The Dichotomy of Leadership by Jocko Willink & Leif Babin: Summary & Notes

Rated: 5/10

Available at: Amazon

Related: Extreme Ownership, Discipline Equals Freedom


This serves as a good companion to Extreme Ownership - you might as well read this one if you’re reading the other.  It’s meant to provide further guidance on how to apply the principles introduced in Extreme Ownership.

That said, for the most part, it’s just common sense.  As long as you don’t take the rules to extremes and recognize how they should be applied, you’ll be fine.


Introduction: Finding the Balance

  • The best leaders and teams acknowledge mistakes, take ownership, and make corrections to improve.  Over time this adds up.
  • Cover and Move: Teamwork is critical among departments and groups.
  • Simple: Complexity breeds chaos and disaster - keep things simple and communicate overall intent.
  • Prioritize & Execute: accomplish highest priorities in series.
  • Decentralized Command: empower team leaders by clearly communicating what to do and why.

Part I: Balancing People

Chapter 1 - The Ultimate Dichotomy

  • You should get close to your employees, your team, but never forget there is a job to be done, and that the good of the company/mission needs to come first.

Chapter 2 - Own It All, but Empower Others

  • You must avoid both micromanagement and being too hands-off.
  • Give clear guidance on the mission, the goal, and the end state, as well as the boundaries in place.
  • Make sure to communicate what other teams are doing.
  • Continue to monitor progress, but try and refrain from giving specific guidance on execution unless necessary.

Chapter 3 - Resolute, but Not Overbearing

  • Leaders 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.
  • The most important explanation a leader can give to the team is “why?"
  • This is particularly important when holding the line and enforcing standards.
  • Keep in mind every leader has a limited amount of “leadership capital”, which must be expended carefully, only on important things.

Chapter 4 - When to Mentor, When to Fire

  • 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.
  • Leaders are responsible for getting their individual team members to perform through coaching, mentoring and counselling.
  • However, once every avenue is pursued without improvement to a sufficient level, leaders must put the team first and remove the individual.

Part II: Balancing the Mission

Chapter 5 - Train Hard, but Train Smart

  • Training must be hard. Training must simulate realistic challenges and apply pressure to decision-makers. There is no growth in the comfort zone.
  • Training must focus on the fundamentals.
  • Training must be repetitive.
  • The best training programs are not orchestrated from the top down, but driven from the bottom.
  • “We don’t have the budget” and “we don’t have time” are not valid excuses. Role-playing is free and training is important - make time.

Chapter 6 - Aggressive, Not Reckless

  • Problems aren’t going to solve themselves—a leader must get aggressive and take action to solve them and implement a solution.
  • 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.
  • “Aggressive" means proactive. It doesn’t mean that leaders can get angry, lose their temper, or be aggressive toward their people.
  • 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.
  • It is also critical to balance aggression with careful thought and analysis to make sure that risks have been assessed and mitigated. The dichotomy with the Default: Aggressive mind-set is that sometimes hesitation allows a leader to further understand a situation so that he or she can react properly to it.
  • To be overly aggressive without critical thinking is to be reckless.
  • Be particularly cautious when you’ve had a few successes; the “disease of victory” can cause overconfidence and underestimation of risks.

Chapter 7 - Disciplined, Not Rigid

  • Disciplined standard operating procedures, repeatable processes, and consistent methodologies are helpful in any organization.
  • Disciplined procedures must be balanced with the ability to apply common sense and deviate from SOPs when necessary.
  • Freedom to think about alternative solutions and make adjustments must also be encouraged.

Chapter 8 - Hold People Accountable, but Don’t Hold Their Hands

  • Use accountability as a tool when needed, but don’t rely on it as the sole means of enforcement, lest it consume all a leader’s time.
  • Balance accountability with educating the team on why and empowering members to maintain standards even without direct oversight from the top.

Part III: Balancing Yourself

Chapter 9 - A Leader and a Follower

  • Leaders must be willing and able to lead.
  • However, they must be willing to lean on expertise and ideas of others more experienced, even if more junior.
  • They must also follow their own leaders: you must execute senior ideas as if they are your own once they are decided upon.

Chapter 10 - Plan, but Don’t Overplan

  • Careful planning, preparing for likely contingencies and never taking anything for granted is essential to succeeding.
  • However, you must focus on the most likely scenarios - perhaps 3-4 likely ones, plus the worst-case.
  • Too much planning and the process becomes unfocused and overwhelming.  Too little, and you will fail.

Chapter 11 - Humble, Not Passive

  • Humility is the most important quality in a leader.
  • However, you must not be so humble as to be passive - when necessary, push back, voice concerns, stand up and provide feedback.

Chapter 12 - Focused, but Detached

  • Leaders must be attentive to details and in touch with the front lines, but must also keep the bigger picture in mind.


  • Take Extreme Ownership of everything in your world, but strive to be extremely balanced in everything you do.

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