Default Aggressive


The U.S. Marine Corps is known for instilling a “bias for action” among its members. Retired Navy SEAL Willink takes this a step further: he advocates for a business stance that is “default aggressive.”

“Default aggressive is an attitude, and it's a mindset,” says Jocko. “And it's a scary one because the two words put together can intimidate people. And rightfully so, because they can be misunderstood.”

So, what does Jocko mean? 

Breaking down default aggressive

Jocko is a fan of the Marines’ "bias for action." And he admits that it's easier to swallow than his concept of default aggressive. However, he doesn't think it goes quite far enough.

The language you use matters. Whether you’re leading troops into battle or managing a jobsite, how you say it can be as important as what you say. Jocko believes the strong language of "default aggressive" is more likely to move people to decisive action.

“I did specifically choose the words 'default aggressive,'” Jocko says. He coined the term while putting Navy SEALs through training, “where something bad would happen during a simulated combat scenario, and I would see a leader who would sit back and not take action. When you don't take action and things are going bad, things aren't going to get better. They're going to get worse.”

Jocko taught his young SEAL leaders that their default position had to be to make something happen: to take decisive—aggressive—action. And with good reason: “If you wait around in a combat situation . . . chances are, you're going to get killed.”

He’s quick to point out that default doesn’t mean it's the only possible response. With any machine or process, you can override the default setting. His concern is that when something’s going wrong, the default mode of anyone—from a Navy SEAL to a foreman on a jobsite—needs to be to take direct action. This is default aggressive.

Being default aggressive on the jobsite

In the Dirt World, Jocko knows people can misinterpret “aggressive,” especially in interpersonal situations. He says people may think, “Oh, Aaron did something wrong. I'm gonna go get default aggressive and go yell at him."

But he's quick to add, "That's not what we're talking about. We're talking about being aggressive toward solving problems, toward making things happen."

This applies to safety as well. “How can you be aggressive and safe at the same time?" Jocko asks. "That's very easy. You are aggressive in implementing your safety protocols. When you see someone doing something that's unsafe, you aggressively take action to put that unsafe action to rest. You stop it.”

It’s also critical to identify situations where maintaining the status quo isn’t right. The status quo is often just inertia—lack of action—because it feels more comfortable to stay right where you are than to move.

Jocko explains, “Oftentimes, our intuition is to sit back and kind of let things play out. That's a strong characteristic to fight against. You're fighting against human nature, which is to sit back, don't do anything, don't make any moves. I don't know if bias for action quite gets us over that hump.” 

But he believes default aggressive does: “Default aggressive gets us over that hump, and at least gets us to the top of the hump, so we can look around." Then you can figure out what happens next, whether it's more action, different action, or backing off a bit if you need to.


Default aggressive means taking decisive action—especially when things are going wrong. It means people's first response is to take action. And as with any default position, it can be modified to fit the situation. 

Jocko sums it up best: “Does it mean you yell and scream? No, it doesn't mean that at all. Does it mean you get aggressive toward your people? No, it doesn't mean that at all. It means when there's something happening, especially a problem, that problem is not going to solve itself. You have to go solve the problem.”

← Extreme Ownership

Innovate and Adapt →

Join the thousands of Dirt pros who get our top workforce development tips.