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Leadership Strategy and Tactics

Bibliographic Content

Jocko Willink


St. Martin’s Press

Kindle, Hardback (320 pages), Audible (8hrs:25min)

Synopsis from Author

In the military, a field manual provides instructions in simple, clear, step-by-step language to help soldiers complete their mission. In the civilian sector, books offer information on everything from fixing a leaky faucet to developing an effective workout program to cooking a good steak.

But what if you are promoted into a new position leading your former peers? What if you don’t get selected for the leadership position you wanted? How do you overcome imposter syndrome, when you aren’t sure you should be leading? As a leader, how do you judiciously dole out punishment? What about reward? How do you build trust with your both your superiors and your subordinates? How do you deliver truthful criticism up and down the chain of command in a tactful and positive way?

These are all questions about leadership―the most complex of all human endeavors. And while there are books out there that provide solid leadership principles, books like Extreme Ownership and The Dichotomy of Leadership, there is no leadership field manual that provides a direct, situational, pragmatic how-to guide that anyone can instantly put to use.

Until now. Leadership Strategy and Tactics explains how to take leadership theory, quickly translate that theory into applicable strategy, and then put leadership into action at a tactical level. This book is the solution that leaders at every level need―not just to understand the leadership game, but also how to play the leadership game, and win it.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, ebook, or Audible audiobook, we have provided a helpful link directly to its storefront page on Amazon; purchase any version of the book and we get a small affiliate bonus for every referral. “As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.”

Leadership Strategy and Tactics, Jocko Willink

I often tell leaders that what makes leadership so hard is dealing with people, and people are crazy. And the craziest person a leader has to deal with is themselves. That being said, even crazy has a pattern; there are patterns to human behavior. If you can recognize the patterns, you can predict the way things are likely to unfold and influence them. (Pg 3)

Summary of Book from War Is My Business

One particular aspect of Willink’s book, that he establishes up front, is that he wants this book to be treated more like a reference tool. Something that you, the reader, can keep handy and refer back to if you have any quandaries about what to do in a leadership dilemma. While much of the book is narrative, telling his own stories of the things he has experienced and witnessed throughout his career, the way the book is outlined does allow for it to be treated like a reference. Though you need to dig through the narrative of how he comes to determine how a particular leadership principle or tenet works, rather than simply stating them outright.

Regardless, the book is written to refer to individual leadership dilemmas and how to work through them. So, instead of simply going through all of them and defeating the purpose of reading his book, I have selected a few choice problems and solutions he has posited and will discuss them from the civil-military angle that War Is My Business likes to use.

Laws of Combat

The thing that stood out to me more than anything else was that the whole reason this task unit had failed so miserably was because of one thing and one thing only: leadership. (pg 42-43)

In the first section of this book, where he discusses the beginning of his Navy SEAL career, which would provide him the foundational experiences he would use to lead and succeed, he writes about having to impart his knowledge about leadership to young SEALs. He needed to figure out how to teach and coach leadership in such a way that was all-encompassing, yet easy to understand and commit to memory. He came up with his “Laws of Combat” which has four principles:

  1. Cover and Move
  2. Simple
  3. Prioritize and Execute
  4. Decentralized Command

The principle of “Cover and Move” relies on the concept of synergist effects. That the efforts of two or more people, teams, groups, etc. is more effective than each can achieve working by themselves. In combat, the term cover in this sense refers to providing overwatch and occasional direct fires in order to prevent an adversary from pinning the movement of friendly forces. In simpler terms, by shooting or preparing to shoot at an enemy, means that that enemy will be hindered at shooting at your buddies who will be allowed to move to a better position. Working in tandem, covering and moving, moving and covering, the synergistic effects of multiple entities can work to defeat a particular threat for the benefit of everyone.

The fundamental aspect of “Cover and Move” is that one element is actively working to help alleviate the burdens of another element so that that other element can carry on with its task. In combat, the task is to move and eventually defeat the threat and the cover is to deny the enemy the ability to hinder that task. In non-combat military operations, the task could be to conduct training necessary for the unit readiness, and cover would entail another unit assuming the tasking responsibilities that would impede their ability to train. In business, the task may be to conduct cold-calling, planning meetings, and customer relations activities and cover would be company management protecting these blocks of scheduled business activities from external interruptions.

The principle “Simple” is an aspect of planning and executing that relies on removing complexity. In military operations, combat or otherwise, increased complexity means greater chance for failure in the forms of missed timelines, unclear instructions, and uncertainty throughout all parties. The more moving pieces that are involved, the more effects that need to be achieved, the more things all need to fall into place in a particular order at a particular time, then the more likely the whole plan will fail from a single mistake causing everything to fall apart.

You need to remember that even if a plan will achieve great results, if the plan requires people to have near-complete situational understanding and commitment to its execution, then it may fail because of one person who didn’t completely understand or wasn’t completely vested in its execution. The enemy and the environment produce enough complexity, and you needn’t make it more complex with your plan if you can avoid it. Simple actions, a simple timeline, and clear instructions on what to do if certain events do or don’t occur will lead to a plan that can actually be accomplished. Fundamentally, we are dealing with human beings with their own perceptions and motivations, and while a plan may be clear to us in our own brains, we may not even be able to effectively communicate such a plan. Simplicity requires us to make it less complex so that other human beings can carry it out without our constant micromanagement.

In “Prioritize and Execute,” we have the reality that we can’t do everything we want to get done, and that even if we could, some things are more important than others and need to be accomplished first. This principle requires the leader to determine which tasks are the most important, based on results and/or time sensitivity, and execute those tasks according to their priority. In combat, we have many activities that are well known and come with a pre-established order that is enforced by leadership. In priorities of work in regards to establishing a defensive position; security comes before weapons maintenance, which comes before position improvement, which comes before feeding Soldiers, which comes before personal hygiene and rest. Being hygienic and well-rested won’t matter as much if you are going to fight on an empty stomach and with no energy; which also won’t matter if you don’t have effective cover and concealment to fight from; which also won’t matter if your weapons won’t function properly; which also won’t matter if no one is providing security to see the enemy approach.

In business, there are also many things that we can do in order to improve our organization and our bottom-line, but we also inherently understand that there are things that are more important than others and things that are more time-sensitive than others. With marketing, you focus your efforts on particular niches since funding is limited – there are more important audiences that you should focus on. With logistics, timing is important to ensure goods go out to the end-user, but also you may need to hold back shipment until you have complete truckloads since trucks are also a limiting factor. In development, there is always something new and improved that can be incorporated into a new design, and at some point, you need to determine when to simply accept and produce a product to get something into the market – even if elements may already be outdated when it releases.

In “Decentralized Command,” you have the ability to effectively lead a large organization through the empowerment of subordinate leaders. By placing trust in competent subordinate leaders, each who understands the leader’s intent for operations and desired ends, a large organization is able to achieve great results as smaller elements of that organization are able to accomplish objectives that are complementary and synergistic. Without effective “decentralized command” the leader attempts to wield the entirety of the organization through immediate direction and guidance of multiple people and groups. The bigger the organization, the more untenable direct control becomes. Decentralization of leadership becomes important so that senior leaders aren’t run ragged trying to control every single activity, only to eventually fail because no one was permitted or capable of taking initiative to solve problems and carry out routine duties.

The value of empowering subordinates also means that those subordinates acquire a more vested interest in the outcome of operations. By giving a subordinate an intent yet requiring them to actually develop the plans and execute to achieve that intent, you are able to accomplish your objectives while getting buy-in from that subordinate since it was their own course of action that they were executing. Additionally, this develops the leadership skills of these subordinates and prepares them for future responsibilities within the organization – internal leadership development that can pay off years down the road.

We see “decentralized command” within the business world in various forms. Franchises are a form of decentralized command in which franchise owners take control of a franchise for a particular location – executing the intent of the corporation, yet not being directly supervised and controlled by them. Though Corporate will come down occasionally to ensure compliance with regulations and the corporation's long-term objectives. Within a company, an owner can delegate control to executives and managers, who in turn can delegate lower-level control to shift managers and team chiefs. Even these most junior of leaders can delegate some level of control to individual employees and workers for the upkeep and conduct of their own stations, making it optimized to their work styles and gaining ownership of their own actions and output instead of simply executing the micromanaged direction of their immediate superior.

These four Laws of Combat, principles for how to teach and mentor leaders in leadership, are not specific to combat leadership – just leadership in general. As long as you understand what is fundamentally occurring then they are applicable to the business world – just as the author intended.

Reasons People Bunch Up

The author discussed a particular phenomenon that occurs with warfighters engaged in combat and in training – bunching up. When there is confusion or uncertainty, humans tend to congregate closer and closer. This isn’t necessarily an issue except in regards to modern human combat in which bullets and bombs can easily kill and injure a group of people that are too close to one another. When they have spread out, a burst of machine-gun fire, a grenade, or an artillery impact may only hit one or two, meaning the remainder can effectively fight back or maneuver to better cover. So, we train our people to not bunch up and keep themselves separated at reasonable distances – proper spacing and intervals.

The reason I chose to pick this quick discussion on the nature of bunching up is that the author discusses some of the physiological reasons for its occurrence.

To prevent this, we in the military are taught dispersion. Dispersion simply means spread out, to get some space between you and the other members of your team. “Don’t bunch up,” was a common critique to platoons bogged down in a training evolution. Now, this may seem simple, but it can be difficult, as there are some compelling forces that draw people together. (pg 185)

Willink puts forth three psychological reasons that bunching up occurs:

  • Safety by Proximity
  • Limited Cover
  • Desire for Information

Safety in numbers has been a strength for any species that has a social hierarchy of some type. Working together to tackle threats is much easier if everyone is all together and can help one another. The closer people are, the more able they are to render aid, and in the case of a fight the less lightly they are going to be isolated and destroyed. Safety in numbers seems obvious, hence why it is a compulsion to physically come together in times of danger. However, while this has been the case for hundreds of thousands of years of homo sapien development, as the use of explosive and long-range rapid-firing weapons became ubiquitous, physically co-locating started becoming more and more of a liability. With better discipline, means of communication, and long-range weapons, humans have been able to still mutually support one another in combat while maintaining distance. So, while dispersion is a benefit in modern combat, even warfighters can’t overcome the compulsion to bunch up without training to counter it.

Safety issues in regards to a non-combat environment is less of a concern since the danger of being killed because people bunch up isn’t present. But in emergencies, when there is a danger, it can still be disastrous. Such as in those situations in which fires consume a building, and people are unable to exit since everyone is crowding the door and can’t get out. Regardless, when there are problems and people feel concerned for their own safety, they may tend to congregate for that psychological impact that being in a group offers.

People also bunch up because there isn’t any other viable place to go that provides optimal protection. A solid form of cover provides protection from bullets and bombs, but there are only so many walls, boulders, berms, and holes for people to take cover. In a large open area, when there isn’t much cover to go around, you will see people start to bunch up. Training is utilized to compel troopers to seek cover elsewhere, even if it requires less optimal cover or cover that is a little further away. Similarly, people will bunch up as a result of that limited cover as well. During an earthquake, while indoors, people will attempt to find durable and resilient cover to protect themselves from falling debris - tables, door jams, etc. Additionally, in the previous example of people trying to escape a fire, if there are only so many accessible exits to escape the fire that naturally people will bunch up while trying to use the few that are there.

The final psychological reason for bunching up, and the one most applicable in both combat and non-combat situations, is the insatiable need for information. And where is the most pressing information? Closest to the problem at hand. So, in combat, warfighters tend to bunch up close to where the action is or by leadership as that is where the situation is developing. Leadership is receiving information through radios, sharing info with subordinate leaders, and collecting reports so people bunch up around them in order to eavesdrop and hopefully understand the situation a little bit better. In a business environment, people will bunch up to share information around the watercooler and listen in outside of boardrooms in order to get details on upcoming projects or organizational changes.

To counter the compulsion to bunch up is to satisfy the psychological reasons that compel people to do it. Through training, they understand that they can still have safety in numbers even if not next to each other and that effective cover can be utilized elsewhere if necessary. Through proper information dissemination, people will stay well informed and not feel the need to seek out info which would lead to people inevitably bunching up to get access to it.


This book is about the application of military principles and tenets for business, which is what War Is My Business is all about, but his principles and tenets are derived from his experiences during his career as a SEAL. This book is full of stories and anecdotes of these experiences that have become the foundation of his leadership training firm Echelon Front and his series of associated books, which includes this one. As a result, I don’t want to dig too much into these narratives and what he learned from them. I will cover some of his other more principles which he has discussed in this book when I cover his other book, Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALs Lead and Win in my next book review.

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