Nuclear Sub Commander Transforms Leadership, Gets Winning Performance

TurnTheShipAround Book CoverA nuclear submarine commander has written a must-read book about how to achieve great performance at every level of your organization.

David Marquet’s  Turn The Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders is terrific for all team players in your company.  It’s especially powerful for those entrusted with leading direct reports.  

I loved the book.  Marquet has distilled his philosophy into a concise, attention-keeping,  easy read filled with examples of how he and his crew turned the worst performing nuclear sub into the best.

You, too, can apply this philosophy, but first you’ll have to adopt a new mindset that will lead to different actions.  Marquet’s thesis is that we need to transform leadership from a “leader-follower” mode to one of “leader-leader.”  That’s how he transformed the USS Santa Fe from a dysfunctional “one captain and 134 crewmen” into a high-octane operation of “135 thinkers.”

There are four key building blocks to Marquet’s “leader-leader” philosophy:

  1. Let go of old ideas
  2. Control (it’s not what you think)
  3. Competence (a key ingredient)
  4. Clarity (so important yet often lacking)

I’ll add a critical, fifth building block:  Marquet had the support of his boss! 

Marquet shares actual tour-of-duty examples of how control, competence and clarity need to intersect and combine for success, and he toplines the idea this way:

“Control only works with a competent workforce that understand’s the organization’s purpose.  Hence, as control is divested, both technical competence and organizational clarity need to be strengthened.”

First, though, Marquet states and then takes direct aim at traditional naval doctrine:  “Officers are rewarded for being indispensable, for being missed after they depart.”  This old way of thinking, which can also be found in the business world, must go, he says.

Instead, Marquet encourages us to adopt a “better way of thinking,” which is:  “Insure that people and structures are in place to maintain success after the leader departs.”

Second, Marquet makes the case to understand and fix what he calls the “empowerment flaw:”

“Many empowerment programs fail because they are just that, “programs” or “initiatives” rather than the central principle – the genetic code, if you will – behind how the organization does business.  You can’t “direct” empowerment programs.  Directed empowerment programs are flawed because they are predicated on this assumption: I have the authority and ability to empower you (and you don’t).  Fundamentally, that’s disempowering.”

His recommendation is “don’t empower, emancipate:”

“With emancipation we are recognizing the inherent genius, energy, and creativity in all people, and allowing those talents to emerge.”



To get started on this path, I’ve culled 7 Leader-Leader Action Steps that you can consider and implement.

1.  Get Team Input at the Start  

Marquet reinforces the concept of talking with your team upon assuming a new leadership role.  (Refer to my previous post – Survival Lessons from 3G Capital Takeovers at Burger King and Heinz – for more on this topic.)

Marquet shares some questions you can ask your new team:

  • What are the things you are hoping I don’t change?
  • What are the things you secretly hope I do change?
  • What are the good things about [our company/division/team] we should build on?
  • If you were me what would you do first?
  • Why isn’t [our company/division/team] doing better?
  • What are your personal goals for [this year/short-term]?
  • What impediments do you have to doing your work?
  • What will be our biggest challenge to getting [our company/division/team] ready [to meet its objectives]?
  • What are your biggest frustrations about how our [company/division/team] is currently run?
  • What is the best thing I can do for you?

2.  Be Curious

“If you walk about your organization talking to people, I’d suggest that you be as curious as possible.  Like a good dinner table conversation, one question would naturally lead to another.  The time to be questioning or even critical is after trust has been established.”

3.  Work Together Throughout the Process – Not Just Beginning and End!

“Subordinates generally desire to present the boss with a “perfect” product the first time.  Unfortunately, this gets in the way of efficiency because significant effort can be wasted.  We boiled this down to this motto:  “A little rudder far from the rocks is a lot better than a lot of rudder close to the rocks.”

4.  Think Out Loud

“When I heard what my watch officers were thinking, it made it much easier for me to keep my mouth shut and let them execute their plans.  It was generally when they were quiet and I didn’t know what they would do next that I was tempted to step in.”  And it goes the other direction too.  When, I, as the captain, would “think out loud,” I was in essence imparting important context and experience to my subordinates.  I was also modeling that lack of certainty is strength and certainty is arrogance.” [emphasis added]

5.  Identify and Establish How To Work Together

In Marquet’s navy terms, this means “codifying our core principles into a creed and set of command principles.”  The overarching idea for his submarine was continuous learning:  “What do we do on a day-to-day basis.  We learn.”

Related to this is building a culture that supports constructive, professional, challenging:  “Encourage a questioning attitude over blind obedience.”

6.  Communication is Every Day

A key change factor is the need for constant communication and reinforcement about what you’re doing:

“Continuously and consistently repeat the message.  Repeat the same message day after day, meeting after meeting, event after event.  Why?  I didn’t realize the degree to which the old habits die hard, even when people are emotionally on board with the change.”

7.  Focus on the Outcome

You’ve heard this before and it’s still important:  “Provide your people with the objective and let them figure out the method.”


Finally, in one of Marquet’s public speeches, he makes the point that happiness is a success factor and performance driver, so make people happier:  “When you’re happier, you don’t act smarter, you actually are smarter.”


Former nuclear submarine commander David Marquet has written a must-read book about how to achieve great performance at every level of your organization.  Turn The Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders is terrific for all team players and especially powerful for those entrusted with leading direct reports.

Harvey Chimoff is a hands-on marketing leader and business-wide collaborator who drives success in B2B/B2C organizations.

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