Book Notes: Turn the Ship Around!

Recently while researching leadership topics, I came upon an interesting video on YouTube.  In it, author L. David Marquet, a retired U.S. Navy Captain, relates how he turned the Navy’s conventional leadership paradigm on its head, and in doing so ended up not only becoming a better leader himself, but leaving a powerful legacy of better leaders behind him.

Intrigued by his compelling story, I linked over to his book, Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders and bought it almost immediately to learn more.

Turn the Ship Around - David Marquet

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Troubled Waters

In the Navy, one of a leader’s primary power sources is expertise.  Before taking command, prospective captains would study their ship for over a year, go to special training courses, pour over the ship’s records, and read the profiles of every crew member.

This is how Marquet prepared to assume command of his assigned submarine.  But at the last minute he was told to change to a different boat, the Santa Fe.   He had just over two weeks to prepare to master complex new systems, understand new capabilities, and get to know a completely different crew.

Worse, the Santa Fe had a reputation as the worse sub in the fleet.  Yet the ship was to undergo inspection within weeks and deploy in only six months.  It was a seemingly impossible task.

The Captain of the submarine is expected to know all things and to give orders that are immediately followed to the letter.  But because he did not know his ship, Marquet worried that he might give a bad order that could cause harm to the ship or its crew.  So early on, he did the unthinkable – he resolved to never give a direct order.

Doing the Unthinkable

Instead, he required his crew to announce their plans by saying, “Captain, I intend to ….”  To which he could respond with questions or a, “very well.”  With this one change came a dramatic shift in how his crew perceived their duties, and in the overall effectiveness of the ship.

Psychological ownership of the task shifted from captain to crew, changing them from passive actors into thinking leaders.  Now all of them, not just the captain, had to engage their minds, skills, and judgement to keep the boat on mission.

Leadership became something everyone had to do, not just the captain.

Marquet is quick to point out that this can only work well if supported by the twin pillars of technical competence and organizational clarity.   His book is filled with excellent examples of how to establish both in any organization, including subjects like how to build a culture of learning, how to set goals, build trust, and encourage a questioning attitude over blind obedience.

A Good Leadership Read, Even if you Don’t Command a Sub

Marquet packages his teachings well by tying them to the narrative of his submarine and crew as they prepare for deployment.  Each chapter takes you closer to the moment of truth, distills the lessons learned along the way, and includes specific mechanisms any leader can employ to improve the performance of his team.

I read this book in two sittings, finding it engaging, relatable, and filled with good practical leadership wisdom.  While it is not the first book a new leader should read, adding Turn the Ship Around! to your personal library early in your leadership journey will give you valuable insights about leading people that will serve you well in the years to come.

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