Former Navy SEAL commanders who have worked with more than 400 businesses teach leaders to be aggressive — but not in the way most people think

Jocko Willink and Leif Babin are former Navy SEAL commanders who founded Echelon Front.

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Jocko Willink and Leif Babin are former Navy SEAL commanders who founded Echelon Front.
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Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

  • Jocko Willink and Leif Babin are former Navy SEAL commanders with a new book, “The Dichotomy of Leadership.”
  • Their leadership consulting firm, Echelon Front, has worked with more than 400 businesses since its founding in 2010.
  • They teach being “Default: Aggressive,” which means being proactive rather than passive or reliant on others.
  • It does not mean being reckless or aggressive toward other people.

As the commander of US Navy SEAL Team 3 Task Unit Bruiser, Jocko Willink instilled in his team a philosophy of “Default: Aggressive.”

Leif Babin was one of two platoon leaders who reported to him, and after serving overseas they founded Echelon Front, a leadership consulting firm. Since its launch in 2010, it has worked with more than 400 businesses. In a recent interview about their new book, “The Dichotomy of Leadership,” Willink and Babin told Business Insider that they often found people misunderstood one of their lessons. They call it “Default: Aggressive.”

In the book, Willink describes Default: Aggressive as aggressively working to “overcome obstacles, capitalize on immediate opportunities, accomplish the mission, and win” without needing every decision explicitly approved and without turning down an opportunity because it falls outside their job description.

“‘Aggressive’ means proactive,” in this case, Willink wrote. “It doesn’t mean that leaders can get angry, lose their temper, or be aggressive toward their people.” It also doesn’t mean being reckless.

“You’ve got to analyze the intelligence and collect information and mitigate risks that you can control,” Babin told Business Insider. “So trying to find that balance is incredibly difficult.”

Willink wrote about a time when he worked with the CEO of a growing small business whose confident, headstrong attitude was contagious. It was so contagious even Willink got caught up in her enthusiasm for ambitious growth plans built on stretch goals that would put a serious strain on the budget.

He explained that while he admired her embrace of the Default: Aggressive mindset, its purpose is tied to the good of the team. If confident, proactive behavior is actually placing the team in unnecessary danger, it’s not worth the risk.

Willink wrote that he told the CEO that “being aggressive doesn’t mean throwing caution to the wind.”

“It doesn’t mean taking catastrophic risk that can and should be mitigated,” he said. “And it doesn’t mean relying on unrealistic stretch goals.”

As Willink and Babin learned as SEALs, there is a major difference between a confident, independent, and proactive default approach to real-time challenges and “running to your death.”