(Updated 10/15/2013) For the last couple of years, I have been wracking my brain, trying to remember where I read the story of the submarine commander who managed to convert the “worst ship in the navy” into one of the best ships. I remembered that the information was an interview by the author of the book and that he was intrigued by the way every sailor on the boat would approach his leader with the words, “It is my intention to . . .” I flipped through all the books on my shelf that logically might have that story within and couldn’t find it. Frustration! Then, three weeks ago, I was reading a leadership article by Simon Sinek, and there it was! The original book I had been reading was the 2004 Stephen R. Covey book, The 8th Habit, and the interview was with L. David Marquet, Captain of the USS Santa Fe. And now, Captain Marquet had written his own book, Turn the Ship Around!. What a find, and what a relief.
Marquet’s book lives up to my expectations. In clear, conversational writing, he relates a fascinating story of life aboard a Navy nuclear submarine while at the same time providing excellent leadership principles for all of us. The context for the story is, of course, a military environment. And that provides for excitement and a stark contrast from the authoritarian command and control we imagine the military to be and the “give control away” goal the author instilled. At every opportunity, Marquet finds ways to make us think about the translation from shipboard to private sector work.
Marquet breaks the book into four parts: Starting Over, Control, Competence, and Clarity. Each section comprises several chapters, and at the end of each chapter is a list of “Questions to consider.” These questions take the reader from the submarine to their environment and help drive home the messages. “Starting Over” relays the story of how Marquet decided to turn leadership upside down. He agreed that the Leader-Follower construct doesn’t work for building a scalable and sustainable organization. “Control” introduces the mechanisms that the Santa Fe team devised to implement a new Leader-Leader paradigm. “Competence” introduces fascinating mechanisms for strengthening technical competencies. Take deliberate action, and we learn all the time are but two examples. And “Clarity” introduces mechanisms to further the Leader-Leader implementation by achieving excellence, not just error avoidance, building trust with your people, using legacy for inspiration, and guiding principles for decision criteria, among others.
Turn the Ship Around! is a must-read book for any person aspiring to build a scalable, lasting organization. I especially recommend that entrepreneurs take this excellent Leader-Leader model seriously. Think about it: If you’re building a business from scratch and you intend to “someday enjoy life,” how will you do that if you teach people to follow you as the leader? When will they be able to make decisions without you? No. Building an organization with Leader-Leader in mind is the only way to make sure you will have a life. Giving orders is fun. Not being able to leave your business or having it die when you do is not fun. Building value, even if you suspect a larger organization will purchase your company, means that the acquiring company gets a real leadership team. If YOU are the only leader, then your organization is greatly diminished. I highly recommend that every business leader, entrepreneur, and employee read this book and practice its principles in business and in life.
“Leadership; Noun: Embedding the capacity for greatness in the people and practices of an organization and decoupling it from the personality of the leader.” — L. David Marquet.
Happiness at work on a nuclear submarine.
David Marquet on TEDx: How Great Leaders Serve Others
[Lightly edited in 9/2020 for our new website.]