Turn the Ship Around!: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: December 15th, 2012 by bobmorris

Turn the Ship Around!: How to Create Leadership at Every Level
L. David Marquet
Greenleaf Book Group Press (2012)

Lessons about leadership to be learned from a year aboard a nuclear-powered attack submarine

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 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 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, its 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 vaue to me, also listed to suggest the scope of subjects that Marquet covers:

o The Problem: Leader-Follower (Pages 3-5)
o The Sokution: 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 that were devised 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.”

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