Leadership Book Review: Wisdom from a Storied Career

Three Books to Read

Emerging Leaders Messenger—April 2021 | by Byron F. Stephens, MD

With his own podcast, multiple books, and even guest appearances on popular TV shows, Jocko Willink is rising to the status of a household name in American culture. The retired U.S. Naval Special Warfare Officer is a heavily decorated, true American war hero turned leadership and team-building authority. Unsurprisingly, his leadership tactics covered in his media content stems from his career as an officer in the SEAL teams. While deployed overseas, Willink led American troops through some of the worst days in the battle for Ramadi, which is considered by many to be the most intense conflict in the Iraq war. To the un-initiated, I would point the reader to his popular podcast (“Jocko Podcast,” I personally recommend starting from the beginning) and the books covered in this review, Extreme Ownership, The Dichotomy of Leadership, and Leadership Strategy and Tactics.

Extreme Ownership

Extreme Ownership is Willink’s first foray into leadership writing and is centered around the concept for which the book was named – rather than pointing blame at others and skirting responsibility when situations go awry, leaders at all levels should instead take ownership of the problem and assume responsibility for correcting the issues at hand. In orthopaedic surgery, the most apparent example of this would be rather than blaming others (anesthesia, medical students/residents/fellows, other specialties, patients) for a poor result from surgery, the effective leader instead assumes responsibility for not providing other team members with the necessary tools for success and then implements the change that are needed. In the book, Willink provides real-world examples from both his time on the battlefield and in business leadership, which makes the book entertaining and hard to put down. The book is co-authored by Leif Babin, another SEAL officer and combat veteran. The lessons from this book are applicable to business, the practice of medicine, and teaching responsibility and performance to our residents and fellows.

The Dichotomy of Leadership

The Dichotomy of Leadership continues with leadership lessons learned from combat that can be translated to the real world. This second book focuses on the balance that leaders must maintain against opposing forces which can pull otherwise highly functioning teams apart. An example of this is knowing when to have decentralized command (i.e. letting subordinates make independent decisions) and when a team needs micro-management. Willink and Babin convincingly illustrate that the effective leader must be flexible and know when the situation calls for one of these divergent strategies over the other.

Leadership Strategy and Tactics

In Leadership Strategy and Tactics, Willink provides practical, real-world advice to situations commonly encountered by organizational leaders. This latest book seems to be derived from years of Willink’s experience with his leadership consultancy company, Echelon Front. Most of the scenarios are orientated around business situations but can easily be applied to medicine and medical education. This work is almost meant to be a desk reference for emerging leaders, giving them quick, easy-to-digest advice for commonly encountered leadership scenarios and conflict resolution. I have found the chapter Using Leadership to Teach and Build particularly applicable to my role in teaching medical students, residents, and fellows.

Other Recommendations from Dr. Stephens

While all three books are worth purchasing and I recommend reading them together, I perhaps find the most benefit from his weekly podcast, Jocko Podcast (available on all major podcast outlets, including Apple podcasts). These two-to-three-hour long episodes typically involve a book review (military, non-fiction books) or an interview with a notable author or American war hero. Lessons gleaned from these books or guests are then translated to civilian leadership scenarios and can be very educational and entertaining.


In summary, Jocko Willink’s stock as an American leadership icon is rising for good reason. His experience and ability to translate lesson learned from his time in the military to the ‘real world’ is uncanny and very entertaining. These books and podcasts have impacted me as a ‘emerging leader’ and I would recommend them to anyone interested in leadership development and medical education.

Article Author

Byron F. Stephens, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Neurosurgery, Division Chief of Orthopaedic Spine Surgery, and Associate Program Director of the Orthopaedic Surgery Residency at Vanderbilt Orthopaedics. He is an Emerging Leader with the American Orthopaedic Association.


The Dichotomy Of Leadership: Balancing The Challenges Of Extreme Ownership To Lead And Win

Jocko Willink and Leif Babin; St. Martin’s Press; 1st edition (September 1, 2018)
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Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win

Jocko Willink and Leif Babin; St. Martin’s Press; 1st edition (November 1, 2017)
Read more.

Leadership Strategy and Tactics: Field Manual

Jocko Willink; St. Martin’s Press (January 14, 2020)
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The Jocko Podcast: Leadership and Discipline