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The first book authored by former U.S. Navy Seal officers Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, Extreme Ownership, detailed the responsibilities all leaders have—on the battlefield, in business, and in life—to ensure the success of their mission while also providing outstanding leadership to their team. It became a #1 New York Times bestseller, generating both high praise as well as a lot of questions by readers who were challenged by the book’s message. Thus, the authors wrote The Dichotomy of Leadership—another instant bestseller—to more deeply explore their core approach to leadership: learn to navigate among the opposing forces leaders face to find and attain the balance essential to success.

While helpful, it is not imperative to have read Extreme Ownership to understand the author’s main points in The Dichotomy of Leadership, which include:

  • To be successful, leaders must realize that achieving and maintaining balance is critical to mission success. 
  • The most successful leaders must find equilibrium between opposing leadership forces that pull leaders in opposing directions. 
  • Leaders must be “aggressive but also cautious, disciplined but not rigid, a leader but also a follower”; the ability to find balance among these and other forces will help ensure success as a leader. 
Drawn from the authors’ experiences as Navy Seals leading warriors in Iraq, The Dichotomy of Leadership’s focus on military operations is well-balanced with plenty of examples of how their leadership principles apply to today’s business world. Each book chapter examines a different dichotomy challenge for leaders, first discussing a military challenge, followed by a discussion of the specific leadership challenge, and then a general discussion of how that leadership principle applies to business.

For example, the first chapter dives into what Willink and Babin consider a leader’s most ultimate challenge: determining which is most important, accomplishing the mission or taking care of their people. Inspiring author and popular YouTube presenter Simon Sinek refers to this as “head counts vs heart counts.” Is it acceptable to reduce the workforce to enhance profits in order to accomplish the mission (as happens too often with business today)? How hard should you push your people to ensure mission success? The key is finding the balance of pushing hard without pushing too hard. In many businesses, leaders must drive their teams but not so hard as to drive them off a cliff. Finding that balance is the key to success.

Other dichotomies discussed include: Own it all, but empower others; Resolute but not overbearing; When to mentor, when to fire; Aggressive but not reckless; Hold people accountable, but don’t hold their hands; Plan but don’t over-plan; and, Being humble, but not passive. Each dichotomy is a challenge for most leaders who are unaware of the need to create balance. Too much emphasis in one direction or the other can severely compromise an individual’s ability to lead.

The Dichotomy of Leadership is riveting in its storytelling while also being very educational in describing how difficult it is for leaders to maintain the balance necessary to enhance effectiveness. The authors’ success as Navy Seals certainly gives them the credibility necessary to take their leadership message to heart.  

On a personal note, this book really helped me to further refine my thinking on leadership, and to better understand that balance is critical to being seen as a highly competent leader. Given that we each face new and unique leadership challenges every day, it is imperative that we consistently seek balance in order for leadership success to occur. I highly recommend The Dichotomy of Leadership for any aspiring leader’s library.

  Jody R. Rogers, Ph.D., is a Certified Master of The Leadership Challenge® and Program Manager for the Army Medical Department Executive Skills Program. A Board Certified Healthcare Executive and Fellow in the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE), he can be reached at Jrogers5@satx.rr.com.


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