Turn The Ship Around!

Lessons in leadership from a nuclear submarine.

I’ve recently finished reading Turn The Ship Around, David Marquet’s book about turning followers into leaders. I wanted to jot down some thoughts before the finer points evacuated my brain.

For those not familiar with it, here’s the brief synopsis from Amazon..

Captain David Marquet was used to giving orders. In the high-stress environment of the USS Santa Fe, a nuclear-powered submarine, it was crucial his men did their job well. But the ship was dogged by poor morale, poor performance and the worst retention in the fleet.

One day, Marquet unknowingly gave an impossible order, and his crew tried to follow it anyway. He realized he was leading in a culture of followers, and they were all in danger unless they fundamentally changed the way they did things.

Marquet took matters into his own hands and pushed for leadership at every level. Before long, his crew became fully engaged and the Santa Fe skyrocketed from worst to first in the fleet.

Essentially, Marquet recognised that when he told people what to do (which is pretty standard practice for a Naval Submarine Commander) they absolved themselves of responsibility of the task and blindly followed direction without critical thought. This also meant they weren’t thinking proactively about the work they were doing.. which is arguably not a good thing aboard a nuclear vessel.

Marquet decided that he wanted to fundamentally change the way he and his crew worked. Rather than everyone waiting on him to make a decision, he wanted to step back and allow people the space to think about what they were doing and then tell him their intent.

Marquet calls this intent based leadership.

It’s a very subtle difference, but rather than the crew waiting on the Captain to direct them, they were encouraged to think for themselves and then tell the Captain their intent.


“Captain, permission to submerge the ship.” becomes..

“Captain, I intend to submerge the ship. All men are below and the ship is rigged for dive.”

The onus is put upon the crew to think before they approach him. “What questions would he ask? What would I do if I were in his shoes?”. He’s flipping the tables and giving people control (or authority) over what they do.

As Marquet rather pithily puts it.. “Don’t move the information to authority, move the authority to information.”

This might seem like a really minor change, but it has some dramatic effects.

  • It alleviates the pressure (and temptation!) on leaders to attempt to have all the answers for those around them.
  • It encourages people to take responsibility & accountability for their work.
  • It prevents people from blindly following bad direction.
  • It promotes an environment of mentorship where decisions are discussed.
  • It enables the whole organisation to be far more responsive and resilient because everyone is thinking for themselves rather than waiting for direction.

Of course, it’s wouldn’t be quite as simple as just asking everyone to think a bit then say what they intend to do. Marquet says that it’s only possible to distribute Control (authority) if you have two pillars in place. He defines the pillars as Technical Competence & Clarity.

You can’t give authority to someone if they don’t have the technical competence to carry out the work. They’ll likely fall flat on their face and take a hit to their morale in the process.

Likewise, without clarity, people will struggle to make good proactive decisions that are aligned with the aims of the organisation.

In order to support this leader-leader model, Marquet developed a number of principles or mechanisms to support it. I could probably write reams on all of them, but I’ll focus on the ones that resonated most.

Resist The Urge to Provide Solutions

Giving people time & space to think on upcoming decisions is a useful training and mentoring tool. Obviously this requires a degree of organisation to spot upcoming decisions early enough to allow the time for people to react and suggest solutions. Marquet underlines the importance of encouraging difference of opinion rather than white washing a consensus because there is value in everyone thinking differently.

Think Out Loud

Marquet realised they didn’t have a language for uncertainty onboard the sub. Signaling intent alone wasn’t enough to convey why things were being done. He developed a behaviour of Thinking Out Loud when evaluating courses of action. This gave everyone nearby context and clarity of what was being thought about and an opportunity to suggest alternatives (or avert disaster!) if required.

Encourage A Questioning Attitude Over Blind Obedience

What’s stopping your organisation from following its leaders over a cliff? If every person at every level is actively thinking about the directions they’re given, it stops bad decisions from proliferating.

Continually And Consistently Repeat The Message

When you introduce something new, people have a tendency not to picture it as you picture it. Their frame of reference tends to be based on their experiences, not your own. So even if they say “I totally get it!” — they may envisage something completely different in their mind’s eye. To counter this you must keep repeating the same message over and over until their mental picture is similar to yours.

Specifying Goals Not Methods

Rather than fixating on avoiding mistakes or following a prescribed set of steps, focus on the goal. That motivates people to come up with the best solutions to achieve or surpass the goal rather than treating it as a tickbox exercise (aka doing the bare minimum to get rid of it).

Reflection on the book

There was lots I liked about this book. Many of the concepts seemed familiar from elsewhere, but here they’re woven together with Marquet’s narrative of commanding a nuclear submarine that demonstrates how they work(ed) in practice.

At the end, I was left with some questions to mull over…

  • This seems like the best way of unsticking the command & control model, but there’s still a fixed hierarchy underpinning it. Is that the model we want to remain with going forward? Could we take some of the lessons learned here and apply them to something that wasn’t quite so hierarchical?
  • There are A LOT of controls and procedures in the Navy — perhaps assuredly so when you’re in charge of nuclear missiles. It provided Marquet with a very clear audit trail of what was happening, even when it was clearly not going according to plan. Does the average civilian organisation have those data points available? Would it be possible to identify the pressure points without that?
  • There’s not a lot of conflict or clashing decisions in this book. There was one clear instance where the Captain thought the crew were doing something totally wrong, but upon viewing the information outside the sub realised he was wrong and backed down. How often are decisions so clear cut between right and wrong? What happens when boss & subordinate disagree and there’s no clear data to prove either point of view?
  • I’ve been thinking about the conditions required to try something radically different than before. The Sante Fe was (from memory) the worst performing sub in the fleet. Everyone knew it, even the crew. Are the stakes lower in that environment? Are people more open to ditching the old? If the sub was middling or above average, would there be more resistance to letting go of the status quo?

Overall, I think there’s some very useful and much needed tools in Turn The Ship Around. Is it the future of work? Not sure — but it’s certainly a far better approach than the traditional organisational structures of old.

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