Turn the Ship Around – Culture lessons from a Nuclear Submariner

If you’re looking for real world case studies of how to deliver people from the evils of Command & Control, this part memoir, part manual by an ex-Nuclear Submarine commander is bursting at the seams with hard won wisdom and practical applications and winning a lot of praise from lean thinkers like Mark Rosenthal.

Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Building Leaders by Breaking the Rules was written by L.David Marquet and details his experiences shifting teams and people from the debilitating, inevitable consequences of absolute command & control to an emancipated culture based on devolved control decision making, elevated competence and shared clarity.

Marquet describes how he observed all sorts of poor performance, errors and low morale created as a direct result of the command & control culture. Working to targets rather than beyond, silly mistakes and errors that were inside the process but outside commons sense.

When it comes to processes, adherence to the process frequently becomes the objective, as opposed to achieving the objective that the process was put in place to achieve. The goal then becomes to avoid errors in the process, and when errors are made, additional overseers and inspectors are added. These overseers don’t do anything to actually achieve the objective, they only identify when the process has gone bad after the fact.

He set his vision out to the team of devolving control as far down the chain as possible; “bring the authority to the information, not the information to the authority”. Crucially, he recognised that you can’t simply abdicate control: as a leader you retain responsibility by ensuring your people operate with competence and with focused clarity of purpose.

One of the most effective tools Marquet employed to that end was the idea of prefacing statements with a positive intent as opposed to seeking permission: “I intend to” rather than “do you think we should”. If you require people to articulate their intentions and rationale, you’re exposing thinking, encouraging consideration and also giving confidence of empowerment. As Marquet puts it:

by articulating their intentions, the officers and crew were acting their way into the next higher level of command. We had no need of leadership development programs; the way we ran the ship was the leadership development program.

It’s a familiar theme, the idea of leadership being a choice, but this book powerfully demonstrates what happens when you imbue choice throughout an organisation. If people have the power to choose, they have to engage brains to do so, which is far more rewarding than simply following a process.

I’m a big fan of Marquet’s approach to Leadership as 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.

This speaks to something fundamental in creating engaged working cultures: people have brains and energies that give them far more capability and capacity than an unthinking cog. If you allow them the opportunity to exercise that stupendous advantage, you are elevating the entire enterprise’s potential:

Instead of one 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.

I’ll leave you with this final quote, which neatly sums up for me the commitment and power of what Marquet did:

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.

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About Robin Wilson

I spent 13 years at the UK's number one property website creating and managing multi-million pound digital products across the full lifecycle, from strategy, product design and development to implementation and operational management. I'm passionate about embedding great culture rooted in responsibility and systems thinking when building teams.