Empower leaders at every level and turn the ship around

When David Marquet took over as commander of the nuclear submarine USS Santa Fe, he inherited a toxic culture characterised by fear, blame, and mediocrity. The crew was afraid to make mistakes, and quick to blame others. They did not have the motivation to perform at their best, and were not proud of their work. Turnover was high, and they were not meeting their goals. In Turn the Ship Around, Marquet outlines how he believed that the best way to improve the performance of the submarine was to create a culture of leaders at every level instead of the command/control model that typified the US Navy.

In his view, the fundamental structure of leader-follower was the problem on board the ship. Instead, he encouraged an approach of decision making and leadership at all levels. He retained accountability for Santa Fe’s operational performance, but he released control of the actual decisions to his department heads. It was an uncomfortable approach, but he didn’t see any other way to improve the ship’s performance.

One mechanism Marquet used was to introduce a new language for officers and crew. They now said “I INTEND TO …” instead of using passive phrases like, ‘Request permission to,’ or ‘I would like to.’ Officers would approach him and say, ‘Captain, I intend to submerge the ship. We are in water we own, water depth has been checked and is four hundred feet, all men are below, the ship is rigged for dive, and I’ve certified my watch team.’ His response: “Very well.”

Importantly, they developed a set of guiding principles for making decisions:

  • Initiative – Take action without direction from above
  • Innovation – Looking at new ways of doing the same thing
  • Intimate Technical Knowledge – Learn our areas of responsibility
  • Courage – Do the right thing, even if it may be uncomfortable
  • Commitment – We are present when we come to work
  • Continuous Improvement – We continually seek ways to learn
  • Integrity – We tell the truth to each other and to ourselves
  • Empowerment – Encourage those below us to take action
  • Teamwork – Work as a team, not undercutting each other
  • Openness – Freedom to speak one’s mind
  • Timeliness – We do things on time
  • Leadership at every level!

David Marquet’s approach to encourage leadership at every level proved very successful with the submarine’s performance going from worst to first in the fleet.

🙋 How could you apply the idea of empowering leaders at every level in your organisation? 🙋

Best regards, Brian