The Subtle Art of Leadership?

There’s a lot of information out there on Leadership – probably because it’s such a key ingredient for success… but also because it’s a very challenging topic that unfortunately can’t be baked into a simple recipe that works for everyone (or all the time). There is a science to leadership – but there’s also an art to it – and it’s that balance that makes it challenging (and effective).

In their excellent book Extreme Ownership authors Jocko Willink and Leif Babin lay out a leadership framework that was created while leading SEAL teams in battle during the Iraq war.

Since that time, the authors have worked with hundreds of businesses to help implement (and translate) those battlefield lessons to the corporate world. As you might imagine, these lessons tend to be hardcore – here are a couple of examples from Extreme Ownership:

Their message may not resonate with everyone but if you can get past all of the battlefield language, it’s a fantastic framework that can have a huge impact on an organization.

That said, the authors quickly realized that despite the success of the book and their training, they were missing the mark. Specifically they had created a strong framework but they had not included enough about the subtle balance (the art) that applying a leadership framework requires.


The Dichotomy of Leadership

The last chapter of Extreme Ownership is The Dichotomy of Leadership, and in that chapter they talk about some of the challenges that leaders will face every day. The inherent contradictions that define a good leader.

Here are just a few examples that they touch on. A good leader must be:

  • Confident but not cocky.
  • Competitive but a gracious loser.
  • Attentive to details but not obsessed by them.
  • Humble not passive.
  • Quiet but not silent.
  • Logical but not devoid of emotions.

What the authors have discovered since releasing Extreme Ownership is that people embrace the model but struggle with these dichotomies. Which is why they just published their follow-on book The Dichotomy of Leadership.

As you might expect, the new book is much more nuanced. It follows the same general format of the first book – contrasting battlefield examples of key principles with a corresponding business application, but all of the ideas center around finding the right balance from the Extreme Ownership framework.

Here are a few of the ideas that resonated with me:

Own it all, but Empower Others

The central idea behind Extreme Ownership (as the title suggests) is that we are all accountable (we own) everything in our domain. If there’s a problem, it’s your responsibility to fix it – even if you didn’t have anything to do with causing that problem.

The problem is that if you take that idea literally you will end up micro-managing everyone who works for you – which breeds resentment, stifles growth and is generally a really ineffective way to run a team.

You have to find the balance between taking full responsibility for a challenge and letting others on your team actually do the work to solve the problem. The buck stops with you but part of that responsibility is to empower your team so they can solve things.


When to Mentor, When to Fire

One of the biggest challenges of leading a team is how to deal with under performing team members. If you refuse to tolerate under performance and fire everyone who slips up, you’ll end up with an unhappy team that’s ultra cautious and never pushes to make things happen (and you’ll be doing a lot of hiring).

Alternatively, if you don’t do the hard thing and get rid of the truly poor performers, you’ll end up with a team full of poor performers (because everyone else will start leaving).

The recommendation is simple, but not easy. Work with your under-performers as long as they show the right attitude. Once you’ve exhausted all reasonable efforts to help them, if they still can’t step up and perform, you must let them go.


Plan but don’t Overplan

A big part of leadership is establishing the vision and plans for where you’re headed. And great leaders will go beyond the basics and also look at the risks and develop contingency plans when things go off the rails (and they will go off the rails at some point).

But… you can’t plan for every possible contingency. If you try, you’ll get stuck in analysis paralysis and never get anything done.

The trick is to identify the top few contingencies that are most likely to happen and plan for those – and be willing and ready to go off script is something unexpected happens. It’s the subtle balance between too much planning… and not enough.


Extreme Ownership is a powerful leadership model that applies to any organization but in order to really make it work, your team has to understand the subtle balance behind the ideas – which is where The Dichotomy of Leadership comes in.

That said – the Dichotomy of Leadership isn’t nearly as impactful as the first book. It’s a worthwhile add-on and a great add-on if you are taking your team through training on the ideas but there’s not really a reason to read it as a stand-alone book.

What do you think? Have you read Extreme Ownership or The Dichotomy of Leadership? We’d love to hear your thoughts – leave us a comment below.

Shawn Kinkade Kansas City Business Coach