The SEAL franchise

Book cover of Leadership Strategy and Tactics: Field Manual | Photo: Amazon
There are no statistics available on how many leadership books are written and published every year but it is obviously one of the hot genres in the non-fiction category. From the Washington Post to Forbes, every publication brings out its own list of best leadership books for the year. And if you are searching online for recommendations, you will stumble on dozens of articles on titles that business legends such as Bill Gates or Richard Branson or Larry Page apparently swear by.


There is a perpetual market for leadership books, perhaps because every corporate manager wants quick tips on becoming a better leader. Middle managers are particularly prone to this affliction but apparently, even highly successful entrepreneurs are big readers (apart from being authors themselves) of leadership books.


Leadership authors fall into two broad categories. One set are those who do serious academic research on the subject. They first publish their research in publications such as the  Harvard Business Review,  before expanding their studies into full sized books. The much larger set of leadership books are biographical/semi-autobiographical volumes penned by successful leaders spanning different fields. These could include corporate leaders or army officers, sports coaches or champion sports team captains.  Winning  by the late Jack Welch, Hit Refresh by Satya Nadella, Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg or What it Takes to be #1 by Vince Lombardi Jr all fall into this category.


Leadership Strategy and Tactics Field Manual by Jocko Willink also falls in this group. A former Navy SEAL who rose to become the commander of the Task Unit Bruiser, the most decorated special operations unit in the Iraq War, Mr Willink built up a multi-million dollar leadership consultancy company after he retired from the US Navy. He is also a prolific lecturer, podcaster and author. This book is his fourth on the subject aimed at adults (he also writes books for children). His earlier book, co-authored with Lief Babin, called Extreme Ownership: How US Navy Seals Lead and Win makes it to the top 20 list of modern leadership books regularly.


There is no doubt that Mr Willink accomplished much during his career, both in the Navy and as a leadership consultant, and has been, by all accounts, a highly popular and successful leader of teams. Like his earlier books, this one too is semi-autobiographical, drawing extensively on the lessons he learnt during his career as a SEAL. It is a relatively concise book, which can be read either from the beginning to the end or simply dipped into as and when you think you need specific insight into one area of your behaviour.


It doesn’t get into theories and extensive research on leadership patterns, traits or context, but tries to condense what worked for Mr Willink in his own life. Quite a lot of it is common sense packaged in SEAL examples —such as the virtues of stepping back to get a better perspective or leaving your ego behind if you want to be respected by the men and women in your team. (Though in Mr Willink’s case, it is exclusively men. The SEALs allowed women to apply for a position only in 2016 but so far, only one woman completed the gruelling course in 2019 and then decided not to join. )


The book contains a host of practical tips, which includes ways to build a relationship, the importance of observation first before jumping into action, the span of control etc.


While the book is not bad for a middle manager hoping to bolster his or her leadership skills, it falls far short of saying anything new. In fact, most of the lessons have been talked about in greater detail than in his earlier books. The other problem is that Mr Willink is obsessed with himself — not only is the book almost entirely about his own experiences, but even where he talks of other leaders who taught him important lessons, they only become fleeting, secondary mentions.


Also, despite its title, the book is mostly about tactics, not any great strategic thinking. His examples are largely from the battlefield and training games of the Navy and not all of them will apply in every corporate battlefield. Research shows that different skills are often required when the conditions or backdrop changes and all leaders cannot handle every situation. A leader who has been great in the early days of a start-up may falter when the firm scales up. Travis Kalanick is a classic example. Or a leader who has only experienced boom markets does not always handle a turnaround challenge. Marissa Mayer was great at Google but not so successful at Yahoo.


At one point, Mr Willink examines whether leaders are born or made. It is an age-old debate and he is candid enough to admit that any leader needs to have some inherent leadership qualities that can be honed. But not everyone can become a leader. At another point, Mr Willink agrees that much of leadership is about judgement and balance. There are times when it makes sense to jump in and give orders and others when it is better to say quiet.


This book is interesting in its recounting of SEAL training. But there are plenty of other SEAL veterans who have written equally good or better books. Mr Willink’s own book —  Extreme Ownership — was better — and this one only tries to capitalise on its success.

Leadership Strategy And Tactics Field Manual
Author: Jocko Willink
Publisher: MacMillan
Price: Rs 850

The reviewer is former editor of Businessworld and Business Today magazines


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