The Dichotomy of Leadership

Calm but not robotic - Brave but not foolhardy - Strong but endurant - Close but not too close

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I read Dichotomy of Leadership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin last weekend. The authors spent several years leading SEAL platoons in Iraq and Afghanistan. They experienced firsthand the complexity of leadership. For instance, a leader must be calm but not robotic, brave but not foolhardy, attentive to details but not obsessed by them, strong but endurant, etc. It's about finding balance, in one's leadership style, between opposing forces. The book reminded me of some tough personal dilemmas. 

The first one is friendship at work. A leader should be close to the team but not too close. A leader should know their teammates and the lives of their families but without being part of it. I had a hard time coping with the balance of friendship. On the one hand, by being too distant, you risk being considered rude. On the other hand, by being too close, some teammates might fear favoritism or lack of professionalism. So, when you get invited to a party hosted by a teammate, shall you go? When the team is having a drink, how long should you stay before letting them have their conversations without you around? There is no correct answer. Every time I was uncomfortable, I tended to move too far away from people. My only advice is to be yourself. Be authentic. 

The second one is about dealing with emotions. Leaders have to control their emotions at all times. It's not an option for leaders to lose their temper or panic. At the same time, no one will follow a robotic person expressing no emotions. So depending on the context, leaders might express or hide some of their feelings. It's a tough one because it's hard to hide natural reactions! 

Another one is related to the enforcement of standards. It's hard to know when to give some slack and when to make a point. It's also tricky because sometimes teammates understand that the situation is bad, and they are already working to solve it. There is no point in commenting. Some transgressions are also necessary to push the boundaries and make the standards evolve. Leaders have to find the right balance between severity and laxity. Always remember that it's not what you preach but what you tolerate. 

Last, leaders must be humble but not passive. Leaders listen way more than they talk. They are quiet but not silent. They must be able to speak up when it matters. Leaders should be able to stand up and oppose a decision if it negatively impacts the mission. The dilemma is the following: when to speak up versus when to stay quiet? I would argue that listening and asking questions is better than talking 99% of the time. Talk is more powerful when it is scarce. 

We all have a finite amount of leadership capital. If leaders don't find the right balance, they will waste their capital. Assuming they don't refuel their leadership capital, there would be no resources left when they need it the most. Finding the right balance for every dilemma is a struggle. It's what makes the job interesting. There is no correct answer because every leader is different, and every context differs! 


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