Turn the ship around

Rating: 4.5/5
Author: L. David Marquet

I started working for a new client about 9 months ago. In one of the meeting, the business discussion turned to be a very informative and interesting discussion about this book – Turn the ship around of L. David Marquet. Getting some initial ideas about it, quoted “this book is about how a captain turned a very bad reputation ship to a successful one by giving the crew members more power. He went against the typical concept of management to achieve high result”, I started the reading with big curiosity. The book indeed wide opened my eyes about a new management concept “leader – leader”.

Like everybody else in the Navy, the author – captain David Marquet was trained to value the role of a captain as “Ships with a “good” commanding officer (CO) did well, … Ships that didn’t have a good CO didn’t do well. But a good ship could become a bad ship overnight when a new CO came aboard”

As defined by the leadership book of Naval Academy, “leadership is the art, science, or gift by which a person is enabled and privileged to direct the thoughts, plans, and actions of others in such a manner as to obtain and command their obedience, their confidence, their respect, and their loyal cooperation”. Traditionally, both in the Navy and in most organizations, leadership is about controlling people. The model “leader-follower” has been the norm. The performance of the team depends on the competence of the leader, until his departure. This has been the way big and small organizations operating for long. Over the time, this model has shown some serious problems, especially when we do more cognitive work in this modern world. It limits the initiative, the creativity, the job satisfaction and ultimately the happiness of the team.

To begin with, when David Marquet reported to his first job as a junior officer in the USS Sunfish, the captain let him be in charge of a sonar training without any further involvement. The training went well. David was so inspired by such management style. But not until he was assigned to Santa Fe that he could apply it successfully.

Santa Fe was well known in the navy at the time – as the ship everybody joked about. It was an example of how not to be. Surprisingly, captain Marquet turned this ship around, making Santa Fe a highly successful ship with consistent high record, even after his departure. The crew members got good endorsement and thus, career path track. How did he do that?

He realized the tendency to avoid errors, instead of thrive for the best of almost all crew members. “Part of achieving excellence would be acquiring an intimate understanding of errors, that is, what caused them and what we needed to do to eliminate them. But that intimate understanding would not be the thing the crew needed to be thinking about as they reported for duty. Reducing mistakes would be an important side benefit to attaining our primary goal, achieving excellence.” By breaking this habit, he opened new ways to improve the performance of the ship.

His action plan based on the  3 legs of the Leader-leader methodology – Control, Competence and Clarity

  • Control is about the crew making decisions concerning not only how they are going to work but also toward what end.
  • Competence means that people are technically competent to make the decisions they make.
  • Clarity: as more decision-making authority is pushed down the chain of command, it becomes increasingly important that everyone throughout the organization understands what the organization is about.

He put his staff in charge and in control of their work. In order to do that, the purposes of the assigned task have to be well shared to everybody, not just to the top level management. Being honest, transparent and straight forward in communication is also encouraged. Learning are necessary but not on a mass scale. Learning must be based on individual need to train the staff in their work, and to help them achieve their intended future.

The attitude of captain Marquet affected positively his management. Due to the sudden switch of the assigned ship, he came on board with high curiosity. One question led to another, revealing many problems and also solutions. He tried to keep that attitude over the time, being curious instead of imposing his knowledge on the crew. “The time to be questioning or even critical is after trust has been established.”

However, his new way did not work well at first. Before Sante Fe, captain Marquet had tried the leader-leader model on Will Roger, another USS submarine. It was not well accepted by the crew. He ended up leading the ship the normal way and felt exhausted everyday. Why? “Fundamentally, this is where I think I failed on the Will Rogers. I had tried to push authority and control, but the technical competence of the engineering department, who were accustomed to being given specific guidance, had atrophied… Control without competence is chaos.” But more importantly, there was no call for action at Will Roger. The ship was not in a bad situation. It had been operating that way for years and nothing seemed to go wrong. On the other side, Santa Fe was in disastrous situation. It was no one’s desire to be in that ship. Things needed to be change in Santa Fe. There was a thirst to do better and an eagerness for change.

The leader – leader model can be applied to real life cases, not only applicable for the USS Santa Fe. I would say for both business and organization including family. Give the member a chance to absorb responsibility, equip them with sufficient knowledge, explain to them why. They will fly higher than you could ever expect. However, remember that things take time. We are not going to be able to go from top down to bottom up overnight, as specified by the author.

This is an easy reading book. Captain Marquet told you in details the story and the reasons behind every decision that captain Marquet made on Santa Fe. There are also questions for consideration on each chapter which I strongly recommend you to take serious thoughts to examine your problem and situation. Of course, turning any ship around is easier said than done, especially when you decide to go countercultural from the traditional management style. However, Santa Fe is a good real life example to keep you stay strong.

One thought on “Turn the ship around

  1. Update on November 25, 2018

    From what my CEO said about the three factors CONTROL, CLARITY and COMPETENCE
    If you just have 2 over 3 factors, there will be problems
    * Just CONTROL & CLARITY will result in MISTAKE
    * Just CONTROL & COMPETENCE will result in MISALIGNMENT
    * Just CLARITY & COMPETENCE will result in INACTIVITY

    That is bold!

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