more its members are pushed together and the tighter the bond between them becomes.

Another dichotomy you may face is if you have one suboptimal team member, keep them or remove them and have one less. The challenge of balancing when to keep working with someone to help them improve and deciding when it was time to let that person go isn’t easy.

Possess the attitude of doing everything you can to help your subordinates, peers, and leaders to be the best they can possibly be.  Relates this in part to the success of the author’s military ventures teams. But this attitude has to be balanced by knowing when we as leaders had done everything we could to help an individual get up to speed, but the individual still fell short and the decision had to be made to let him go. Most underperformers don’t need to be fired, they need to be led. But once every effort has been made to help an underperformer improve and all efforts have failed, a leader has to make the tough call to let that person go. This is the duty and responsibility of every leader.

With training it is important to find the balance between training that is too easy, where the trainees weren’t truly challenged, and training that is so hard that the trainees were crushed was a dichotomy that leaders and instructors had to balance during every training event. Train hard, but train smart “You train how you fight and you fight how you train.” The best training programs push their teams hard, far beyond their comfort zone, so that the team can learn from mistakes in training. Hopefully, this prevents the team from making those or similar mistakes in real life.

In training you must find the balance in training and focus on three critical aspects: realism, fundamentals, and repetition. Training must also be hard there is a dichotomy in the military with being aggressive that must be balanced: aggression is not always the answer. Aggression must be balanced with logic and detailed analysis of risk versus reward.

Problems aren’t going to solve themselves—a leader must get aggressive and take action to solve them and implement a solution. In this instance aggressive means proactive, it doesn’t mean that leaders can get angry, lose their temper, or be aggressive toward their people. A leader must always deal professionally with others, after all speaking angrily to others is ineffective. Losing your temper is a sign of weakness. 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. To be overly aggressive, without critical thinking, is to be reckless. That can lead the team into disaster and put the greater mission in peril.

Being too passive and waiting for a solution to appear often enables a problem to escalate and get out of control. An aggressive mind-set should be the default setting of any leader. Default: Aggressive. This means that the best leaders, 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. Leaders proactively seek out ways to further the strategic mission.

A careful moment of consideration might reveal the enemy’s true intentions. To disregard prudent counsel when someone with experience urges caution, to dismiss significant threats, or to fail to plan for likely contingencies is foolhardy. It is bad leadership. “Leading” does not mean to push your agenda or proving that you have all the answers. It is about collaborating with the rest of the team and determining how to most effectively accomplish a mission or goal.

The dichotomy of planning and over planning. Don’t try to plan for every contingency. Doing so will only overburden you and weigh you down so that you cannot quickly manoeuvre. Contingency planning is extremely important but time can be wasted on extreme detailed planning, and these plans can then cause confusion when things didn’t unfold exactly as they had expected. Flexibility trumps minute details when it comes to planning.  The most effective teams build flexible plans.

However, thorough planning is critical. Not preparing for likely contingencies is to set the team up for failure. Finding the balance between planning and overplanning is critical.  Lean toward planning so that you are fully prepared to react properly should some of these possible contingencies occur. Lead up the chain of command and put together a comprehensive plan that included a clear assessment of the risks and the contingency plans to help mitigate them.

Humility is required not thinking you are above others, be sure to know when to push back to orders from above although these are rare exceptions. Humility is essential to building strong relationships with others, both up and down the chain of command, as well as with supporting teams outside the immediate chain of command.

The dichotomy with humility is taking it to the extreme and being too humble, this can be disastrous for the team. 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.

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. 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.

When the team is on the verge of disaster, it’s time for the senior leader to put detachment aside and step into the fray, to solve problems and help the team. It’s time to lead. Once those problems are getting solved, the leader can then step back to a position of detachment.  All the dichotomies require deliberate thought about how to balance the two opposing forces. 

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