The Dichotomy of Leadership: From Combat to Corporate Leadership

Effective leadership is more important than ever. Mastering the dichotomy of leadership is an essential skill for leaders at all levels. It involves finding the balance between seemingly opposing forces to lead and win.

This article explores the dichotomy of leadership, drawing on the experiences and insights of Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, two former U.S. Navy SEAL officers who authored the book “The Dichotomy of Leadership.” We discuss various aspects of leadership, such as caring deeply for your team while holding them accountable, accomplishing the mission while developing your team, and being resolute without being overbearing. We also talk about the importance of inclusive language and practices in leadership.

By understanding and thoroughly learning the dichotomy of leadership, leaders can effectively face challenges and create a positive and equitable team environment.

Five Special Operations parachutes silhouette in front of the sun with smoke and a battlefield mood

The dichotomy of leadership is the balancing of often opposing forces when leading teams

What is a dichotomy of leadership?

The dichotomy of leadership refers to the balancing act leaders must constantly perform between competing, often opposing, forces to lead effectively and achieve their goals. Leaders need to understand when to lead or follow, when to be aggressive or cautious, and when to care deeply for their team while holding them accountable for their actions.

The balance is critical for any successful leader. It allows them to make tough decisions for the team's greater good without compromising their care and concern for individual team members. This lesson applies to all teams and businesses.

What is an example of a dichotomy of leadership?

An example of a leadership dichotomy is navigating between leadership and followership. Every leader must be ready and willing to lead, but a leader’s ability to follow is just as important. Successful leaders are willing to lean on the expertise and ideas of others for the good of the team. Strong leaders are also willing to listen and follow others, regardless of whether they are junior or less experienced.

This example explains the dichotomy of leadership. Simply, it is the precise balance that leaders must strike between taking charge and allowing others to contribute their expertise effectively. If leaders appropriately manage this dichotomy, they can create a more impactful and cohesive team, ultimately leading to a higher success rate in goal achievement.

The ultimate dichotomy: Caring deeply and holding people accountable

A core aspect of mastering the dichotomy of leadership is finding the right balance between empathy and holding people accountable. This delicate balance is essential for leaders to create a positive team environment conducive to accomplishing goals and objectives.

Strategies for finding the right balance

To strike the right balance between empathy and accountability, leaders can do the following:

  • Set clear expectations and goals: Communicate the expectations and objectives for the team, ensuring everyone understands their role, responsibilities, and how they contribute to the team. Revisit and refresh expectations and goals regularly.
  • Provide regular feedback: Offer constructive feedback and praise to team members when appropriate. This feedback fosters a culture of continuous improvement and growth. Find balance in what feedback is provided and when, and ensure it is not lopsided (e.g., overly positive or negative).
  • Encourage open communication: Create a safe environment where team members feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, concerns, and ideas. This approach creates conditions that promote trust and collaboration.
  • Be transparent and approachable: Demonstrate honesty and openness in your actions and decisions. Make yourself accessible to your team members.
  • Clear obstacles and offer support and resources: Provide the necessary tools, training, and assistance to help the team succeed in their roles. Step in and resolve high-level issues if or when needed.

A real-life example of caring deeply and holding people accountable

In “The Dichotomy of Leadership,” Jocko Willink and Leif Babin share real-life combat and training experiences highlighting the ultimate dichotomy of caring deeply for team members while holding them accountable. During a mission in Iraq, a SEAL team was tasked with capturing a High-value Target (HVT). The operation was risky, and the team leader made a difficult decision to proceed, knowing that it could put his team members in danger.

The team leader demonstrated the ultimate dichotomy by caring deeply for his team members and understanding that he had to put them at risk to accomplish the mission. He understood the importance of achieving the objective and ensured his team was well-prepared and supported throughout the mission, clearly showing his care and concern for their well-being.

Leading and winning: Accomplishing the mission while developing your team

The purpose of leadership is to guide and inspire teams to goal accomplishment and mission success. However, it is equally important for leaders to focus on developing their team members and promoting an inclusive and positive team environment. Striking a balance between these objectives leads to long-term success.

The importance of achieving goals without sacrificing team development

Focusing solely on achieving goals can lead to a short-term mindset. This mindset can create unseen areas, potentially neglecting team members' long-term growth and development. Leaders create a more sustainable and prosperous organization by prioritizing mission accomplishment and team development.

This approach ensures team members feel valued and supported, increasing motivation, engagement, and performance.

Strategies for implementing decentralized command effectively

Decentralized command empowers team members to make decisions and take ownership of their tasks, promoting autonomy and accountability. To implement decentralized command effectively, leaders can do the following:

  • Clearly define roles and responsibilities: Ensure each team member understands their role and expectations. Refresh these details with each team member frequently.
  • Foster a culture of trust: Encourage open communication and trust among team members, making them confident in their decision-making. Do not leave the door open for ambiguity.
  • Provide guidance and support: Offer advice and support when needed. However, avoid micromanaging or controlling every aspect of the team’s work.
  • Encourage collaboration and problem-solving: Promote a collaborative environment where team members can solve problems and achieve goals. If the team members are not overcommunicating, enforce this through additional structured activities.

Resolute but not overbearing

Effective leadership requires a delicate balance between being resolute and decisive and allowing team members autonomy and the opportunity to contribute expertise. It is too easy to inadvertently micromanage team members’ actions, resulting in frustrations and potential mistakes. In the context of special operations, mistakes are usually costly.

Good leaders trust their subordinates, overseeing their planning, preparation, execution, and post-mission analysis (also known as After-action Reviews, or AARs)—adding insights when necessary. They do not hold their hands. There is significant value in leaning on team expertise, whereas leaders will likely find previously unknown team skills or talents that can be leveraged in other parts of operations.

A real-life example of leading and winning

Jocko Willink and Leif Babin share a real-life example of the leading and winning dichotomy from their experiences in the SEAL teams. During a training exercise, a team leader was tasked with accomplishing a mission while developing his team’s capabilities. The team leader used the decentralized command methodology, empowering his team members to take full responsibility for their tasks and make independent decisions.

The team leader found an equilibrium between accomplishing the mission and developing his team. The team members felt empowered and engaged, increasing motivation and performance on target.

By understanding and managing the leading and winning dichotomy, leaders can create a positive team operating environment that encourages trust, collaboration, and growth. These are all critical variables that lead to greater long-term team success.

Train hard but train smart: Balancing rigor and flexibility in training and development

Impactful leadership requires setting high standards for your team and ensuring that training and development programs are rigorous yet manageable for team members. Finding the right balance between rigor and flexibility encourages learning, continuous improvement, and growth.

Tips for creating an effective training program

To create efficient and effective balanced training programs, leaders can do the following:

  • Set clear objectives: Clearly define the goals and desired outcomes of the training program, ensuring all participants understand the purpose and expectations.
  • Tailor training to individual needs: Recognize that team members have different learning styles, strengths, and weaknesses. Adapt training programs to accommodate these differences.
  • Encourage active participation: Create opportunities for team members to actively engage in the training process, promoting hands-on learning and practical application of skills.
  • Monitor progress and provide feedback: Regularly assess team members' progress throughout the training program, offering constructive feedback and support to facilitate growth and improvement.
  • Foster a culture of continuous learning: Build a strong learning culture on your team. Encourage members to seek additional learning opportunities within and outside the organization to further their professional development.

A real-life example of train hard but train smart

The U.S. Navy SEALs, and U.S. special operations forces (SOF), are generally known for hyper-realistic and often dangerous training. However, this level of training is needed to ensure team roles, actions, and overall cohesiveness, to the point where members can nearly predict another member’s next action.

During a training mission, a team leader was tasked with preparing his team for a complex mission. He recognized that comprehensive training was required to ensure operational readiness without overwhelming the team’s members.

The team leader implemented a training program that was both challenging and flexible, allowing the operators to develop their skills and knowledge without being bombarded or demoralized. By incorporating realistic scenarios, hands-on learning, and practical skills application in a controlled setting, the team leader delivered an effective training program, preparing the team for the mission.

Inclusive leadership: Embracing diversity and fostering an inclusive environment

Inclusive leadership goes beyond acknowledging differences; it involves valuing, respecting, and leveraging all team members' unique perspectives and experiences. Inclusive leadership creates a safe, positive environment that encourages collaboration, innovation, and success.

Strategies for fostering an inclusive team environment

To create an inclusive environment, leaders can do the following:

  • Cultivate self-awareness: Recognize and address personal biases and actively seek to understand the experiences and perspectives of others.
  • Encourage open communication: Create a safe space for team members to share their thoughts, ideas, and concerns, promoting trust and collaboration. Open communication creates conscious businesses.
  • Provide equal opportunities: Ensure all team members have access to the same resources, opportunities, and support, regardless of their background or identity.
  • Celebrate differences: Acknowledge and appreciate each team member's unique qualities and contributions and encourage them to bring their authentic selves to work.
  • Implement diversity and inclusion training: Provide ongoing training and development that enhances team understanding of diversity and inclusion and builds their skills in this area.

What is the dichotomy of leadership cover and move?

The dichotomy of leadership “cover and move” refers to teamwork, where all elements within a team must work together to accomplish a mission, mutually supporting each other for a singular purpose. “Cover and move” is about covering and supporting not just your immediate team or division but the entire team drawn together to complete the mission.

In Willink and Babin’s book “The Dichotomy of Leadership,” the authors introduce the military strategy of “cover and move,” which involves protecting team members advancing toward the objective. This concept emphasizes the importance of teamwork and collaboration and the need for leaders to balance taking personal responsibility and delegating work. By understanding and implementing the “cover and move” concept, leaders can create effective and cohesive teams that attain objectives as a single unit.


Understanding and mastering the dichotomy of leadership is essential for leaders at all levels. Leaders can create a positive operating environment that encourages trust, collaboration, and growth by balancing seemingly opposing forces, such as empathy and accountability, or mission accomplishment and team development.

Diversity and inclusivity are crucial for effective leadership. By valuing and employing all team members' unique perspectives and experiences, leaders can enhance creativity, innovation, and decision-making, leading to better strategies and plans and organizational performance.

Meridian University’s MBA in Creative Enterprise

These lessons and strategies are drawn from the experiences and insights of Jocko Willink and Leif Babin in their book “The Dichotomy of Leadership.” Willink and Babin are former U.S. Navy SEAL officers who led SOF in combat operations. The insights provided were born from the authors’ combat and training experiences. They also authored another book, “Extreme Ownership,” which greatly complements “The Dichotomy of Leadership.”

The leadership strategies in the book align with the leadership skills learned in Meridian University’s MBA in Creative Enterprise. The MBA in Creative Enterprise focuses on whole-person and whole-system competencies, preparing graduates for the complex and ever-changing business world. Students are encouraged to be creative, innovative, and, most importantly, adaptable in personal and professional perspectives. Further, Meridian University focuses on diversity and inclusion, ensuring every student is seen and heard.

To learn more about this cutting-edge program, contact an Admissions Advisor or apply online today.


  1. The Famous People (n.d.). Jocko Willink Biography. Retrieved August 21, 2023, from https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/jocko-willink-51497.php
  2. Echelon Front, LLC (n.d.). Leif Babin. Echelon Front. Retrieved August 13, 2023, from https://echelonfront.com/leif-babin/
  3. Willink, J., & Babin, L. (2018). The Dichotomy of Leadership (1st ed.). St. Martin's Press. https://echelonfront.com/dichotomy-of-leadership/
  4. Forbes Nonprofit Council (2021, August 16). How To Strike A Balance Between Accountability And Empathy In The Workplace. Forbes. Retrieved August 13, 2023, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesnonprofitcouncil/2021/08/16/how-to-strike-a-balance-between-accountability-and-empathy-in-the-workplace/
  5. Jain-Link, P., Kennedy, J. T., & Bourgeois, T. (2020, January 13). 5 Strategies for Creating an Inclusive Workplace. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved August 13, 2023, from https://hbr.org/2020/01/5-strategies-for-creating-an-inclusive-workplace
  6. Rencher, M. (2019, April 7). Extreme Ownership and The Dichotomy of Leadership. Medium. Retrieved August 13, 2023, from https://medium.com/@mitchrencher/extreme-ownership-and-the-dichotomy-of-leadership-8aec2661216b
  7. McKenna, J. (2023, June 6). Build a Strong Learning Culture on Your Team. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved August 13, 2023, from https://hbr.org/2023/06/build-a-strong-learning-culture-on-your-team

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