Written by Jocko Willink
December 30, 2021
The language you use matters. Whether you’re leading troops into battle, or managing a complex job site, how you say it can be as important as what you say. The U.S. Marine Corps is known for engendering a “bias for action” among its members. Retired Navy SEAL Willink takes this a step further, advocating for a business stance that is “default aggressive.”
“Default aggressive is an attitude and it's a mindset,” said Willink. “And it's a scary one, because the two words put together can intimidate people. And rightfully so, because they can be misunderstood.”
Unpacking the term ‘default aggressive.’
Willink himself is a fan of the Marines’ term, bias for action, seeing it as perhaps more palatable than his default aggressive. Although his concern is that the language isn’t strong enough to move people to decisive action.
The origin of his default aggressive is intentional: “I did specifically choose the words 'default aggressive.'” It comes from putting 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. And when you don't take action, and things are going bad, things aren't going to get better, they're going to get worse.”
Willink taught his young SEAL leaders that their default position had to be to make something happen: to take decisive, as in aggressive, action. “Because if you wait around in a combat situation, or when things are going bad, if you wait, chances are, you're going to get killed.”
He’s quick to point out that the term default doesn’t mean automatic. With any machine or process, you have the option of overriding the default setting. His concern is that, when something’s going wrong, the default mode of anyone — from a Navy SEAL to a construction site foreman — needs to be to move, to take direct action. Thus, default aggressive.
Taking default aggressive into the workplace.
In terms of translating this to the business world, Willink realizes “aggressive” could be misinterpreted, especially as it applies to interpersonal situations. “Like, oh, Aaron did something wrong. I'm gonna go get default aggressive and go yell at him. That's not what we're talking about, we're not talking about being aggressive towards your people at all.”
“We're talking about being aggressive towards solving problems, towards making things happen,” Willink said. This applies from a safety perspective as well. “How can you be aggressive and safe at the same time? 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 critical to identify situations where maintaining the status quo isn’t the right choice. Status quo simply can be another term for inertia, to which human beings are prone. It may feel more comfortable to stay right where you are than to move.
“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,” as Willink said. “I don't know if bias for action quite gets us over that hump.”
The presence of a bias for action may not be enough to cause action. “Default aggressive gets us over that hump, and at least gets us to the top of the hump, so we can look around and say, okay, I see it's time to back off, which happens sometimes.”
Default aggressive provides a clear call to action when things are going wrong.
As with any default position, it can be modified, to suit the dynamics of the situation. At a minimum, it reminds you to be alert to the need to act decisively and swiftly.
Willink summed it up best: “Does it mean you yell and scream? No, it doesn't mean that at all. Does it mean you get aggressive towards 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.”
Written by Jocko Willink
December 30, 2021