The Dichotomy of Leadership: Summary & Review

the dichotomy of leadership

In The Dichotomy of Leadership Jocko Willink and Leif Babin apply the law of optimum balance to leadership, and fix a few crucial mistakes and misunderstandings from their previous best-seller “Extreme Ownership“.
In this new book, the authors affirm that there are no extremes in leadership, but many dichotomies. And you need to learn to walk that line right in the middle.

Key Takeaways

  • A leader must walk the line between extremes
  • You must care about your team, but be ultimately responsible for the team and mission, which are bigger than any single individual
  • Being a great leader also means being a great follower (respecting your boss and listening to more junior members who might know more)


About the Authors:
Jocko Willink and Leif Babin are two American retired soldiers who deployed in the Iraq conflict. 
They went on to produce a few books on leadership dynamics and mindsets, most notably “Extreme Ownership“, and transitioned into management consulting.


The Dichotomy of Leadership starts off with Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s previous leadership best-seller: Extreme Ownership.

The problem with that book, the authors say, is in the title itself. Great leadership is never extreme, but always about walking a fine line.

The Dichotomy of leadership teaches the readers how to walk that fine line.

Own It All, But Empower Others

This is basically about walking the line between taking personal responsibility but also delegating work.

While the leader takes ultimate responsibility and ownership, he also gives responsibility and ownership.

Ultimately, says Leif Babin, the task of the leader is to make himself unneeded in the job by helping the people around to step up to the plate.

Resolute, But Not Overbearing

Sometimes you must enforce the rules, demand compliance, expect high standards, and crack the whip. 

But some other times inflexibility on smaller details that carry no strategic importance will only destroy morale and lower your “leadership capital”.

“Leadership capital” rests on the idea that there is only a finite amount of power that any leader possesses. And using it on inconsequential matters is throwing it all away in the most ineffective way possible.

Prioritize all those areas that matter instead and demand excellence in those areas, not necessarily making a perfect bed in the morning.

When to Mentor, When to Fire

Leaders must take responsibility for underperformance and do all they can to teach, mentor, and help.

It comes a time though when you realize that no amount of training, helping, and coaching will help.
And there are even more critical times when underperformance puts the mission or the team at risk.
That’s when a leader must fire and replace.

Most underperformers don’t need to be fired, they need to be led

Disciplined, Not Rigid

A leader must follow the rules that make sense, not all the rules no matter what.

Discipline is not a set of rules that never change, discipline is keeping and following the good rules and changing and adapting those which don’t make sense anymore.

A Great Leader is A Great Follower

The authors recall situations in which they pushed to have it their own way only for the sake of not looking weak.

But, ultimately, that not only led to poorer decisions but also weakened the leader’s position in the eyes of the team.

A leader who can’t admit when there are better alternatives and solutions and when there are other people who have better answers is a leader who is endangering the team and the mission for his own ego’s sake.

Finally, this chapter says that great leadership also means supporting and building a good relationship with your boss even when you don’t like him or don’t agree with him.

Plan, But Don’t Overplan

There is a saying: if you want to make God laugh, make a plan.

Well, the authors, of course, don’t recommend you don’t plan but warn the readers against over-planning.
You cannot plan for every possible and conceivable contingency, so you should only plan for the most likely ones.

Humble, No Passive

Most poor leaders and leaders who had to be fired didn’t have a problem with tactical competence. 
But they weren’t humble enough. 
They couldn’t take criticism, take ownership of their mistakes, or check their ego to learn and grow.

Humility is not passivity though. 
They say:

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.” 

Aggressive, Not Reckless

Aggressive can be a quality, but it must be weighed against critical thinking and risk assessment. 

the dichotomy of leadership

Real-Life Applications

  • Help your people understand their deficiencies

A leader owes it to make it clear to the underperformer where his deficiencies are so that he can work on correcting them.

  • Channel your aggression

Aggression can be good but, again, it’s another element of the dichotomy of leadership.

And sometimes waiting it out is the best option.

I loved this passage in “The Dichotomy of Leadership” and I will quote the authors:

Getting angry at others is ineffective, losing temper is a sign of weakness. 
The aggression that wins in the battlefield, in business or in life is not directed towards people, but towards solving problems, achieving goals and accomplishing the mission.

  • Know when to follow

If a more junior member or a report knows better than you, it’s your duty to listen to him.

  • Leadership is love… And making the tough decisions

This is has become a mantra of this website: love is at the core of real leadership.
And sometimes that love means you need to make tough decisions as well.


These cons are not only about the content, but they take a holistic approach.

I guess some will disagree or dislike the reviewer for the following.
But alas, I don’t write articles to be liked :).

I respect both Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, and my criticism is of the content and some of the ideas they express, not of them.
See this article for the full review:

  • Some Military Small-Mindedness, Unable to Soar Higher

I know many people won’t appreciate reading this, but I felt that “The Dichotomy of Leadership” presents the typical small-mindedness of military personnel.

What I’m talking about?

The glory, the war to defend this or that value and, the “platoon of brothers above all else” and, of course, the defense of whatever “great nation” they represent.

As I already criticized other books for similar content (Lean In, Tribe, and The Way of Men), I believe that this mindset is the cause of much pain in the world, not the solution.
Including pain for yourself. Those are the manipulative values with which governments get you to barter your life for oil.

Unluckily, they’re also effective.
See some of the cult leaders dark psychology techniques:

  • Celebration of Fanaticism 

At times it felt that The Dichotomy of Leadership was the celebration of fanaticism.

From the camaraderie of dying for the platoon to the story of the kid shot on the pavement whose only request is to stay in the platoon.

To me, that story might be the sign of deep manipulation, and potentially some emotional issues, not the sign of a balanced and high-quality individual.

  • The “Bad Guys” That Must All Be Killed

In my opinion, the hallmark of fanaticism is to believe that one is 100% right while someone else is 100% wrong.

And I wonder if it ever crossed those people’s minds that maybe, just maybe, the “good guys” don’t march in an invading army coming from far away, failing to find ANY weapon of mass destruction, leave the region a huge mess and still think they did a great job.

  • Sometimes sounds very self-promotional

Sometimes it felt to me like the words and expressions were unneededly exaggerated or self-congratulatory.

For example:

Our four laws of combat have helped radically improve the performance of teams and organizations -large and small- across the United States and internationally, in nearly every industry in the business world, as well as military units, police and departments, charity organizations, school administrations and sports teams.

I’m sure their “four laws of combat” have been helpful to many, but it felt like it was a big blowing of one’s own horn.

  • Boys Will Be Boys

Some passages felt like you were in front of kids playing tin soldiers or teenagers watching action movies.

The proud tales of “devastating firepower”, the joyous descriptions of weaponry, the self-congratulatory nicknames… It made me reflect on why wars happen.

I understand this feeling, I really do.

I also have had it. A lot. 
And it’s why I understand, that I think it’s dangerous. Probably we should remind ourselves more often that wars aren’t really cool.
Especially when they’re not exactly needed.

For example:

 (…) unleashed the most ruthless and lethal barrage of fire you can imagine. Despite the intensity and violence of close urban combat I couldn’t help but smile. 
Damn, I love those guys, the Big Tough Frogmen who carried…

I warmly invite you to read the article on enlightened individualism to soar higher than the empty -and dangerous- “allegiance to the flag”:


  • Deep Wisdom

There is a lot of wisdom on the reality of leadership here. 
Basically, making sweeping generalizations is impossible (and wrong), because great leadership, like most other things in life, is about balance.

  • Good Reflection on Vulnerability

After Brene Brown and Daring Greatly many people have taken a bad view of vulnerability. 
The Dichotomy of Leadership is a good reminder that a leader can sometimes ill-afford being vulnerable (also read: Vulnerability is Not Power).


The Dichotomy of Leadership presents a few of the limitations typical of soldiers’ fanaticism and army brainwashing.

Things such as “our great nation”, “we’re good, they’re bad”, “fighting a holy war for these great values”, etc. Etc.

As I talk about in “corporate manipulation“, and in “manipulation“, that’s the manipulation that makes you give up your life for… For what, exactly?
Sometimes behind the values hides the self-interest of some politicians and arms producers.

However, once you move past shoes, some of the content here is great. 
Particularly, I enjoyed the passages on aggression and the personal stories on working with weak bosses as I could relate there.

Check the:

or get the book on Amazon

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