Turn the Ship Around: How to Create Leadership at Every Level

by L. David Marquet , Captain, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Capt. Marquet writes about implementing a profoundly different management approach when he took command of the worst performing submarine in the U.S. Navy. “Within a year, the situation was totally turned around. We went from worst to first in most measures of performance, including the one I valued the most—our ability to retain our sailors and officers.”

“Disengaged, dissatisfied, uncommitted employees erode an organization’s [productivity] while breaking the spirits of their colleagues.” Marquet found the root cause of the problem to be the leader-follower structure, in which subordinates “have limited decision-making authority and little incentive to give the utmost of their intellect, energy, and passion… We had 135 men on board and only 5 of them fully engaged their capacity to observe, analyze, and problem solve.”

“The leader-leader model not only achieves great improvements in effectiveness and morale but also makes the organization stronger. Most critically, these improvements are enduring, decoupled from the leader’s personality and presence. Leader-leader structures are significantly more resilient, and they do not rely on the designated leader always being right. Further, leader-leader structures spawn additional leaders throughout the organization naturally.”

Rather than moving information up the chain of command to decision makers, “we were going to deconstruct decision authority and push it down to where the information lived… We expanded the power of the chiefs several times during the 3 years I was on Santa Fe… The mechanism was to add a line to our planning documents that listed the ‘Chief in Charge’ next to each event.”

Rather than waiting for orders, each person was now responsible and accountable for their area. “Officers would state their intentions with ‘I intend to…’ and I would say, ‘Very well.’ Then each man would execute his plan… It started filtering through the crew and permeating the way we did business… Instead of 1 captain giving orders to 134 men, we would have 135 independent, energetic, emotionally committed and engaged men thinking about what we needed to do and ways to do it right. This process turned them into active leaders as opposed to passive followers.”

Marquet writes about how excessive performance monitoring can be counterproductive. “These overseers don’t do anything to actually achieve the objective. They only identify when the process has gone bad after the fact.” Deming’s book Out of the Crisis “had a big effect on me. It showed me how efforts to improve the process made the organization more efficient, while efforts to monitor the process made the organization less efficient. What I hadn’t understood was the pernicious effect that ‘We are checking up on you’ has on initiative, vitality, and passion until I saw it in action on Santa Fe.”

A recurring theme is the value of informal communication. “Even a 30-second check early on could save your people numerous hours of work. Many, many times I’d be walking around the boat and ask someone, ‘Show me what you are working on,’ only to discover that a well-meaning, yet erroneous translation of intent was resulting in a significant waste of resources.”

Marquet also writes about the value of thinking out loud. “When I heard what my watch officers were thinking, it made it much easier for me to keep my mouth shut and let them execute their plans… When I, as the captain, would ‘think out loud,’ I was in essence imparting important context and experience to my subordinates. I was also modeling that lack of certainty is strength and certainty is arrogance.”

“The single most powerful mechanism that we implemented for reducing mistakes and making Santa Fe operationally excellent” was called deliberate action. “This meant that prior to any action, the operator paused and vocalized and gestured toward what he was about to do, and only after taking a deliberate pause would he execute the action… The senior inspector told me this: ‘Your guys tried to make the same number of mistakes as everyone else. But the mistakes never happened because of deliberate action. Either they were corrected by the operator himself or by a teammate.’ He was describing a resilient organization, one where error propagation is stopped. Eventually we would expand deliberate action to administrative paperwork. When documents were signed carelessly, we injected the concept of deliberate action into the act (mostly for officers) of signing and authorizing events.”

“Look at your structures for awards… Do they pit some of your employees against other ones? That structure will result in competition at the lowest level. If what you want is collaboration, then you are destroying it. Instead, have awards that are abundant, with no limit. They pit your team against the world—either external competitors or nature.” The author adds, “Simply providing data to the teams on their relative performance results in a natural desire to improve.”

“Empowerment does not work without the attributes of competence and clarity… Clarity means people at all levels of an organization clearly and completely understand what the organization is about. This is needed because people in the organization make decisions against a set of criteria that includes what the organization is trying to accomplish.”

Marquet, L. David. Turn the Ship Around!: How to Create Leadership at Every Level. Austin, TX: Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2012. Buy from Amazon.com

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