To Bring out Leaders, Delegate Responsibility

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Turn the Ship Around" by L. David Marquet. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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As a leader, are you delegating responsibility to develop more leaders? What are some practical ways to delegate responsibility?

Captain David Marquet learned the power of delegating responsibility when he commanded the USS Santa Fe. He found that, when he communicated the goal in addition to (or rather than) giving orders, officers and crew were more involved in making decisions. When Marquet stopped providing solutions, his team found them on their own, and new leaders were born.

Read more to learn how to develop leaders by delegating responsibility.

Power of Delegation

Santa Fe picked up Commodore Kenny and the inspection team and headed out for the inspection exercise. In the process, Marquet learned two more lessons about decentralizing control.

In the first instance, he learned that if you tell people to do something specific, you should also explain why you made your decision. Better yet, let your people decide what to do. In discussing the torpedo exercise, in which Santa Fe needed to intercept and sink an enemy submarine, Marquet pointed to the chart and said, “We need to be at 0600,” based on where he thought the enemy would be.

He went to grab some sleep and when he woke up, he found the ship was several miles off position and headed away from the enemy. The watch team had been derailed by responding to contacts and navigational challenges rather than moving to the best tactical position.

Marquet realized that he shouldn’t have given a specific direction without explaining his reasons and focusing his team on the objective. As control is shared, the team needs to be aligned with the organization’s goal. Although he’d talked about accomplishing the mission, the crew was still focused on procedure (in this case, avoiding contact with other vessels to maintain secrecy). 

After several hours, they got back on track, spotted the enemy’s periscope and prepared to attack. That’s when Marquet learned his second lesson about giving orders. Submarines are required to raise a radio antenna at a certain time daily to pick up and download radio messages from the Navy, which could contain important information. Submarines can only be in radio contact at limited times.

Just as the crew spotted the enemy submarine, a crew member requested permission to raise the antenna and download the broadcast, which would have given away their position and delayed firing the torpedo. 

Instead of issuing orders this time, Marquet waited for his team to decide what to do. He delegated responsibility. His team realized that, when they fired the torpedo, they’d have to report it by radio—and they could download the messages at the same time. They fired and the exercise was a success.

Mechanism: Resist the Urge to Provide Solutions

Emergency situations can require instant decisions. However, in the vast majority of situations, there’s time to let the team decide what to do. Resisting the urge to provide solutions is a mechanism for decentralizing control. Delegating responsibility means trusting your team to find solutions on their own.

Here’s how to get your team members thinking on their own:

  • If you have to make an urgent decision, have your managers discuss it after the fact. Or, time permitting, ask for input and then make the decision.
  • If you can delay the decision, seek input but don’t push for consensus—this stifles dissent, which you need and should value. You don’t need people who always think like you do.

When you delegate responsibility, you develop leaders. This is key to the leader-leader model.

To Bring out Leaders, Delegate Responsibility

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Here's what you'll find in our full Turn the Ship Around summary:

  • How a captain turned the U.S. Navy’s worst-performing nuclear submarine crew into one of the best
  • The principles for developing leaders at all levels to create a passionate, high-performing workforce
  • Why the "leader-leader" model works better than the "leader-follower" model

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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