On Turn the Ship Around

I recently finished reading Turn the Ship Around by Captain, U.S. NAVY (Retired) L. David Marquet. Despite having very high expectations about this leadership and transformation journey, given the book’s high ratings, I can definitely say that the book exceeded them in every way. The leader-leader model advocated by David is one that resonates very strongly with me, and the practical and applied manner in which he presents the transformation journey he went through and how one can apply it within their own organization is to be commended.

Below I wanted to share a summary of insights from the book.

In the foreword by the late Stephen R. Covey, on why you want to read this book:

Our world’s bright future will be built by people who have discovered that leadership is the enabling art. It is the art of releasing human talent and potential. You may be able to “buy” a person’s back with a paycheck, position, power, or fear, but a human being’s genius, passion, loyalty, and tenacious creativity are volunteered only. The world’s greatest problems will be solved by passionate. unleashed “volunteers.” My definition of leadership is this: Leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves. I don’t know of a finer model of this kind of empowering leadership than Captain Marquet’s. And in the pages Remember, leadership is a choice, not a position. I wish you well on your voyage!

David starts out by denouncing the shortcomings of the traditional leader-follower model:

We’re taught the solution is empowerment. The problem with empowerment programs is that they contain an inherent contradiction between the message and the method. While the message is “empowerment,” the method—it takes me to empower you—fundamentally disempowers employees. That drowns out the message. Additionally, in a leader-follower structure, the performance of the organization is closely linked to the ability of the leader. As a result, there is a natural tendency to develop personality-driven leadership. Followers gravitate toward the personality. Short-term performance is rewarded. When leaders who tend to do it all themselves and rely on personality depart, they are missed and performance can change significantly. Psychologically for the leader, this is tremendously rewarding. It is seductive. Psychologically for most followers, this is debilitating. The follower learns to rely on the leader to make all decisions rather than to fully engage with the work process to help make the organization run as efficiently as possible.

On the purpose of the book:

I imagine a world where we all find satisfaction in our work. It is a world where every human being is intellectually engaged. motivated, and self-inspired. Our cognitive capacity as a race is fully engaged in solving the monumental problems that we face. Ultimately, this book is a call to action, a manifesto, for all those frustrated workers and bosses for whom the current leadership structure just isn’t working. We need to reject leader-follower as a model and view the world as a place for leaders everywhere to achieve this vision. Whether you are a boss, an employee, a teacher, or a parent, you will find ways to work toward this goal.

On the importance of a questioning and curious attitude:

I am not advocating being ignorant about the equipment. For me, however, it was a necessary step to make me truly curious and reliant upon the crew in a way I wouldn’t have been without it. Later in my tour I became a technical expert on all aspects of Santa Fe, but the positive patterns had been set and I continued in the same relationship with the crew. If you walk about your organization talking to people, I’d suggest that you be as curious as possible. As with a good dinner table conversationalist, one question should naturally lead to another. The time to be questioning or even critical is after trust has been established.

Aim at achieving excellence, not just reducing errors:

Focusing on avoiding mistakes takes our focus away from becoming truly exceptional. Once a ship has achieved success merely in the form of preventing major errors and is operating in a competent way, mission accomplished, there is no need to strive further. I resolved to change this. Our goal would be excellence instead of error reduction. We would focus on exceptional operational effectiveness for the submarine. We would achieve great things.

Distributing control by itself is not enough:

We discovered that distributing control by itself wasn’t enough. As that happened, it put requirements on the new decision makers to have a higher level of technical knowledge and clearer sense of organizational purpose than ever before. That’s because decisions are made against a set of criteria that includes what’s technically appropriate and what aligns with the organization’s interests.

On his approach of changing culture:

When you’re trying to change employees’ behaviors, you have basically two approaches to choose from: change your own thinking and hope this leads to new behavior, or change your behavior and hope this leads to new thinking. On board Santa Fe, the officers and I did the latter, acting our way to new thinking. We didn’t have time to change thinking and let that percolate and ultimately change people’s actions; we just needed to change the behavior. Frankly, I didn’t care whether people thought differently at some point—and they eventually did—so long as they behaved in certain ways. I think there were likely some sailors who never understood what we were trying to do and resisted the change to leader-leader, but they behaved as if they believed.

On using regular conversations:

SHORT, EARLY CONVERSATIONS is a mechanism for CONTROL. It is a mechanism for control because the conversations did not consist of me telling them what to do. They were opportunities for the crew to get early feedback on how they were tackling problems. This allowed them to retain control of the solution. These early, quick discussions also provided clarity to the crew about what we wanted to accomplish. Many lasted only thirty seconds, but they saved hours of time…Here is a short list of “empowered phrases” that active doers use: I intend to…I plan on…I will…We will.

On resisting the urge to provide solutions and letting others react to situations:

RESIST THE URGE TO PROVIDE SOLUTIONS is a mechanism for CONTROL. When you follow the leader-leader model, you must take time to let others react to the situation as well. You have to create a space for open decision by the entire team, even if that space is only a few minutes, or a few seconds, long. This is harder than in the leader-follower approach because it requires you to anticipate decisions and alert your team to the need for an upcoming one. In a top-down hierarchy, subordinates don’t need to be thinking ahead because the boss will make a decision when needed.

On the importance of of improving the process as opposed to merely monitoring it:

In his book Out of the Crisis, W Edwards Deming lays out the leadership principles that became known as TQL, or Total Quality Leadership. This 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.

On the need for constant communication among the team:

If you limit all discussion to crisp orders and eliminate all contextual discussion, you get a pretty quiet control room. That was viewed as good. We cultivated the opposite approach and encouraged a constant buzz of discussions among the watch officers and crew. By monitoring that level of buzz, more than the actual content, I got a good gauge of how well the ship was running and whether everyone was sharing information.

On deliberate action:

TAKE DELIBERATE ACTION is a mechanism for COMPETENCE. But selling the crew on this mechanism’s value was hard going. One problem in getting the crew to perform deliberately was the perception that deliberate action was for someone else’s (a supervisor’s, an inspector’s) benefit. Even though we continually talked about how deliberate action was to prevent the individual from making silly mistakes, I would overhear sailors discussing deliberate action among themselves in this misperceived way. The second problem was overcoming the perception that deliberate action was something you did as a training exercise. but in a “real situation,” you would just move your hands as fast as possible.

How to more effectively engage employees in training programs:

Want to have a training program that employees will want to go to? Here’s how it should work: 1) The purpose of training is to increase technical competence. 2) The result of increased technical competence is the ability to delegate increased decision making to the employees. 3) Increased decision making among your employees will naturally result in greater engagement, motivation, and initiative.

On active certification as opposed to passive briefings:

DON’T BRIEF, CERTIFY is a mechanism for COMPETENCE. Certification is also a decision point. It is possible to fail a certification. Individuals can reveal that they aren’t prepared to take part in an action because of their lack of knowledge or understanding. Otherwise, it’s just a brief. “Don’t brief, certify” became another example where we basically did the opposite of what we were supposed to.

On specifying goals, not the approach/method:

SPECIFYING GOALS, NOT METHODS is a mechanism for COMPETENCE. In our case, this was because the crew was motivated to devise the best approach to putting out the fire. Once they were freed from following a prescribed way of doing things they came up with many ingenious ways to shave seconds off our response time.

On the importance of clarity:

As more decision-making authority is pushed down the chain of command, it becomes increasingly important that everyone throughout the organization understands what the organization is about. This is called clarity, and it is the second supporting leg—along with competence—that is needed in order to distribute control…Build trust and take care of your people. Use your legacy for inspiration. Use guiding principles for decision criteria. Use immediate recognition to reinforce desired behaviors. Begin with the end in mind. Encourage a questioning attitude over blind obedience.

On the need for emancipation:

Empowerment is a necessary step because we’ve been accustomed to disempowerment. Empowerment is needed to undo all those top-down, do-what-you’re-told, be-a-team-player messages that result from our leader-follower model. But empowerment isn’t enough in a couple of ways…What we need is release, or emancipation. Emancipation is fundamentally different from empowerment. With emancipation we are recognizing the inherent genius, energy, and creativity in all people, and allowing those talents to emerge. We realize that we don’t have the power to give these talents to others, or “empower” them to use them, only the power to prevent them from coming out. Emancipation results when teams have been given decision-making control and have the additional characteristics of competence and clarity. You know you have an emancipated team when you no longer need to empower them. Indeed, you no longer have the ability to empower them because they are not relying on you as their source of power.

A highly recommended practical read in the areas of leadership and personal development.


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