Staying in Step for a Successful Military Life

Book Review: Turn the Ship Around!

by | Oct 25, 2019 | Leadership

Turn the Ship Around! – A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders
Capt. L. David Marquet, USN (Ret.)
©2012, 237 pages

“Eventually we turned everything upside down. Instead of one captain giving orders to 134 men, we would have 135 independent, energetic, emotionally committed and engaged men thinking about what we needed to do and ways to do it right. This process turned them into active leaders as opposed to passive followers.”

I’m about halfway through my maternity leave, and you know what’s a great maternity leave activity? Reading! It fits well with my current recuperation lifestyle and it can be done while rocking or nursing an infant. Particularly with the availability of ebooks through the U.S. Air Force Library… It’s quite handy!

My latest read is Turn the Ship Around! by Capt. L. David Marquet, USN (Ret.). Somewhere along the way I had heard of this book, and seeing it on the CSAF 2018 Reading List sealed the deal. This is one of the most interesting and engaging books on leadership I’ve read, particularly because all the principles are explained through story.

The book features vignettes of Capt. Marquet’s career with a focus on his time commanding the Santa Fe, a nuclear submarine. The intro and first chapter are what really hooked me; in those sections Capt. Marquet describes a time as a junior officer (CGO) that he was given the authority to train his team in new and creative ways. It was exciting and motivating! He then contrasts it with his time on another ship when he attempted to empower and inspire his team like he had been inspired… only to have his efforts fall flat. He said, “I would have to grapple with the tension between how I aspired to be as a leader and how I actually was.”

This man is speaking my 2nd lieutenant language.

I was hooked because I can identify; I’ve had very much the same types of experiences already in my short time in the Air Force: times where leaders have trusted me with responsibility and authority that made for some of my best days in the Air Force, and times where I have tried to pass that on to my airmen only to watch my efforts fail.

“Leader-leader structures [versus leader-follower structures] are significantly more resilient, and they do not rely on the designated leader always being right.”

Capt. Marquet also describes how, as a commander, he gave an order that was impossible to follow but no one brought it to his attention until he asked why the order wasn’t being executed. He realized then that it’s too dangerous in today’s world for a leader to be the only one in the organization thinking. The old model of a leader commanding and troops blindly obeying was rife with risk. It would mean everything riding on a leader knowing, understanding, and ordering exactly the right commands at exactly the right moments all the time… Impossible. He needed the men on his submarine to understand how to make good decisions, act decisively, and grow and apply their technical competence. With each person empowered at his job, the whole submarine would be safer and more effective.

I see the need for this type of leadership, particularly in a place like a Public Affairs shop. We work in the information domain, a realm that is so full of data, that moves so quickly, and is so gray in terms of what is the “right” decision, that there’s no way one leader would ever be able to know and be enough to effectively lead alone while worker bees execute his or her orders. I need my airmen to be thinking, learning, and communicating to enable our shop to do what the Air Force and the country needs us to do. If we depend on me or some other officer to be the only brain, the shop will not just run less effectively… It will epically fail.

The book is full of meaty content on how Capt. Marquet worked with his team to bring a failing submarine to excellence. There was one area that I wish had been addressed in the book, however. The case study on which Capt. Marquet built this leadership construct involves only men. Being on a submarine in the late ’90s and early 2000s, there were no women present and none are mentioned in the book. How might this leadership style look for a team that includes women? For example, direct communication and initiative–two major traits highlighted in the book–can be perceived differently when coming from a female than when coming from a male. While workplaces may include open dialogue and a free flow of ideas, women’s ideas are less likely to be given the same weight as a man’s idea and they’re less likely to receive credit. In a leadership construct that so values these things, how would teams be sure they’re being equally inclusive of women and others that may not have historically had as strong a voice in the workplace?

I don’t necessarily have answers for that; I’m just pondering. There’s a lot to Capt. Marquet’s leadership ideas I’ll be chewing on in the weeks ahead as I gear up to go back to work!

Quotes from the book:

“Imagine a world where we all find satisfaction in our work. It is a world where every human being is intellectually engaged, motivated, and self-inspired. Our cognitive capacity as a race is fully engaged in solving the monumental problems that we face.”

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

“What are you willing to personally risk? (Sometimes taking a step for the better requires caring/ not caring. Caring deeply about the people and mission, but not caring about the bureaucratic consequences to your personal career.)”

“Control without competence is chaos.”

“When leaders who tend to do it all themselves and rely on personality depart, they are missed and performance can change significantly. Psychologically for the leader, this is tremendously rewarding. It is seductive. Psychologically for most followers, this is debilitating.”

When have you felt empowered and motivated at your job? Did your leadership do (or not do) something that helped foster that environment?
Have you had a chance to read this book? What principle resonated most with your own experience or leadership ambitions?


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