Great Leadership Is Great Manipulation: Jocko Willlink Case Study

dark psychology leadership with jocko willink face

Great leadership requires great manipulation.

It’s a strong statement, but this website has a track record for opening people’s eyes to subtle (or not so subtle) manipulation and games people play.

So keep on reading, and you will understand the dark psychology behind manipulative leadership.


Leadership is getting things done with people and through people.

And the most you can get from people, is when they are willing to die.

Makes sense, no?

So the next question becomes:

how do you make people willing to die?

Well, it’s rarely by encouraging them to critically think things over.
Because if they do, they’d soon realize that death is not good for them and many would rather not submit to any leadership that means “high risk of death”.

That also makes sense, right?

So, often, to make people want to die, you need some next-level manipulation.

And that’s how we get into leadership and manipulation.

Note: Extreme Leadership Equals Not Great

First off:

There can be great leadership without manipulation.
As a matter of fact, we may say that value-adding is the foundation of great leadership.

This case study is more about extreme forms of leadership.
And there can also be “extreme” leadership without manipulation.

Now, in terms of definitions:

Since we are talking about more extreme cases here, we might as well, and maybe more appropriately call this “extreme leadership” or “leadership in high-risk endeavors” rather than “great”.

However, many people confuse (good) leadership in high-risk situations with “great” and “higher-level leadership skills”.
Such as, they think that leading in more extreme situations automatically makes you a great leader in all situations.
In that sense, they think that “more extreme” somewhat equals “greater”.

We disagree with that, but for the sake of this article, there is enough meaning overlap in people’s minds that we can use both terms interchangeably.

Case Study: Jocko Willink & War

We’ll use the example of Jocko Willink here.

But let me say this first:

This is not a tirade against Jocko Willink.
Jocko is a great guy, a high-quality man, and he has much to teach.
But he serves as a great example of the dynamics of certain types of leadership that can turn value-taking for the followers.

This is what Jocko Willink says of leadership and manipulation:

Jocko Willink: manipulation is good for the leader only. Great leadership is good for you, the team, and the mission.

So, in simpler terms, which is also the expression we use on the power moves, Jocko Willink says that great leadership adds value to everyone, including the followers.

And it’s true.
And it sounds realistic… On paper.

Unluckily, it’s not always how it works in practice.

And to clearly show this point, I’m gonna read a passage from Jocko’s book “The Dichotomy of Leadership“:

When Extreme Leadership Maims You

The wounded SEAL now lay on a gurney in Charlie Med (…)

The bullet, a mammoth armor-piercing 7.62 × 54 millimeter round with a steel core had entered his leg at the lower thigh, ripped apart flesh and bone inside his leg, and exited in his upper thigh, close to the groin.

It was hard to say if he would keep his leg. From the looks of the wound, my guess was no, he would lose it.

The Dichotomy of Leadership

At this point you can already ask yourself:

Was this good for this young man, the follower?

Maybe it was good for the mission and maybe it was good for the various leaders up the chain.
But was it good for this kid losing his leg?

Debatable at least.

Extreme Leadership Subordinates You to The Group

Again from the book:

The wounded SEAL’s grip on my hand tightened and he pulled me in, drawing me just inches from his face.


He took a breath and then whispered, “Sir. Let me stay. Let me stay. Please. Don’t make me go home. I’ll do anything. I’ll sweep up around the camp. I can heal here. Please, please, please just let me stay with the task unit.”

The Dichotomy of Leadership

These are verbatim words from the book.

So, seen from the point of view of this wounded kid, you’re struggling to survive and your biggest fear is that they will send you back home?
Your last breath is for begging to stay?

How does this sound in terms of effects of manipulation, emotional neediness, and “being good for him”?

To me, this sounds like pathological attachment, total emotional neediness, high dependence… And at least from a practical point of view, not good for him.

These are the effects that psychologists and therapists see from their patients in manipulative, abusive, and toxic relationships.
Just as some examples, you could see “Women Who Love Psychopaths“, “Women Who Love Too Much“, or Braiker’s great work on emotional manipulation in “Who’s Pulling Your Strings“.

Again from the same book:

There you go. Not scared. Not angry. Not depressed that he might lose his leg.

Only concerned that he might have to leave our task unit.

Task Unit Bruiser. Our task unit. Our lives.

OK, your task unit is your life.

The Dichotomy of Leadership

TPM promotes the value of empowered individuals.
So we’re not big fans of having this or that group becoming “your life”.

However, we’re not against that either.
As long as:

  • You’re aware of the dangers
  • You can walk out of that group any time you want, emotionally and, ideally, physically
  • You maintain at least some level of critical thinking
  • You maintain at least some basic level of self-preservation

This requires holding a duality of approaches in your mind: you’re aware that the group is “your life”, while at the same time you respect and love yourself as an individual, with his own power and own self.

That also means that, on TPM, we see an issue when someone becomes part of the group to the point that they lose their sense of self.

When the group becomes your only reason to live for, then you’re not an individual anymore.
You’re a cog in a wheel you have no control over.

When You Fuse Identity With The Group, You Lose Yourself

This is called identity fusion in psychology.

When you lose your sense of self there is no thinking for yourself anymore, of course, there is no critical thinking, and at the extreme there is no self-interest and self-preservation, which is terrible for you, not good for you.

This is like being a bee or an ant and protecting the queen.
Good for the queen, no doubt.
But not necessarily for the bee.

We talked about similar dynamics in “corporate lies and manipulation

Well, in contrast to ants and bees, humans could theoretically think.
But if they’re identity-fused, there is not much independent thinking anymore.
There is no questioning the mission, no questioning the leadership, and no questioning orders –“I was just following orders”, does that remind you of anything?-

Great for the mission, because you’d die for it.
Great for the team, because you’d die for the team.
Great for the leaders too, because you’d die for them -and they have full control over you-.


Is it also good for you?

Well, sometimes it might be.

But it’s far from obvious.
The problem is that you’ll have to trust your leader to have the best in mind for you.
And on TPM we prefer an approach that is more about “trusting BUT making sure”, rather than blindly trusting.

Funny enough, being willing to die for the “mission” and the “group” without critical thinking is no different than the power dynamics in the jihadist organization the US military was purportedly fighting.

Extreme Leadership Subordinates You To The “Leader”

Again from the same book:

Even if he kept his leg, the damage was so substantial that it didn’t seem possible he would ever fully regain the extraordinary athleticism he had displayed.

And yet this SEAL was only concerned that he would let me down, let the task unit down, let his platoon—his team—down.

The Dichotomy of Leadership

Not letting Jocko Willink down.

Typical emotional dynamics of what we call “judge role” in power dynamics.

In simpler terms, it’s control via emotional “hooks”.
If the leader likes you and approves of you, you feel great.
If the leader dislikes you and disapproves of you, you feel terrible.
So you want to do anything that makes the leader like and approve of you.

That’s a very strong control tool that a leader can have on you.

Watch out when you feel that way towards anyone because you’re giving them a lot of power over you.

Goes on Jocko Willink:

A great guy to be around: Faithful. Loyal. Funny.

The Dichotomy of Leadership

Well, what if that was exactly his problem.
Loyal, to whom?
Faithful to whom?

What if he were more loyal to himself -and what’s good for him-?

Extreme Leadership Subordinates You to Lies

Not always, but very often:

Extreme leadership requires extreme representations of reality.

And that’s basically a different way of saying “distortions of reality” and “lies”.

People aren’t much willing to engage in extreme activities and follow extremists when they see the world as shades of greys, exceptions, and as “distributed evil and goodness” among different societies and people.

Instead, they are much more willing to do extreme actions when they see the world as extremes.

Would this kid feel the same if:

  • He knew that part of the motivation beyond the war was oil, power, and interest groups of certain lobbyists?
  • He knew that many Iraquis would probably live worse after the war?
  • He knew that for every war there is someone at home who is happy and couldn’t care less if you die?

There, my friends, lies the other piece of extreme manipulation: blinkers.

In milder forms, we talked about these dynamics in:

The Nature Extreme Leadership

A good question:

What type of leadership are we talking about here?

Learning what type of leadership it’s this, can also allow you to replicate it -and potentially, without the manipulative shade of it-.

In his book Extreme Ownership Jocko says that the principles of great leadership are extreme ownership, prioritize and execute, delegating, developing relationships, and a few more.

These are all great principles, of course.
But are those the principles that make the most extreme forms of leadership most effective?

Of course, they help.
Maybe 20%.

But the 80% was in the total, unquestioning buy-in from the followers, and the total following orders, no matter what.

It’s easy to tell followers what to prioritize and execute when they’re ready to die.
It’s easy to implement cover and move when followers would take a bullet to cover you.
It’s easy to give followers tasks and expect them to do their best when they so desperately want your approval.

We’re not talking about leadership principle here, we’re talking about leadership power dynamics.
Persuasion, when it’s good for you.
And full-on manipulation when it’s not.

Antidote to Manipulative Leadership

The best antidotes for manipulation:

Total manipulation can only happen when there is a lack of mental self-empowerment.

Once you can see and understand the psychology of manipulation, of how these hooks work within you, then you can step back and better assess the situation.
Funny enough, stepping back is something Jocko often talks about.
And only then you’re truly free and empowered to make decisions.

Any decision.

Because this article is NOT necessarily against fighting, wars, or joining extreme groups and missions.

As a matter of fact, there are times when fighting is necessary.
And there are times when putting your life on the line might even be a moral duty.

But as much as it can be a moral duty to fight, it’s a moral duty to critically think it over.

To critically analyze that “mission” and that “leadership”.
And not just the leader above you, but the whole chain.
Because if the guy above you is great -and by the way I think Jocko is great- but the organization is rotten, you’re still doing the bidding of a morally bankrupt organization.

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