The Dichotomy of Leadership
I had quite a bit of time on my had this last weekend, as I went hunting on my family’s land, and where our land is, there’s no access to the modern world. When you hit a certain mile marker, your phones won’t reach anyone, or anything. So, with that in mind, I decided to download Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s new book, The Dichotomy of Leadership, which is a follow up to their first book together, Extreme Ownership: How Navy Seals Lead and Win, to listen to while sitting up in a tree waiting for deer for hours on end. I finished the book on the second evening out. The book was really good, an excellent follow up, however for me, it wasn’t nearly as enlightening as the first book, mostly because I understood the pragmatic stoicism that Jocko and Leif have in the modern age, vs the classical view of stoicism.
I’m no philosopher, but I’ll try to make a crude distinction between classical stoicism, and what I call pragmatic stoicism. Classical Stoicism holds that one must endure indifference in the face of hardship, pain, and shortcomings, as well as being indifferent to pleasure and success in life. In short, you don’t sweat the small stuff, or the big stuff, or the fun stuff. You don’t let anything phase you, and you continually focus on moving forward. Pretty solid advice, except then you’re going to be a fairly lame party guest.
Pragmatic Stoicism, which is what I call the real-world implementation of stoicism, is that you’re not indifferent to the bad things that happen in life, nor the good. If you’re constantly indifferent to things, the opinions of others, actions and behaviors that might lead you into bad situations in relationships or business, or ignoring the good things because you don’t want to get drunk on success, then you’re not indifferent, you’re apathetic. You don’t care if bad things or good things happen, they are equally unimportant to you. This is where, in the authors’ own words and experience, they found the issue the most people who read Extreme Ownership had – they thought they had to be EXTREME about it.
For those of you unfamiliar with the format of the book, each chapter has a story from the authors’ experiences in the military, either in training or in active duty and combat, they dissect the story and its principle of the concept of either Extreme Ownership or Dichotomy of Leadership, and then show how it applies to business and life. In most of the events of Dichotomy, the authors explored various situations both in their own life, and dealing with clients of their Leadership Consultation Business, Echelon Front. The stories recount how Jocko, Leif, and their clients, all experience the extreme ends of the concepts from Extreme Ownership, when in actuality, and in their own words, and to paraphrase here, “Extreme Ownership is not about the Extremes. It’s not about being so disciplined, that you become rigid and unmoving. It’s not about putting so much emphasis on owning one’s actions, that nothing is your fault because everyone is responsible for themselves; it’s not about being so aggressive that you have tunnel vision, and can’t see the big picture, or worse, your own teammates are intimidated by you that they won’t work with you. It’s about balance between the Extremes, that’s the Dichotomy of Leadership.”
There were three things I enjoyed about the Dichotomy that I think the majority of people who read Extreme Ownership, and idolize the military in general, missed the mark on.
Soldiers, professional or reserve, are not robots. They have feelings too.
One of the reoccurring themes in their client interactions, is this belief that the followers need to take the orders of the leadership, and never question it; moreover, that they need to put aside their feelings and emotions away, for the good of the company or mission. In some stories explained by Jocko and Leif, that was incredibly NOT the case for the U.S. Military and Special Forces. In fact, it was their love of their fellow Navy SEALs, and the US Army, Marine and Iraqi forces accompanying them on their missions, as if they were their own brothers and sisters, that Jocko and Leif would regularly question leadership, not to be insubordinate (although there were some cases they could have been insubordinate if they didn’t tread lightly) but to make sure there was no unnecessary loss of life. In one case, Leif openly denied support, to a fellow special forces team leader, because his mission plan was so reckless, it was likely (and did) fail, and put many US operatives in jeopardy of death, in the hopes that he would not attempt it.
When a fellow Soldier, Marine, or SEAL would be injured, or killed, it would wreck the authors’, as well as their fellows, to the core, and remind them how deeply their bonds went. They would openly describe their sorrow, as well as describe how they mourned on the base after their mission was done. When they completed a mission without any casualties on their side, or even without having to face enemy forces, they would be elated and celebrate their victories openly. The would bask in glory, and congratulate each other, and be ready for the next mission. When SEALs would be under fire, the armored divisions of the Army and Marines wouldn’t hesitate to head out and assist, and likewise, if the US military and Navy was under attack, the SEALS would not hesitate to move out and support them.
These are not automatons, they are not mindless killing machines, hell bent on victory or death; they are brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, who have more on the line than just mission completion – and that is something that people who have read this book don’t understand. If your company members don’t understand why something is being done, or don’t agree with it, it’s not “my way or the highway” because then they’re most likely not going to be able to implement the plan or systems involved, leading to failure, or worse – they’re just not going to do it because you’re not treating them with respect. If a company member is upset and angry with their job, it’s not their duty to clam up about it, it’s your duty as a leader to figure out why they are angry and upset, so that these feelings can be resolved and they can become a more productive member of the team.
People have emotions, and thoughts, and concerns, and these are not things to shut down, but rather, things to be explored, because they might have legitimate reason for feeling these things, and they could mean success or failure for you and your business.
Default Aggression and Moving Forward can lead to Tunnel Vision and Team Dissolution.
Default Aggression, a common phrase from Extreme Ownership, is the idea that you have to be constantly aggressive, both in combat, and in business in life. You have to be ready to be ready to react, move forward, take the higher ground, never back down. However, this doesn’t mean, be so aggressive that you can’t see the fog of war; that you get tunnel vision and lose sight of the bigger picture. This leaves you blind and open for ambush, or worse, you set yourself up for failure because you moved too far ahead, too fast.
In one story that resonated with me deeply, the owner of a company wanted to expand aggressively, moving from one location to a bigger one, with more room and storage in warehouse facility, and renting more office space and hiring more employees, to prepare for their projected growth in the next year. The authors were ecstatic at her aggressiveness, and were drunk on her energy, and said “Hell Yeah! Get Some!” and left it at that. It wasn’t until later, when they sobered up, they realized, “oh, she’s being too aggressive” as she didn’t have the business capital yet to support this growth, and was actually using some of her own personal capital to keep the company going at times. Although the projections and information was solid, they later went back and told her that it was better to wait for the need to expand, rather than expand, and not have the need to do so, and put yourself into more financial strain. She did so, and would later succeed.
I’ll tell my own experience about this, on the other side, with my life at MuscleDriver USA, a failed strength and conditioning equipment company. Prior to my move to South Carolina in 2013, MDUSA had expanded from its conservative ware house, to a much, much larger facility. Unfortunately, most of the facility was empty, office space not being used, warehouse floor not being filled up with product that was being sold, and mostly old product just taking up space, and the volume of sales would soon decline. It wasn’t well know at the time, and probably still isn’t, but at one point, MDUSA was actually supplying the now giant Rogue Fitness with plates and other such equipment from China. During Regionals, the CEO and Owner of MDUSA decided to get aggressive, and thinking that their contacts in China wouldn’t work with anyone else, cut of wholesale to Rogue, and didn’t supply plates for the Regional event (if you look hard enough, you can still see pictures of Rich Froning cleaning on Pendlay plates during a Regionals event from 2013).
Unfortunately for them, and later everyone who worked at MDUSA, China would and did work with Rogue, and got them plates for the remainder of the Regional events that year, the CrossFit Games, and have done so ever since. The rest, as they say, is history. This is case of being too aggressive went wrong, way wrong. The leaders of MDUSA thought they had the market cornered, and that no one could touch them, and they could move in on the CrossFit game by making Rogue look bad at not supplying equipment. However, their aggressive moves were not seen as bold and worth praise by CrossFit, nor later business partners down the line, but as deceitful, and gave MDUSA an air of untrustworthiness.
The failure of MDUSA was that they not only acted aggressively that put off business partners and competitors (they also did so in a way that made a toxic work environment) but they over extended themselves, even when they had consistent money flow with a major wholesaler, bringing in 6-7 figures in just the CrossFit Games Season, a few months. Once that was gone, they tried to keep moving forward, but deceitful business practices, in addition to other factors, put them in a tough situation with a facility too large for them, and even when attempting to downsize, it was far too late. They had become so aggressive, and so focused on moving forward, they could not see the potential pitfalls and downsides of their actions.
You Can’t Own Everything, and Not Everything Can Be Owned by Others
Probably the most misunderstoodd concept in Extreme Ownership was the idea of Extreme Ownership itself – that you have to own everything you do no matter what. While this is true, and while the phrase from their first book “no bad teams, only bad leaders” is true in nearly every scenario, there are two issues that the authors’ saw in their time consulting businesses after the release of Extreme Ownership.
The first one was that leaders or team members kept saying that the issue with so-and-so was that “they weren’t taking extreme ownership of themselves!” When a problem was arising, it was because this individual or group of individuals weren’t taking responsibilities for their actions! This is a violation of both Extreme Ownership, and of “no bad teams, only bad leaders” in that, these leaders were pushing the blame onto others who weren’t “taking ownership” of their actions. As the leader, they are responsible for the actions of their subordinates, just as much as their subordinates are. If the team fails, it’s because of something you, the leader, did not properly plan for, or did not properly handle. If you set out a plan, and your subordinates followed, or didn’t follow it, it’s because your plan wasn’t good enough or you didn’t properly manage your team, respectively. While it’s certainly their fault something happened, it is also your fault as the leader, to ensure it doesn’t happen again, or at all in the first place.
The second issue was leaders taking too much ownership of the failures of the team. Saying, “this is my fault this happened because you weren’t prepared” or in one such case in the book, the head of a company was asking his project manager why was apartment 1 being built slower than apartment 2, despite having all the same resources and team member sizes? The project manager states that he’s tried over and over to get the site leader on apartment 1 to move faster and keep up, but nothing he’s doing to get him motivated was working. Eventually, the company leader took the blame for not helping the project manager in properly intervening, but there was a point where he was considering firing the project leader, instead of the site leader. This is what happens when you own things too much. When you’re too humble, and saying “oh, this is my fault it’s not getting it done” when sometimes, it’s not your fault things aren’t just getting done, or changing. Sometimes, it is the fault of others and as the leader, it is your responsibility to fix this.
If someone on your team is not carrying their weight, despite interventions or helping them or trying everyway known to get them to do their job, and you continually take the blame when you have to report to your boss, what do you think they’re going to do? Are they going to say, “oh it’s my fault you’re not doing your job right, let me help” or are they going to ask, “so if you can’t do your job, what’s the point in paying you?”
People who buy into the idea of Extreme Ownership are great when it comes to self-evaluation, but are generally poor in understanding the reality: not everyone is going to be good at Extreme Ownership, and it’s silly to think others are going to. Let’s say you’re the kind of person who’s always giving, always supporting, always doing your job and your best, and yet people always have some criticism about you, something you can improve on, or something you can do better, and you make efforts to do those things. Yet, there’s still some kind of criticism, no matter how small, they can pinpoint about you, and yet, there’s nothing they can do to improve the relationship? Are you really that big of a failure, or perhaps, you’re just investing time and energy into people who aren’t even willing to consider, not even for a second, they might be the issue?
This is the tough part of the Dichotomy of Leadership – there is no black or white. In some situations, it’s clear to see that people went way too far one way or the other, but in others, it’s not so easy to see who is really at fault, and where improvements can be made. That is the point of the book, and the point of its predecessor Extreme Ownership – you have to take constant, hard looks at yourself and your environment, and weigh and measure a multitude of variables, in order to choose the best course of action, or in some cases, the least worst course. It’s not easy, and it’s a constant balancing act of one side of the spectrum with the other, and has a lifelong learning curve.
The main message, if I could sum up Dichotomy? Don’t be extreme, even when it comes to Extreme Ownership.