Book summaries: Extreme ownership & The dichotomy of leadership

On any team, in any organization, all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader. The leader must own everything in his or her world. There is no one else to blame. The leader must acknowledge mistakes and admit failures, take ownership of them, and develop a plan to win.

Extreme ownership

In this post, I will make a combined summary of two related books: Extreme Ownership and The Dichotomy of Leadership. The first introduces the basic principles of ownership, and the second one adds depth and nuance to the former.

When I first heard Jocko Willink on The Tim Ferris Show, I got excited about the book Extreme Ownership and added it to my want-to-read list. I forgot about it because I have a vast list of books to read. It came back to my mind recently as one of the basic NVC principles is that I’m responsible for my emotions and reactions. I was curious if two books written by ex-military could offer any ideas aligned with the values of NVC. They can 🙂

Not a review

This post is not a review of the two books but a summary of the principles and ideas that seemed the most important. This means that I won’t be making value judgments on the writing style, content quality, etc. I’ll focus on extracting and combining the key points from both books. I’ve chosen to exclude from the summary the ideas that the authors didn’t insist on to keep things simple and clear.

If you want to make your own summary, I offer the following insights:

  • Both books have chapters that are not necessarily linked to each other, so you’re going to miss much if you read only specific chapters.
  • Each chapter has three sections: 1) the author’s battlefield experience in Iraq, 2) the principle that that experience highlights, and 3) application to business. For a quicker read, you can skip the first section.

The 4 laws of combat

Extreme ownership revolves around 4 basic principles:

  • Cover and Move
  • (keep it) Simple
  • Prioritize and Execute
  • Decentralized Command

Cover and move

Principle (EO Ch. 5)

It is the most fundamental tactic, perhaps the only tactic. Put simply, Cover and Move means teamwork. All elements within the greater team are crucial and must work together to accomplish the mission, mutually supporting one another for that singular purpose. Departments and groups within the team must break down silos, depend on each other and understand who depends on them. If they forsake this principle and operate independently or work against each other, the results can be catastrophic to the overall team’s performance.

  • The enemy is ‘outside the wire’. The focus must always be on how to best accomplish the mission.
  • If the team fails, everyone fails. Even if a specific member or an element within the team did their job successfully.
  • Relationships are the key.

Dichotomy (TDoL Ch. 1)

To care deeply for each individual member of the team, while at the same time accepting the risks necessary to accomplish the mission. A good leader builds powerful, strong relationships with his or her subordinates. But while that leader would do anything for those team members, the leader must recognize there is a job to do. And that job might put the very people the leader cares so much about at risk.

The leader is too close to the teamThe leader is too detached from the team
1) May not be willing to make those people do what is necessary to complete a project or a task.
2) May not want to lay off individuals with whom they have relationships, even if it is the right move for the good of the company.
3) May want to have hard conversations with underperforming team members.
1) May overwork, overexpose, or otherwise harm its members while achieving no significant value from that sacrifice.
2) May be too quick to fire people, thereby developing the reputation of not caring about the team beyond its ability to support the strategic goals.


Principle (EO Ch. 6)

In the business world, and in life, there are inherent complexities. It is critical to keep plans and communication simple. Simplifying as much as possible is crucial to success. When plans and orders are too complicated, people may not understand them. And when things go wrong, and they inevitably do go wrong, complexity compounds issues that can spiral out of control into total disaster. Everyone that is part of the mission must know and understand his or her role in the mission and what to do in the event of likely contingencies. It is critical, as well, that the operating relationship facilitates the ability of the frontline troops to ask questions that clarify when they do not understand the mission or key tasks to be performed.

  • If people don’t understand, they can’t execute
  • Communication must be simple, clear, and concise

Dichotomy (TDoL Ch. 10)

I couldn’t find a direct dichotomy to this principle, but the dichotomy about planning (EO Ch. 9) is related because “a plan can be too simple and fail to cover likely contingencies”.

When leaders dismiss likely threats or problems that could arise, it sets the team up for greater difficulties and may lead to mission failure.
At every level of the team, leaders must fight against complacency and overconfidence. Nothing breeds arrogance like success
If you try to create a solution for every single potential problem that might arise, you overwhelm your team, you overwhelm the planning process, you overcomplicate decisions for leaders
Choose at most the three or four most probable contingencies for each phase, along with the worst-case scenario.

Prioritize and Execute

Principle (EO Ch. 7)

Even the most competent of leaders can be overwhelmed if they try to tackle multiple problems or a number of tasks simultaneously. The team will likely fail at each of those tasks. Instead, leaders must determine the highest priority task and execute. To implement Prioritize and Execute in any business, team, or organization, a leader must:

  1. evaluate the highest priority problem.
  2. lay out in simple, clear, and concise terms the highest priority effort for your team.
  3. develop and determine a solution, seek input from key leaders and from the team where possible.
  4. direct the execution of that solution, focusing all efforts and resources toward this priority task.
  5. move on to the next highest priority problem. Repeat.
  6. when priorities shift within the team, pass situational awareness both up and down the chain.
  7. don’t let the focus on one priority cause target fixation. Maintain the ability to see other problems developing and rapidly shift as needed.

Dichotomy (TDoL Ch. 12)

In combat, when you look down the sights of your weapon, your field of view becomes narrow and focused. Your vision is restricted by the small aperture of your weapon’s sight. You cannot see what is happening around you or the team. It is critical, then, to ensure that a leader’s default weapon position should be at high port—gun pointed at the sky, standing back to observe with the widest field of vision possible. This enables a leader to look around and even move around, where he or she can best provide command and control for the team.

When you’re constantly executing, you won’t get a good enough chance to detach and to see the bigger picture.

Too immersed in the execution detailsToo detached from the execution details
Losing track of the bigger picture and becoming unable to provide command and control for the entire team.Losing track of what’s happening on the front lines that the leader loses control and the team performance suffers.

Decentralized Command

Principle (EO Ch. 8)

Human beings are generally not capable of managing more than six to ten people, particularly when things go sideways and inevitable contingencies arise. No one senior leader can be expected to manage dozens of individuals, much less hundreds. Those leaders must understand the overall mission, and the ultimate goal of that mission—the Commander’s Intent.

  • Everyone leads;
  • Everyone must understand not just what they are doing but why

Dichotomy (TDoL Ch. 2)

Micromanagement (trying to control every thought and action of each individual on the team) SymptomsHands-off management (failing to provide specific directions to the team) Symptoms
1) The team shows a lack of initiative. Members will not take action unless directed.
2) The team does not seek solutions to problems; instead, its members sit and wait to be told about a solution.
3) Even in an emergency, a team that is being micromanaged will not mobilize and take action.
4) Bold and aggressive action becomes rare.
5) Creativity grinds to a halt.
6) The team tends to stay inside their own silo; not stepping out to coordinate efforts with other departments or divisions for fear of overstepping their bounds.
7) An overall sense of passivity and failure to react.
1) Lack of vision in what the team is trying to do and how to do it.
2) Lack of coordination between individuals on the team and efforts that often compete or interfere with each other.
3) Initiative oversteps the bounds of authority, and both individuals and teams carry out actions that are beyond what they have the authorization to do.
4) A team without good guidance may also fail to coordinate not out of fear, but out of ignorance. In its efforts to solve problems and accomplish the mission, the team forgets that other teams might also be maneuvering and end up interfering with their efforts.
5) The team is focused on the wrong priority mission or pursuit of solutions that are not in keeping with the strategic direction of the team or the commander’s intent.
6) There are too many people trying to lead. Since everyone is trying to lead, there won’t be enough people to execute. Instead of progress, the leader will see discussion; instead of action, the leader will see prolonged debate; instead of a unified movement, the leader will see fractured elements pursuing individual efforts.

Concepts that I found new and interesting

Leadership capital (TDoL Ch. 3)

Leadership capital is the recognition that there is a finite amount of power that any leader possesses. It can be expended foolishly, by leaders who harp on matters that are trivial and strategically unimportant. Such capital is acquired slowly over time through building trust and confidence with the team by demonstrating that the leader has the long-term good of the team and the mission in mind.

Wrapping up

I hope that this summary paints a picture of the ideas and concepts presented in the books. I’m eager to hear what else you find important that I didn’t include in this text. Let me know with a comment or a message.

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