If you can change the leadership culture on a navy submarine then you can do it anywhere. That is the inspiring thought that David Marquet gives us in this entertaining and very readable account.
With commendable honesty, Mr Marquet details the trials and tribulations that he, and his colleagues, went through on the way to a high performing culture. He didn’t start out with a grand plan or theory – they tried stuff out along the way and gradually found out what worked.
At the high level, what works is that the “leader-leader” model involves giving employees control over what they work on and how they work. This means letting them make meaningful decisions and it requires competence and role clarity. Control, competence and clarity make up the framework that Mr Marquet structures his book on. Within these three pillars Marquet identifies key lessons and actions.
These lessons and structures are not particularly new – I remember studying similar concepts in leadership 25 years ago, and Mr Marquet’s ideas are similar to Servant Leadership and related approaches. What makes this book different – and valuable – is that the author focuses on practicality. He never references theories or research, he simply gets on with the job of trying to change things, pretty much by trial and error. It is this practical approach which will be of most interest to business readers.
I do have some criticisms of the book, notably that Mr Marquet is rather vague in his explanations of how some of his ideas work, or whether they might work outside of the military context. For example, the “I intend to” approach works in a military environment where the leader affirms every action in a control room setting, but I don’t see how it works in a distributed business.
Similarly, I am unclear what “deliberate action” actually means in practice. Vocalising your actions out aloud (if that is what it is) might not be appropriate in a civilian situation and, it seems to me, has as much scope for error as the “old” way – colleagues will soon subconsciously tune-out.
Nevertheless the book remains a useful pointer to a better way than that many of us are accustomed to. It contains some nice ideas for workshops with managers and, above all, its focus on practicality and taking a step-by-step approach make it most useful. There are things here that managers at all levels can start to try out to get the ball rolling.
The key lesson from the book, for me is – to quote - “Don’t move information to authority. Move authority to the information”.
I recently read this book in combination with another, Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Race, written by Dennis N.T. Perkins with Jillian B. Murphy. The authors focus on quite different vessels in quite different circumstances as their captain and crew struggle to cope with quite different challenges. However, the separate narratives share much in common in terms of the lessons that Perkins and L. David Marquet share with regard to leadership and teamwork under adverse circumstances. (Perkins discusses many of these same insights in his previous book, Leading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition.) These lessons have direct and compelling relevance to almost any organization or team, whatever its size or nature may be.
When Marquet was assigned to the U.S.S Santa Fe, his first as a captain, it was rated lowest in terms of maintenance, training, manning, and supply conditions. That is why it had the worst retention in the submarine force. The year before, the Santa Fe had reenlisted only three of its crew of 110, including 12 officers. Within the first year under Captain Marquet's command, it was among the highest rated. What is the secret to that transformation? There are several reasons best explained within the narrative. To me, the most important is Marquet's willingness and ability to replace a leader-follower ("command and control") management model with one he characterizes as "leader-leader." At its core is the belief that we can all be leaders and, in fact, it's best when we all are leaders. It not only achieves great improvements in effectiveness and morale but also makes the organization stronger.
"Most critically," Marquet adds, "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. It can't be stopped." As Marquet demonstrates throughout his narrative, the leader-leader approach is effective at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise, at sea or on shore.
These are among the passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of subjects that Marquet covers:
o The Problem: Leader-Follower (Pages 3-5)
o The Solution: Leader-Leader (5-7)
o Thinking Anew (17-19)
o Whatever They Tell Me to Do! (46-48)
o Find Your Organization's Genetic Code for Control (65-66)
o How to Embed a Cultural Change In Your Organization (73-75)
o Mechanism: Resist the Urge to Provide Solutions (97-98)
o Mechanism: Take Deliberate Action (122-124)
o "USS Santa Fe Creed" (132-134)
o The Tip of the Iceberg? (147-150)
The following appear in Part IV. These are devices used to implement leader-leader practices by stressing clarity.
o Mechanism: Specify Goals, Not Methods (156-15eople (166-169)
o Mechanism: Use Your Legacy for Inspiration (175-177)
o Mechanism: Begin with the End In Mind (190-195)
o Mechanism: Encourage a Questioning Attitude Over Blind Obedience (199-200)
Earlier, I quoted Marquet's observation, "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. It can't be stopped." When observing this happening aboard the Santa Fe, he may well have been reminded of my favorite passage in Lao-Tzu's Tao Te Ching:
"Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves."
on 28 October 2013
I loved this book and found it hugely inspiring. This was for a number of reasons. Firstly as a former submarine officer I could completely relate to the scenarios, the people, the issues and the difficult environment of a nuclear powered submarine and so reading the stories took me back to my time in boats. However what was more empowering was to follow the truly inspirational story of how the author developed a style of leadership that "conventional" logic in the naval environment said could never work. As someone now heavily involved in the development of leaders this is a fantastic case study on not only how to develop an effective leadership style but also how to turn around an organisation seemingly "against the odds". I implore you to read this if:
a. You are a former submariner and want to read how perhaps we could have been better led and perhaps have led better ourselves
b. You are interested in developing your own leadership abilities and style and want a powerful example (warts and all) of one possible way
c. You are involved in helping leaders develop and want a fresh reference point for discussions about this important topic
d. You want a bloody good read about something to do with submarines.
This book hits the spot on all counts and having read it once, I shall be savouring it again.
on 23 November 2014
I often find with leadership books they are very theoretical and high level, turning the ship around gives really useful 'real world' examples of how it wasn't all plain sailing, but with persistence and constant reinforcement of the messages, ultimately it not only worked but spread throughout the navy.
on 24 January 2016
The bad thing for me reading this book is that I read "It's you Ship" first and I liked it a bit more.
The 2 books are very similar, the good thing in turn your ship is the insight on why things worked and the analysis of the preconditions of success. For me it is interesting to observe that the Navy almost in the same period got 2 great commanders, one for a submarine and one for a battleship. Leaders are scare nowadays and the Navy got 2 top class ones. This should be subject for a book. Going back to this book, it is simple, clear and direct as it expected. If you do not have read "It's your ship" go for it, otherwise you can skip this one. Either of the books are a must read but they are really almost the same.
This book balances sample with theory or reflections. If you want to transform your leadership style or your team I strongly recommend it.
on 6 June 2013
This is a great story of what can happen when you stop doing what everyone does, take a step back and reappraise your problem.
Captain Marquet took over the USN Submarine - graded the worst in the fleet across nearly every KPI and turned it around into the top ranked boat. But this is about far more than the impact of a strong and effective leader it's about completely redesigning the process by which most teams and hierarchies work. The results spoke for themselves and created a legacy of excellence that endured for years after Marquet had moved on. Both the intellectual self confidence and moral courage required to make and persist with such a radical change programme are underplayed in the book but none the less this is also a book about personal courage and the ability to take calculated risks.
In short if you want to engage your workforce they have to buy into the decision-making process. To do that they need to have ownership of the problem. This is classic mission command - give me your intent and the resources to do the job then leave me to it. This was both a high risk and highly unorthodox approach to the submarine fleet which bounded by the paramount concerns of safety in operating a nuclear powered and nuclear armed boat tended to dictate a rigorous protocol and process for everything.
Great story delivered with careful attention to the lessons that could be applied to many commercial organisations and businesses.