[book review] Dichotomy of leadership

[book review] Dichotomy of leadership

I love Jocko Willink books. Every time you read his book you feel inspired. You want to change something. You want to fix something in your life. You want to wake up earlier. You want to go jogging. You want to learn something new. You want to take action.

Dichotomy of leadership” is a follow-up to the awesome book “Extreme ownership.” Jocko Willink and Leif Babin write about finding balance in all your actions. Both books are about leadership, but you don’t need to be a leader to benefit from reading them. In fact, Jacko’s lessons apply at all stages of the “chain of command.”

While reading “Dichotomy of leadership,” I recalled all unbalanced leaders I ever had. I realized I was fortunate to have managers who were on both ends of the scale.


I worked on a project with someone who loved micromanagement.
I had one-hour long video calls every day which very supposed to be an equivalent of a “stand-up meeting.” Instead of answering “the three questions” we were discussing every line of code I wrote that day.

The manager wanted everything to be done his way. I remember writing an extremely long email filled with Venn Diagrams to explain why some changes in SQL queries don’t make sense. I got back a 5-words long response: “Just do what I said.”

Lack of leadership

On the other hand, I worked on projects with no leadership. It was supposed to be a haven for creative people. You have the goal and full autonomy. It was supposed to be a perfect environment for a scrum team. So what was wrong?

You can’t just assemble a group of individuals and call them a team. We started to push our own agenda recklessly. When the team is supposed to make a choice, you end up in a situation where no decision can be enforced.

If you have an individual who does not respect the team and does whatever he wants, you can only give him feedback and hope that the behavior will change.

In a team with no leader, you can’t expect anything from other people. If you want something to happen and you say it. It will be regarded as an opinion or suggestion. “You are not the leader, you can’t give me orders.”

The outcome

A strange thing happened. Lack of leadership killed my motivation faster than micromanagement. Not only that. It kills motivation but also creates an expectation that there is no micromanagement.

When you experience such extreme autonomy, and later you end up with a leader who wants to make every decision, you can’t stand micromanagement anymore.

As Jacko says:

For every positive behavior a leader should have, it is possible to take that behavior to the extreme, where it becomes a negative. Often a leader’s greatest strength can also be his or her greatest weakness. But knowing and understanding that these dichotomies exist is the first part of keeping them from becoming a problem.

The idea of finding the perfect spot between extreme ownership (which may lead to micromanagement if you push it to the extreme) and decentralized command (which extreme version ends up in a situation where you no longer have a team) reminds me of delegation poker. The method of deciding which decisions can be made by the team and which decisions are owned by the designated leader.


After reading the book, I am afraid of leaders who decide that they need to rebalance.

Someone whose behavior was pushed to one of the extremes will probably try to make a huge change. I am sure it will end up in chaos. People will lose all respect for such a person.

If you decided to read the book, please read all of it. Don’t skip the afterword. It contains one crucial paragraph:

When a leader moves to rebalance (…) caution must be exercised not to overcorrect. (…) This is ineffective and can make the situation worse. (…) Make measured, calculated adjustments, monitor the results, and then continue to make small, iterative corrections until balance is achieved.

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Bartosz Mikulski
Bartosz Mikulski * data scientist / software engineer * conference speaker * organizer of School of A.I. meetups in Poznań * co-founder of Software Craftsmanship Poznan & Poznan Scala User Group