How to Instill a Proactive Mindset in Your Team

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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How can you develop leaders by helping them have a proactive mindset? How can a change in language make a big difference?

A proactive mindset helps people take ownership in their work. It goes hand in hand with authority to make decisions and promote progress. It can be as simple as declaring an intention to do something—rather than asking permission or waiting to be told to do it.

Read more to learn how to instill a proactive mindset in your team members.

Use Proactive Language to Adopt a Proactive Mindset

During an engineering propulsion drill, Marquet learned how a passive leader-follower mindset on Santa Fe could lead everyone off course. So he instituted a change in the crew’s language to create a proactive mindset.

The engineering drill involved a simulated problem that shut down the submarine’s reactor. The crew had to locate and fix the problem, then restart the reactor. While it was shut down they would use a small electric engine for propulsion at a very slow speed.

Marquet ordered an engine speedup to make the exercise more challenging. However, he didn’t realize that Santa Fe’s backup engine differed from those of other submarines in his experience and lacked a speed-up function. The officer on deck knew this, but he passively passed Marquet’s order to the crew, who couldn’t implement it and so, just sat there.

To create a more proactive mindset among the officers and crew in the future, Marquet decided to require them to actively state what they were going to do in a given situation, rather than ask for permission or wait for an order. They would announce, “I intend to…” spelling out their intentions and he or their superior would respond, “Very well.” Then they‘d proceed with their plans.

Mechanism: Turn Followers Into Actors by Changing the Language

Requiring crew members to announce their proposed actions by stating, “I intend to … “ pushed decision-making downward. It required officers and crew to adopt a proactive mindset and take ownership of a situation and decide what to do.

Everyone became actors; they stopped using “follower” phrases such as: “May I have permission to,” “I’d like to,” “Could we,” “What should I do about,” and “Do you think…”

Marquet further extended this concept. He’d found that instead of just saying “very well,” he had a tendency to revert to top-down management by asking a lot of questions. So to counter this, he asked officers and crew to elaborate on their reasoning when stating their intent, so he wouldn’t need to ask questions, just concur.

Requiring a fuller explanation had the added benefit of pushing them to think at a higher level. This was, in effect, a leadership development program. The “I intend to” procedure was a significant factor contributing to an unusually large number of promotions among Santa Fe officers and crew over a decade.

Rather than one person handing down orders to 134 followers, Santa Fe had 135 motivated and engaged crew members thinking about what to do and how to do it. Followers became leaders as a result of a proactive mindset.

How to Instill a Proactive Mindset in Your Team

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of L. David Marquet's "Turn the Ship Around" at Shortform .

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 devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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