When L. David Marquet became captain of USS Santa Fe in 1999, it was the worst-performing nuclear-powered attack submarine and crew by Naval standards. In a year, he turned the crew into one of the best by replacing the military’s traditional “leader-follower” or command-and-control structure with a “leader-leader” organizational model. Turn the Ship Around! is the story of how he did it. Its lessons are applicable to any organization—business, nonprofit, or government.
In short, the “leader-leader” model allows staff to take responsibility for problems and solutions rather than waiting to be told what to do. As a result, team members see themselves as leaders instead of followers.
The traditional leader-follower model practiced in the U.S. Navy and most companies and organizations assumes there are two types of people: leaders who make decisions and followers who implement them.
This has been the basis of our thinking about leadership for hundreds of years because it has worked. It’s responsible for successes ranging from the construction of the pyramids in ancient Egypt to the factories of the Industrial Revolution.
However, the leader-follower structure was designed to coordinate physical labor for various purposes, whether building pyramids and roads, or mining coal. In contrast, many of today’s employees are knowledge workers who work independently to develop and apply information. The leader-follower model doesn’t manage cognitive work effectively.
People who are treated as followers become passive. With scant decision-making ability, they have little motivation to contribute their ingenuity and energy.
The leader-leader structure is based on a different assumption about people: everyone can be a leader, and an organization is most effective when everyone thinks and acts like a leader.
The leader-leader model treats employees as valued assets, which increases individual motivation and organizational success. Also, the improvements that come with the leader-leader model are lasting because they’re not dependent on one leader’s skill or personality. Leaders develop throughout the organization.
With little room for error, a nuclear submarine is an unlikely setting for trying out a new leadership model. But to turn around the beleaguered Santa Fe, Marquet felt he had no other option.
When he took over as commander, Marquet had six months to get the submarine ready for deployment. Santa Fe was to join a battle group for a torpedo exercise in the Arabian Gulf intended to demonstrate combat effectiveness. Marquet needed to radically change the way officers and crew operated.
Marquet’s goal was to create a leader-leader structure by pushing control—the authority to decide what to do and how—downward to the officers and crew. He started in the middle of the operation with the 12 chiefs, the senior enlisted personnel equivalent to middle managers, who supervised the crew members responsible for day-to-day maintenance and operation of the submarine.
Although there’s a Navy axiom that “the chiefs run the Navy,” they lacked true authority. By instituting a “Chiefs in Charge” program, Marquet made the chiefs accountable for the performance of their divisions and crew members. The chiefs’ new authority generated excitement and strengthened the connection between the chiefs and the sailors. Both the chiefs and crew became more engaged in their work.
Over time, Marquet and his officers came up with 20 “mechanisms” (Navy terminology for methods practices) to transform Santa Fe from a leader-follower to a leader-leader organization. The mechanisms focused on three key areas:
The typical leader-follower structure is designed to push information up the chain of command to the people who make the decisions. In contrast, Marquet pushed control, or decision-making authority, down to where the information originated.
Besides pushing authority downward to the chiefs, here are the other mechanisms or methods Marquet used to spread control throughout the organization:
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When L. David Marquet became captain of USS Santa Fe in 1999, it was the worst-performing nuclear-powered attack submarine and crew by Naval standards. In a year, he turned the crew into one of the best by replacing the military’s traditional “leader-follower” or command-and-control structure with a “leader-leader” organizational model. Turn the Ship Around! is the story of how he did it.
Marquet used the leader-leader model to empower the demoralized crew he inherited. He believed that if they took responsibility for problems and solutions rather than waiting to be told what to do, they’d see themselves as leaders instead of followers. This book describes the specific methods Marquet used on Santa Fe to transform the organization. Leaders in any organization—business, nonprofit, or government—can apply them as well.
Most people are enthusiastic when they start new jobs—they have energy and ideas, but their initiative is quickly squelched by bosses and coworkers who tell them, “We tried that before” and “Just do what you’re told.” Consequently, they fall in line and do the minimum required.
As a result of this demotivating...
Many workplaces are demotivating and job satisfaction is at an all-time low because they use a traditional leader-follower model, where employees follow direction rather than making their own decisions.
Does your organization follow a top-down, leader-follower model or a leader-leader model? What are the signs indicating it’s one or the other?
Marquet’s early ideas on leadership came from reading classics and from movies, where plots centered on a heroic leader and his followers. His Naval Academy training reinforced the assumption people are either leaders or followers. However, based on several frustrating early experiences, Marquet began questioning this model of leadership and ultimately rejected it.
After beginning his career as a junior officer on USS Sunfish, Marquet was assigned as an engineer on USS Will Rogers, a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine known as a boomer, armed with 16 Poseidon missiles.
Marquet supervised one of two 60-person crews operating the control room and nuclear reactor. Hoping to generate the passion he felt on Sunfish, Marquet gave the crew more control over their work. Instead of involving himself in details, he tried explaining the objectives and leaving it to the crew to determine how to meet them. But things went badly—the crew made mistakes in maintenance that required redoing work. They missed deadlines and fell behind schedule.
Upon inspection, he found that bolts on a seawater heat exchanger had been improperly installed to save time....
Marquet was assigned to command USS Santa Fe. His new boss, Commodore Mark Kenny, had pushed for him to get the job of turning around Santa Fe because of Marquet’s hunger for learning during commanding officer training.
Yet Santa Fe was the ship the PCOs (prospective commanding officers) had joked about in training. A photo of the control room crew carrying on instead of paying attention had gone viral the previous year.
Marquet needed to get Santa Fe ready for deployment in six months; it was to join a battle group for a torpedo exercise in the Arabian Gulf, demonstrating combat effectiveness. He decided not to replace anyone on the crew, to send the message that he believed Santa Fe had a leadership problem, not an incompetent crew. But Marquet needed to quickly change the way they operated.
The key personnel on the 135-person crew were:
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During Christmas break, Marquet wandered around the ship, where a skeleton watch crew was performing routine duties. He asked the petty officer on watch, “What do you do on the ship?” The answer was a cynical “Whatever they tell me to do.”
The petty officer’s reply revealed he was an unhappy follower who wasn’t taking any responsibility for his unhappiness. It was an insulting comment to a commander (implying that the leadership was incompetent). But it also encapsulated the problem and the attitude pervasive among the crew.
The executive officer (XO) on Santa Fe required department heads to check out with him before leaving for the day, so he could go over tasks he had given them to do and ensure they weren’t leaving with something major undone.
But this made the XO, not the department head, responsible for each department head’s work; the XO thus “owned” the task. Marquet believed that the department heads should use check-out to report what they’d accomplished and planned to do, thereby taking ownership.
While it would be...
In many organizations, managers and employees are focused on avoiding errors rather than on achieving excellence. This drains energy and initiative and results in mediocre performance.
Are your employees striving for excellence or just trying to avoid mistakes? How can you tell?
When he assumed command, Marquet’s goal was to create a leader-leader structure by pushing control—the authority to decide what to do and how—downward to the officers and crew.
Over time, Marquet and his officers came up with 20 “mechanisms” (Navy terminology for methods practices) to transform Santa Fe from a leader-follower to a leader-leader organization. The mechanisms focused on three key areas:
The initial focus was on decentralizing control.
The typical leader-follower structure is designed to push information up the chain of command to the people who make the decisions. In contrast, Marquet pushed control down to where the information originated.
Besides pushing authority downward to the chiefs, here are the other mechanisms or methods Marquet used to spread control throughout the...
The chiefs’ new authority generated excitement and strengthened their connection with the sailors responsible for day-to-day maintenance and operation of the submarine. Both chiefs and crew became more engaged in their work and the overall mood was more upbeat.
There was also a lot of work ahead. In the months before deployment, there would be an escalating series of inspections, starting in eight days when Commodore Kenny and squadron staff would ride on the submarine and observe. Marquet needed a success to convince skeptics that his leader-leader model would work.
Marquet decided to involve the entire crew by instituting a behavior change that he hoped would lead to changed...
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Marquet had been in command for 12 days when Santa Fe headed out to sea after repairs and maintenance, to further prepare for the Commodore’s four-day inspection.
They were doing a practice exercise that involved locating an enemy submarine, monitoring it, and sinking it if they were ordered to do so. But the crew was still focusing on complying with procedures and avoiding mistakes rather than on combative effectiveness.
In charting the route out to sea, they focused on the procedures for avoiding buoys, shallows, boats, and other hazards rather than on determining a route that would take them to where the enemy submarine was likely to be. So they charted the...
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’sbackup 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 get Santa Feofficers and crew members thinking proactively rather than seeking permission or orders, Marquet required everyone to state their intended actions, beginning with the phrase, “I intend to…”
How proactive are senior managers and employees in your organization? Do they use follower language such as, “May I have permission to,” “I’d like to,” “Could we,” “What should I do about,” “Do you think…”?
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...
While observing the torpedo exercise, the inspection team also reviewed Santa Fe’s administrative procedures and found that officers hadn’t responded to several messages and requests from higher authorities.
They had been tracking the messages and filing them in a three-ring binder. The officers reviewed the binder once a week to forward requests and keep track of the work, but sometimes they dropped the ball. Besides being ineffective, the system meant that the officers were taking responsibility for the work of others below them.
Marquet attended the officers’ next meeting, where they discussed how to turn the system around to ensure that department heads were responsible for the work of their departments.
To replace the old tracking system, they decided to use a model similar to the...
While many leaders claim they want managers and employees to take ownership of their work, the company’s top-down systems of controlling and monitoring work prevent this.
Would you say that your managers and employees have a sense of ownership for their work? Why or why not?
Marquet thought the inspection had gone well, but he was still concerned about how involved he had to be in suggesting solutions to problems. While waiting for the final inspection report, he discussed his concerns with department heads.
They identified several possible reasons for the insufficient initiative. The primary one was a lack of informal verbal communication—for instance, no one gave a heads up that the time to download the radio broadcast was approaching.
The department heads decided to actively encourage greater communication and call it “thinking out loud.” When the captain made a decision, he’d go through his thought processes and reasons out loud. Officers would think out loud about concerns. While this might seem like...
When Santa Fe arrived in port, the crew needed to hook up four shore power cables so it could shut down its reactor. During this process, a petty officer violated a critical rule. He activated breakers on the pier when he knew it was safe to do so, but without getting clearance to do it. No harm was done but he'd violated a “red tag.” Red tags are attached to critical controls on a submarine so that they can’t be removed to activate the controls without going through clearance procedures.
Marquet was tempted to handle the violation in house because reporting it up the chain of command would result in additional monitoring and scrutiny. However, he decided...
Many organizations get defensive about audits and inspections, and during them, they say as little as possible. In contrast, Santa Fewelcomed inspectors as experts who could help the crew improve.
Who are your company’s inspectors and how do you and your organization typically respond to them? What is your goal?
Decentralizing control under a leader-leader system only works when the people receiving increased control have the technical competence or knowledge to make decisions. Marquet and his officers used the following mechanisms to strengthen the crew’s technical competence:
On Saturday morning, Santa Fe officers and observers from Squadron Seven and Naval Reactors gathered to critique the petty officer’s “red tag” mistake.
The incident underscored to Marquet that it wasn’t enough for people to be empowered—they also needed to be competent to perform better. To...
To reduce errors made by people acting on autopilot, Santa Fe used a procedure called taking “deliberate action.” Before acting, a crew member would pause and verbally state what he intended to do.
What kinds of mistakes have your employees made by acting on autopilot? How have you responded?
While deliberate action reduces errors, it's not enough, by itself, to build competence. For instance, a sailor made a mistake in the torpedo room that deliberate action didn’t prevent—the problem occurred because he didn’t understand the effects of what he was doing and how certain systems worked together.
If crews only have to do what they’re told, they don’t need a deep understanding of how things work—they just follow procedures. But as their ability to make decisions increases, they need greater knowledge on which to base those...
As Santa Fe left the harbor and headed for San Diego for a series of exercises with the USS Constellation Battle Group, Marquet discovered another weakness they could turn into a mechanism for improving competence.
As the crew got ready to submerge the ship, it seemed to be taking a long time—they were out of practice on submerging rapidly, which was a key combat skill. The diving officer of the watch conducted a briefing (read the procedures out loud), but no one paid attention to this formality. Marquet ran some unexpected drills simulating malfunctioning gauges, which didn’t go well.
When they discussed how things went, one sailor remarked that no one listened to briefings because they felt they already knew the steps to take.
Briefings, or reading...
On the way to San Diego, Marquet learned that when you give middle managers control over their teams, you can’t assume they’ll act in the team’s interest. This nearly cost Santa Fe a key crew member.
When they reached the port, a junior quartermaster, nicknamed “Sled Dog” for his work ethic, went AWOL (left the boat without permission), after saying he couldn’t take things anymore. A quartermaster is a naval petty officer with responsibility for steering the submarine and charting its course.
Marquet discovered that the underlying problem was that Sled Dog and the other quartermasters were being overworked....
At sea again, Santa Fe was heading back to San Diego. On the way, they would be practicing drills and operational skills. Final certification for deployment would happen when they reached San Diego. Things were going well, but a fire drill revealed yet another area where following procedure still took precedence over achieving results.
Fire is potentially catastrophic on a submarine. To prevent disaster, crews needed to have hoses on a fire within two minutes. Marquet called a surprise drill and it went poorly. The crew focused on following procedure (in this case, performing assigned duties) rather than putting the fire out. Some ran past a fire hose instead of grabbing it because others were assigned to handle hoses.
Further, typical fire drills were aimed at practicing techniques, which made crews focus on process. They had...
Along with competence, a leader-leader model that decentralizes control also requires clarity. Everyone needs to understand the organization’s goals so that the decisions they make align with what the organization is trying to accomplish. If the purpose isn’t clear, the criteria on which decisions are made may be off base, leading to bad decisions.
Here are the mechanisms Santa Fe adopted to ensure clarity:
Santa Fe was ready to deploy, two weeks early. They would head west and make a stop in Japan, then operate in the western Pacific, Indian Ocean, and...
As Santa Fe headed through the China Sea toward the Strait of Malacca and the Arabian Sea, the officer of the deck announced on the mic that they were passing the location where the USS Grayling was sunk in September 1943.
The announcement was a reminder to Marquet that the...
Being on deployment gave Santa Fe’s officers the opportunity to finalize a set of guiding principles. They wanted the principles to help crew members use the right criteria when making decisions. The theme they came up with was “Leadership at every level” and the principles included:
Santa Fe moved on the surface through the crowded Strait of Malacca, between Singapore and Indonesia, because it was shallow. Numerous large vessels, as well as ferries and fishing boats, used it daily, which made the three-day passage tricky.
The submarine’s crew decided it would be safest to follow closely behind an empty tanker, which other vessels would avoid. Marquet was driving the submarine from the...
Marquet decided to have a one-hour mentoring session with a key supervisor each day focused on long-term issues and goals. He asked supervisors to identify the end-of-tour awards they were striving for, or write their own personnel evaluation for the next year, indicating what they would accomplish.
To keep the mentoring from falling into a leader-follower format, Marquet developed it as a mentor-mentor program, where both he and the officer shared ideas on what Santa Fe needed to accomplish and what the officer could do for himself and to support the ship.
Together, they wrote...
In the Arabian Gulf exercise, Santa Fe was assigned to attack another sub, the USS Olympia, which was playing the role of an enemy diesel boat. They were halfway through the deployment, and were preparing to fire the first submarine-launched torpedo in the Arabian Gulf.
A rear admiral was on board observing the exercise, which would demonstrate not only Santa Fe’s abilities, but also the ability of a U.S. submarine to attack and sink a submarine in shallow water. The exercise was designed to send a message of deterrence to potential U.S. adversaries. It also was a test of the leader-leader model.
Santa Fe’s crew performed flawlessly without Marquet’s involvement. The exercise torpedo scored a hit, which Marquet announced...
Marquet and his officers had read and discussed Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, so he was pleased when Covey, who had sought Navy permission to ride a submarine, was assigned to Santa Fe.
Covey’s visit, during a short proficiency training run in the Hawaiian Islands, offered Marquet an opportunity to reflect on what his team had accomplished under the leader-leader empowerment model.
This list included:
Eighteen months after Covey’s visit, Santa Fe was on deployment again, operating in the Strait of Hormuz at periscope depth, when the submarine developed a problem. There was an oil leak the crew couldn’t fix at sea and the submarine was running out of oil. However, Santa Fe’s empowerment culture saved the day.
They spotted a navy resupply (combat support) ship, USS Rainier , several miles away and decided to ask for oil. Protocol required making a supply request 36 hours in advance. However, the crew ignored the bureaucratic process, which was unheard of, and simply contacted the...
Santa Fe’s achievements and innovations under Marquet’s leadership lasted long after his departure and spread throughout the submarine force.
Twelve years after Marquet took command of Santa Fe, Commander Dave Adams, former weapons officers under Marquet, took charge. Also, three officers from Santa Fe were chosen from hundreds of candidates by the chief of naval operations for special assignments in...