Tactics are to strategy what chapters are to a book, what stones are to a castle, and what ingredients are to a meal. Your tactics are influenced by your strategy. And your strategy is dictated by your tactics. One cannot thrive without the other if you are to master the laws of tactical leadership.
The leader’s job is often strategic: big-picture mindset, third-order thinking, seeing around corners, and long-term planning. And for that, tactical thinking is often forgotten, devalued, or confused. What good is a compass if it tells you nothing of the dangers ahead? Strategy won’t always tell you how to navigate the unknown. But tactics will.
In their book Extreme Ownership, former Navy SEALS Jocko Willink and Leif Babin lay out what they call the “Laws of Combat,” simple but effective tactical leadership approaches. Learned in SEAL training and applied in the Battle of Ramadi, these principles are the foundation of their teaching to business leaders and government officials around the world.
I originally wrote four additional essays to describe each of these laws, but simplicity (hint hint) should always be top of mind. I’ve combined them into this single essay, which will allow you the ease and the opportunity to master the foundation of effective tactical leadership.
So, without further ado, here are the four irrefutable laws of tactical leadership:
Tactical Law #1: Cover and Move
“Communication is a sign of dysfunction. It means that people aren’t working together in a close, organic way. We should be trying to figure out a way for teams to communicate less with each other, not more.”-Jeff Bezos
He’s precisely—and painfully right. Through action comes clarity, and by holding daily team meetings and wasting valuable time to communicate, you’re sacrificing the clarity that only action can bring. The entire purpose of communication is to reduce dysfunction. But our efforts often result only in reduced efficiency. Instead of merely reducing dysfunction, work to eliminate dysfunction on the front end, so your team never has to communicate more than necessary. The most effective solution is to implement the tactical law of “cover and move.”
Cover and move is the fundamental root of effective tactical leadership in any team setting. Popularized by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin in their book, Extreme Ownership, it is essentially military speak for synchronized teamwork. If your team must move or perform an action that leaves them exposed or vulnerable, there must be other team members covering for them at all times. This requires each member to not only know their own jobs, but to also know the responsibilities of their teammates. This reduces the need for communication, and it also reduces mistakes, as each member’s work is consistently being checked by their peers.
After each phase of tactical training, Navy SEALs carry out what are called field training exercises, or FTXs. These are mock battle scenarios where SEALs practice everything from preparation and planning, to simulated combat. Professional set designers are even hired to transform the sites into exactly what the troops would face during an actual operation. SEALs face an “opponent” called OPFOR, or opposing force, which is made up of other experienced SEALs dressed in enemy clothing. OPFOR knows every SEAL tactic and every SEAL move, making it critical that trainees work together seamlessly and synchronously. During a week of continuous operations, SEAL trainees encounter the toughest enemy they will ever face, in a setting indistinguishable from the real location. It is here where cover and move is practiced and perfected before they ever see live action.
In an FTX, SEAL trainees facing such a difficult opponent must multiply their capabilities and effectiveness if they ever hope to succeed. They must learn to act in unison in the absence of perfect communication. If one SEAL has to cross an open space like a hallway, another SEAL must keep their gun trained on the distance of the hallway. If SEALs have to cross a road or a river, another team must provide security for that crossing. In any situation where SEALs must momentarily revert to tunnel vision, they must be covered by SEALs who have detached—taken a wider view of the scene. If trainees operate as a set of individuals, they will waste valuable time communicating, make more mistakes, and make it easy for OPFOR to isolate and eliminate them. By depending on each other and knowing who depends on them, SEAL trainees will no longer be a team of individuals. They will become one efficient and synchronous unit.
Cover and move applies to everyday business operations. In a restaurant, there is a metric often used called “turn time.” This tracks the total time that a table is occupied from the moment it is seated, to the moment the guests leave. Long turn times can signal that food is coming out too slow, customers are staying too long, or servers are overextended. This can become a problem during lunch and dinner rushes, when other customers are waiting to be seated. While turn time is useful to be aware of, it doesn’t tell the entire story. There is a period in between each seating when bussers must clear, clean, and set the table. It is in this interval that the staff has full control. To carry out this process efficiently, servers must know the bussers’ capabilities. If the bussers are overwhelmed, the server must be proactive and clear empty plates as their guests eat. The bussers must understand the servers’ capabilities and do the same. If both are overextended, it is the job of the host or hostess to know which tables to seat, when to seat them, and help maintain customer composure in the meantime. With little communication during the most intense times, all three positions must know how to cover for each other to reduce turn times and overall wait times.
You see cover and move applied in sports as well. In basketball, the ballhandler can often act as a decoy, allowing their teammates to reposition themselves for an open shot. When a player makes a no-look pass, it is the cover he has created with misdirection, along with the understanding of his teammate’s role, which gives them the trust to complete the pass without ever having to communicate it. In football, the quarterback is always at risk. The offensive line is there to cover, while the quarterback moves. The quarterback’s eye movement serves as a cover, distracting defenders while the receiver moves to the perfect spot to catch the ball. Through simply watching sports, you can begin to pick up on the subtle power of cover and move.
In any organization or team, from the Navy SEALs, to a restaurant, to a football team, it is critical to ensure that each member of the team has at least a surface-level knowledge of each other’s roles. The more synchronous your team can be, the less they have to communicate, and the less dysfunction there will be. While we’ve been trained to assume that less communication is harmful, well-prepared leaders spend time training their team on the other side of the spectrum, where communication is reduced, and action is prioritized, with the tactical law of cover and move.
Tactical Law #2: Simple
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”-Bruce Lee
We humans deal with a difficult paradox on a daily basis. It’s that simplicity is complex and difficult to achieve, and complexity is simple and easy to achieve. It’s easy to fill our closets with junk, but difficult to clean. It’s easy to write a book, but difficult to edit. It’s easy to eat potato chips and ice cream, but difficult to diet. It’s easy to practice 10,000 kicks, but difficult to master one. The problem with simple is that it’s difficult. It’s boring. It’s dull. And it requires discipline. Which is why we naturally gravitate towards complexity.
Complexity is interesting. It’s exciting. It’s effortless. Like email and gravity, it’s so much easier to just let it happen. Like a valley that digs deep into the earth, complexity is easy to fall into, and difficult to climb out of. The irony is that complexity arises because we are inherently lazy—because we prefer the simplest path. Over time, the complexity we allow in our own lives creates complex problems. We become convinced that we must seek complex solutions for ourselves and create complex solutions for others. And so, complexity becomes a weapon of exclusivity, profit, ideology or to escape competition. It’s only when we want to achieve actual results that we pursue simplicity.
As the leader, you must understand that there is no room for complexity when trying to achieve meaningful results. There is no room for exclusivity, profit, or ideology on a team that is trying to reach a common goal. As the leader, it is your job to fight the gravitational pull towards complexity in your own mind, and keep things simple for your team so they can operate effectively. As the leader you are a teacher, a guide, and the example people look to. Simplicity must be your weapon of choice.
In the last section, we discussed the first law of tactical leadership, Cover and Move. The only way cover and move can work is if you follow the law of simplicity. The roles, responsibilities, and directions you lay out for your team must be simple to understand so they can cover for each other and move seamlessly and intuitively. If your directions are too complicated, they will be forgotten, misunderstood, and mistakes will happen more often. A team following complex instructions becomes just a collection of individuals because they are too focused on understanding their own responsibilities.
As a teacher, emphasize first principles. When the chess master Josh Waitzkin describes the process of learning chess, he takes every piece off of the board and focuses on just one. By playing a king and pawn against a king, one is better able to understand the essence of a pawn. By playing a pawn and rook against a king, one is able to better understand the essence of a rook. By simplifying, by removing 29 other pieces from the chessboard, one can instantly begin to understand the underlying principles of any action. Remove what is unnecessary, so your team can focus on the essential.
As a guide, emphasize the highest priority. There must be an unmistakable “north star” that everyone, in the absence of communication, can move towards. Like the Saltshaker Theory, your expectations must be simple, clear, and concise. Your team must always know what the “saltshaker” is and where it always has to be.
Simplicity is order. Complexity is chaos. It is up to you to maintain order by keeping things simple. Understand the paradox of simplicity, and that left to their own devices, your team will always gravitate towards complexity, stunting their growth in the process. As the teacher, as the guide, and as the example your people will follow, everything you are, say, and do must emphasize simplicity. Emphasize first principles. Focus on the highest priority. If your people don’t understand what you are expecting of them, it is solely on you to simplify it.
Rather than expecting your team to learn 10,000 kicks, teach them to master one.
Tactical Law #3: Prioritize and Execute
If you have too many priorities, you have no priorities. If you try to accomplish everything, you will accomplish nothing. Therein lies the need to prioritize and execute.
It was morning in south-central Ramadi, Iraq—the “hornet’s nest.” Melting on a rooftop under the sweltering Iraqi sun, a team of Navy SEALs found themselves outnumbered and under siege. Facing a daylong barrage of enemy gunfire and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), all they could do was keep their heads down and hope for the best as concrete and glass peppered them from above. They were surrounded on all sides. As they suppressed enemy fire, they identified only one “safe” exit to the street. The only problem? There was a suspicious silver object laying near the doorway, which their bomb technicians knew was an improvised explosive device (IED) that could annihilate the building when detonated. They needed an alternate exit strategy. A handful of SEALs carried sledgehammers, and began to hammer through a concrete wall into an adjacent building. Pushing through the opening, one SEAL fell through the floor, 20 feet to the ground below. It was a perilous situation.
With the threat of enemy fire from all sides, no safe exit, a ticking time-bomb ready to go off at any moment, and a badly wounded SEAL laying 20 feet below them in an unfamiliar building, it was “a hell of a dilemma, one that could overwhelm even the most competent leader,” as SEAL officer Leif Babin put it. As the leader of the SEAL team, Leif’s only path forward was to prioritize and execute. This would require him to detach from both the situation and his emotions, remain calm, determine the team’s highest priority in an objective manner, and direct them to execute flawlessly.
Though the team’s emotional response would have dictated that they first rescue their wounded man below, Leif knew that security was their highest priority. First, he directed his men to secure the building and rooftop positions. Only then could they get everyone down from the exposed rooftop and rescue their wounded man. Step by step, they moved methodically through a hierarchy of priorities: safely exiting the adjacent building, taking a headcount, and getting to a safe distance away from the impending IED blast. Because they were so well-trained, because they had a leader who was able to set his emotions aside, and because they understood the power of prioritize and execute, the SEALs were able to escape the hornet’s nest that day with no casualties and no serious injuries.
You may not be caught in the middle of a firefight in the “hornet’s nest” anytime soon, but there will be times when everything seems to be going wrong, and your people will be looking to you for direction. With seemingly dozens of objectives in front of you, like the tip of a spear, you must take a pinpointed and direct approach. Remember the Mimetic Theory—your ability to keep calm and composed under pressure is critical to how your team responds. If you cannot stay composed and take decisive action, your people will begin to look for solutions on their own, resulting in disorganized chaos.
When I was put in charge of opening a restaurant, I understood the enormous task ahead of me. I had less than four weeks to put the restaurant together (literally, with kitchen equipment, tables, chairs, etc.), find food suppliers, hire a kitchen manager, interview hundreds of applicants, hire staff, train the staff, write a policy handbook, and somehow find time for my own health and sanity. I sat on my couch on the eve of day one, wondering how I was possibly going to pull this off with little support from the top.
Instead of heading directly into the fire, I prioritized leverage. My first priority was to gather a team of trusted managers and employees from our other locations, and give them a concrete plan of action. I assigned them specific jobs based on their strengths with specific guidelines: one would be in charge of ordering equipment, one would be in charge of finding the best food suppliers, one with connections in the area would be in charge of recruiting applicants for interview day, and it was my job to coordinate the operation, write the policy handbook, and set standards for the hiring process. Because I prioritized the highest-level actions first, my team knew what exactly they needed to do. Within just days, we had the restaurant ready to go, allowing three full weeks for hiring and training my staff.
Whether you’re on the battlefield, in a restaurant, on a playing field, or in the office, there are times when you will be faced with an overwhelming number of decisions. Prioritize and execute will give you clarity, calm and coordination in the face of chaos. It can often be the difference between success and failure. As the leader, you must have a grasp of the most important, highest-leverage actions you and your team can take immediately. You must also have a grasp of your emotions in the heat of the moment so you can make the best decisions possible. For if you try to accomplish everything, you will accomplish nothing.
Tactical Law #4: Decentralized Command
Everyone was waiting to be told what to do.
In the months before I was put in charge of opening our newest restaurant, I was sent to help jumpstart another struggling location within the company. Situated along a picturesque treelined river, this restaurant should have been a prime destination for local residents, businesses, and athletes who lived in the area. But it wasn’t. When I arrived, the place was a ghost town. Business was booming for rival restaurants across the river. But things had become so bad for this restaurant that the owner even named it “the black hole,” for its uncanny ability to suck up his money, never to be seen again.
In my first week there, the employees might have expected massive changes (and to be perfectly blunt, massive changes were needed.) But that’s not what they got. Instead, I set out to get to know each one of them individually. If I were ever to make meaningful change, I needed a sense of the staff’s character, and staff needed a sense of mine. In the initial days, my time was otherwise spent quietly observing. What I saw was troubling, yet unsurprising.
The first, most glaring problem was the fact that each one of the employees operated as individuals. In my one-on-one talks with them, I heard a lot of blaming and finger pointing. I got a clear sense that the staff didn’t enjoy working together. There was no camaraderie among the employees. There was no teamwork. There was no “cover and move.”
Next, I found out that the previous manager had changed the menu dramatically, complicating the servers’ jobs significantly. He added daily specials, breakfast menus, and fancy garnishes to each plate and drink. And while those are nice for a successful restaurant, they only serve to grind to a halt what was already a dysfunctional organization. He thought that by cultivating an image of sophistication and complexity, that customers would see the true value of the restaurant. Instead, they saw right through the façade and right through the gaping holes that were left unaddressed. Because there was no teamwork, employees struggled to implement his complex reforms, ignoring the fundamentals in the process. Things needed to be made simple.
Thirdly, many employees had no sense of prioritization. If a table of customers was waiting to be greeted, servers were found arguing with the cooks about how slow the food was coming out. If there was a solo diner at a table, servers tended to ignore them and give more attention to their larger tables. If there was a large party that required multiple servers, things tended to devolve into bickering over who was going to do what. They didn’t quite understand that the backbone of a good restaurant is good customer service, whether for a table of one, or a table of 50. There was no understanding of “prioritize and execute.”
The restaurant violated each of our first three laws of tactical leadership with flying colors. Check. Check. And check.
It took some effort to truly understand how the restaurant became so spectacularly dysfunctional—how it earned its name, “the black hole.” But it soon became crystal clear to me: the underlying problem was that there always had been a bottleneck in decision-making. The command structure was centralized—everything emanated from the top down. The previous manager was a micromanager to the highest degree. The smallest of decisions had to go through him. By removing agency from each of his employees, they simply stopped caring. They didn’t have a sense of ownership of their jobs. If they knew their decisions would be scrutinized by the manager, then why make decisions at all? It got to the point where everyone was waiting to be told what to do.
So, counterintuitively, the first major change I made was to give the employees more control. Although they often acted in untrustworthy ways, I understood that this wasn’t their primary ailment, but rather a side-effect. I needed to give them my trust, a sense of agency, and the freedom to take initiative. I focused on empowerment, starting with a head bartender, a head server, and a head chef. I gave younger employees responsibilities that no one had ever trusted them with. The staff simply needed someone to believe in them. By making them more accountable to each other, the culture began to improve dramatically.
I stayed there for only two months before I had to focus on opening the new restaurant. But my short time in “the black hole” confirmed a powerful lesson. By applying the tactical law of decentralized command, by giving the staff more, not less, responsibility, it significantly improves teamwork, morale, and confidence. By removing the bottleneck at the top, things flow smoother, and stress significantly drops across the board. It would take a lot more work to turn the restaurant around, but my focus on culture and empowerment, rather than control and complexity, gave the restaurant new life. Everyone learned to step up and lead.
And there you have it, the four irrefutable laws of tactical leadership. Each of these laws will be the foundation—the practical building blocks—for how to carry out effective group leadership in any arena. With a deeper understanding of the four laws of tactical leadership, it will fundamentally change the way you approach leadership forever.
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