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Leadership Strategy and Tactics by Jocko Willink

Leadership Strategy and Tactics: Field Manual  - Jocko Willink

This author has a devoted podcast following, but I came to this not familiar with him or his work. This is a leadership/management book giving levelheaded advice largely based around “soft skills” like motivating people and building relationships. There’s definitely a place for that—when the “hey, back off, take input from your team and don’t let your ego get in the way” is coming from a former Navy SEAL commander, everybody else can relax a little bit about whether not constantly barking orders makes them too soft. That said, this book is based on Willink’s experience in elite, all-male military environments, in which every project is a group project and mission success and failure can be both objectively measured and immediately recognized, limiting the applicability of his advice. In particular, his failure to say a word about gender while giving advice that flies in the face of typical business advice for women makes me leery about much of what he says.

In the way of these sorts of books, this one mixes stories from the author’s military career and later consulting business with practical advice. It’s a very quick read; generous font and spacing make it shorter than the page count implies. Much of the advice I think is pretty good, though a lot of it looks common sense when you boil it down. For instance: Let your team come up with their own plan. By not being too involved in the details, you’ll be better able to spot any flaws, and also, they’ll be more committed to executing their own plan than one imposed on them from above. Don’t burn down relationships fighting over differences of opinion that amount to small differences in efficiency; if you’re inclined to do this it’s likely your ego getting in your way. (There’s a lot in here about reining in your ego.) Build relationships with people up and down the chain of command. Respecting people and taking their input is the best way to gain respect and influence yourself. Keep people informed about what’s going on and why. Etc.

That said, my biggest concern with the book is that much of its advice boils down to “be modest and humble, take the blame but pass on the credit, work hard without tooting your own horn and your effectiveness will ultimately be seen and rewarded.” No doubt this is a good strategy in the SEALs (and it’s worth pointing out that this book is about how to lead effectively rather than how to get promoted, but the author assumes that if you do the former, the latter will fall into your lap). But this is also the strategy that, as we’ve been told for decades, women tend to instinctively adopt and that holds them back from promotion to higher ranks. Women’s achievements are doubted and forgotten more quickly than men’s, and a woman who takes the blame for everything that goes wrong—as Willink suggests as part of his philosophy of “extreme ownership”—is probably more likely to be believed than promoted.

Now obviously, women are not a monolith from the Land of Stereotype, all self-effacing, nurturing types who let others take credit for our ideas while we labor unrecognized for long hours, except when leaving early to shoulder the bulk of the childcare. We have egos too, and female leaders too ought to avoid becoming raging narcissists who blame all setbacks on other people (it can happen). But with no mention of gender differences in how behaviors are perceived, I was left a bit at a loss as to much of Willink’s advice: is this the route to good leadership or career stagnation? Outside of an elite military unit—where everyone has received the same training, objectives are clear and outcomes measurable, and Willink suggests that the difference between a good plan and a bad one is an objective matter that will be readily acknowledged by all—I don’t think many people, particularly women, can afford to sit back and assume their worth will be self-evident.

Willink’s particular background also limits the applicability of some of his other advice: for instance, he assumes that a true problem employee (one who continues to underperform even after being told what the standards are and after conversations about what the boss needs to provide for them to be able to do their job) will just be transferred out or fired. But many workplaces have no accountability and won’t back up mid-level managers attempting to apply it. Similarly, the question of changing jobs, or how to recognize whether a workplace’s leadership will work for you, does not come up; it seems like Willink’s strategy was just to play along and wait out bad bosses, which worked because people were always being transferred around.

All that said, I do think it was worth reading this book, in that it’s useful to hear how a successful person thinks through leadership problems. I wish I’d been able to get it from the library rather than having to buy a copy, since it’s pretty slight for the price and left me doubting some of the advice. It’s probably most useful to those in the military, or as a passive-aggressive gift to an over-zealous boss (hah). And it's almost certainly more useful for men than women. But, not too bad for what it is and as long as you apply some critical thinking to the advice, I think much of it can be useful to anyone.