The Cornerstone of Good Leadership Is Sacrifice

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Dichotomy of Leadership" by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here .

Have you ever had to sacrifice something (or someone) for the sake of the greater, common goal? Why is sacrifice important in leadership?

A leader must inevitably make decisions that put individual team members in harm’s way for the sake of the mission. According to Willink and Babin, the authors of The Dichotomy of Leadership, sacrifice is integral to the idea of what it means to be a leader. It’s why many people see leadership as a burden—many leaders struggle with a guilty conscience over the decisions they have to make.

We’ll describe two specific instances of sacrifice in leadership: first, when you have to lead the people you care about into danger; and second, when you have to cut someone you care about from the team.

The Team Will Get Hurt

Leadership requires pushing your team into dangerous environments. Willink and Babin learned this lesson in the warzone of Ramadi, Iraq, but they argue that it’s equally true in the workplace. Workers will make mistakes and feel ashamed and receive feedback that bruises their egos, and they may at some point need to be fired.

Willink and Babin argue that as a leader, your job is to accept radical accountability and minimize these unpleasant dangers whenever you can. Try to provide your team members with everything they need to thrive, whether that be additional training or other kinds of special attention. Furthermore, don’t overwork them to the point of misery—on the contrary, make the job as pleasant as possible for them, as long as they’re contributing to the success of the mission.

However, Willink and Babin offer a warning: Don’t let your emotional connection to your team members cloud your judgment. Sometimes, the right decision requires you to let your team get hurt—for instance, if your company is struggling financially, you may need to lay people off to survive. The whole point of forming a team is to accomplish a worthy mission. If you allow your feelings for someone on your team to ruin the mission, you fail the entire team and waste their collective efforts.

Balancing Care and Honesty With Radical Candor

Kim Scott illustrates this dichotomy perfectly in Radical Candor. Scott’s thesis is that to be an effective leader, you need to care personally about your team but also directly challenge them when you disagree with the way they’re working. 

If your team is doing challenging work, some amount of failure (and pain) is inevitable. Scott argues that the “kindness” of ignoring your team’s failures and giving entirely positive feedback isn’t kindness at all—it’s “ruinous empathy” if you care about your team, and “insincere manipulation” if you don’t. Much of the time, your team will be aware when they’re not doing good work, and if you pretend like everything is fine, they won’t feel like they can trust you. This strategy doesn’t protect your team from pain, it intensifies the pain.

Willink and Babin argue that most of the time, you should take care of your team and cater to their preferences. Scott offers a compelling reason to do so: In some cases, neglecting your team members’ wants and needs hurts the mission. For example, Scott recounts how one of her team members quit his former job because his boss forced him to take a promotion he didn’t want. That boss lost a valuable team member by trying to maximize the value of their personnel at an individual’s expense.

To Coach or to Fire?

One potent form of this dichotomy occurs when cutting someone from your team. Willink and Babin assert that you want every member of your team to feel unconditionally supported. However, they point out that if you let a single struggling member drag the rest of the team down, you’re doing everyone a disservice.

Willink and Babin emphasize that in the majority of cases, you should try as hard as you can to coach struggling team members until they improve and meet your team’s standards. Part of radical accountability is accepting responsibility for your team members’ shortcomings. If they fail, begin by assuming you’re not mentoring them well enough.

However, if it becomes obvious that the struggling team member isn’t able to improve, you’re obligated to cut them from the team. Willink and Babin explain that this is also a form of radical accountability—doing what needs to be done for the good of the entire group. You’re protecting the rest of the team from the consequences of their potential mistakes. And more than likely, you’re doing what’s best for the one who’s struggling—they’ll be happier working on a team better suited to their abilities.

Leadership and Sacrifice: The Netflix Way

In No Rules Rules, Erin Meyer and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings offer an alternative viewpoint on the need to fire team members. Meyer and Hastings acknowledge the fact that one struggling team member can drag the whole team down. However, they take Willink and Babin’s logic further: When a team has no struggling members, every team member is a positive influence on everyone else, and the entire team thrives. Thus, they offer the advice to fire any employee that you wouldn’t fight to keep: not just those that are struggling the most.

Meyer and Hastings insist that this high rate of turnover is necessary for the Netflix team to achieve the highest level of success. In their eyes, Netflix management is making sacrifices for the good of the team—just like Willink and Babin. 

Moreover, Meyer and Hastings assert that this practice of frequent firings isn’t a bad system for the employees themselves, either. Instead of spending money and time on personal coaching for struggling team members, as Willink and Babin suggest, Netflix uses that money as a generous severance package—typically four to nine months’ pay. Their goal is to ensure that getting fired isn’t something to be afraid of.
The Cornerstone of Good Leadership Is Sacrifice

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Jocko Willink and Leif Babin's "The Dichotomy of Leadership" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full The Dichotomy of Leadership summary :

  • How to master the many different dichotomies that make a great leader
  • How to successfully lead others and yourself
  • How good qualities can become detrimental when taken too far

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.