Turn the Ship Around! | L. David Marquet

Main Theme: Leadership, Organizational Health, Developing Leaders
For People Who: Are interested in throwing out a top-down leadership approach in favor of developing the leaders around you by giving them decision-making power.

It is early March, and Turn the Ship Around! by L. David Marquet is the 14th book I’ve read this year; it is easily in my top two! Marquet is a retired Captain of the U.S. Navy. When he became the commanding officer of the USS Santa Fe, a nuclear-powered Los Angeles class attack submarine, it was plagued with low morale, low retention, and poor performance. After only a year of command, Marquet was able to turn the USS Santa Fe into one of the best submarines in the fleet! What did he do to “turn the ship around” so quickly? He threw out the old “leader-follower” model and pushed leadership to every level by adopting a “leader-leader” model. This book is incredibly engaging as Marquet walks you through his time leading up to taking command, preparations before deployment, and how he and his men worked toward leadership at every level. The ships improvement was so incredible that on one occasion he had so many men reenlist during a deployment that the reenlistment bonuses totaled over half a million dollars! I think this statement sums up the purpose of the book nicely:

The core of the leader-leader model is giving employees control over what they work on and how they work. It means letting them make meaningful decisions. The two enabling pillars are competence and clarity. –Turn the Ship Around!, pg. 206


  • When you adhere to a leader-follower model all the decisions are made by the leader. Thus, when the leader is wrong, the ship sinks.
  • When leaders don’t empower others to lead, those “followers” end up shutting off their minds. That includes their creativity, their drive, and pursuit of excellence.
  • Leaders are afraid to let others make decisions in the organization for two reasons: competence (afraid someone will not have enough technical information to make a good decision) and clarity (afraid someone will not make a decision that is in line with the overall purpose of the organization) – both of these can be easily remedied.
  • As a leader, be curious about what you don’t know and the people in your organization. Get to know them!
  • Instead of people asking permission, have them state, “I intend to…” with a short explanation why. That forces them to think at the next level of leadership. So rather than saying, “Sir, can I go do this…” state this, “Sir, I intend to go do this…and here’s why…”
  • Don’t always give solutions. This was a big one for me because I love solving problems. But opening up conversations on options to a problem allows others to weigh in with a possibly better solution then you would give.
  • So many great take-aways, but let’s get to the summary!

Brief Summary

Disclaimer: There are 29 short chapters divided up into four parts. For each chapter of the story, a particular ‘mechanism’ was put in place to turn followers into leaders. Each chapter/mechanism will be summarized into a bullet point.

People who are treated as followers have the expectations of followers and act like followers. As followers, they have limited decision-making authority and little incentive to give the utmost of their intellect, energy, and passion. Those who take orders usually run at half speed, underutilizing their imagination and initiative. Turn the Ship Around!, pg xxvi (Introduction)

Part 1: Starting Over

In the first part of the book, Marquet shares what he was taught about leadership: “leader as individual hero.” (pg. 1) But the assumption that is always made behind the leader-follower model is that there are leaders and there are followers. The truth is that all of us have the capacity and ability to be a leader – sometimes we just need to be given the opportunity.

  • Pain: “Simply exhorting people to be proactive, take ownership, be involved, and all the other aspects of an empowerment program just scratched the surface.” (pg. 9)
  • Business As Usual: The Leader-Follower model is appealing. If you do well as a leader you will be rewarded. When you leave a position and everything falls apart, everyone will applaud how pivotal you were without regard for the fact that the organization you just left wasn’t able to stand without you. The problem is that when you follow a leader-follower model it “absolves subordinates of the hard work of thinking, making decisions, and being responsible and accountable.” (pg. 15) When followers become leaders, they lead the way they were led…and the cycle continues.
  • Change of Course: Give a specific goal but with broad perimeters, allowing your people to engage their creative minds to come to the solution: probably with a method different from your own.
  • Frustration: Marquet’s command was switched to a different submarine, last minute, than the one he’d been training a year to command. The opportunity this allowed him was to be curious about both the ship and the men. It allowed him to ask questions and probe their feelings to find out what was at the heart of the poor performing crew.
  • Call to Action: Often times it is the systems that leaders have put in place that fail, rather than the people.
  • “Whatever They Tell Me to Do!”: “Everyone below the captain and the department heads had their brain shut off. What did that give us? We had 135 men on board and only 5 of them fully engaged their capacity to observe, analyze, and problem-solve.” (pg. 38)
  • “I Relieve You!”: We must remember that our pursuit must be excellence, not a lack of mistakes. If our pursuit is a lack of mistakes, we have already set ourselves up to fail. To focus on excellence, fix your gaze on a bigger purpose rather than on not making errors. Why do you do what you do in the first place?

Part 2: Control

A submarine has a built-in structure whereby information is channeled up the chain of command to decision makers. Instead, we were going to deconstruct decision authority and push it down to where the information lived. We called this ‘Don’t move information to authority, move authority to the information.’ –Turn the Ship Around!, pg. 49

Marquet organizes the mechanisms for change that were used on the USS Santa Fe into three categories: control, competence, and clarity.

  • Find the Genetic Code for Control and Rewrite It is a mechanism for CONTROL. What are the on-going problems the leaders in your organization face? What is it that is so engrained in your organization that it keeps leaders from making decisions? Usually leaders are afraid that followers will make bad choices, which is why decision-making power isn’t entrusted to them. But if others understand the goals of the organization as well as the leader, then they can be trusted to make good choices that align with that purpose.
  • Acting Your Way to New Thinking is a mechanism for CONTROL. When a new cultural shift needs to take place in the organization, “you have basically two approaches to choose from: change your own thinking and hope this leads to new behavior, or change your behavior and hope this leads to new thinking.” (pg. 67) Marquet chose the later, and it made all the difference. As more and more men changed what they did, the culture shifted.
  • Short, Early Conversations Make Efficient Work is a mechanism for CONTROL. When early feedback can be given, it helps to make sure everyone is headed in the right direction. Asking, “Show me what you’re working on” is a way to keep minor errors from becoming big ones later down the road.
  • Use “I Intend to…” to Turn Passive Followers into Active Leaders is a mechanism for CONTROL. Instead of asking permission, when others say “I intend to…” or “I plan on…” or “I will…” it pushes decision-making power down the ‘hierarchy’ of control. Rather than give orders, Marquet always waited for others to think and make decisions.

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. –Turn the Ship Around!, pg. 84

  • Resist the Urge to Provide Solutions is a mechanism for CONTROL. When you always provide the solution, it forces your group back into a leader-follower mentality. With you barking orders, everyone goes back to being a lemming that “does what I’m told to do.” But when you can simply say, as Marquet did, “We’re not going to do that…We have to find another solution,” (pg. 90) it forces followers into a decision-making role, forcing them to act like a leader.
  • Eliminating Top-Down Monitoring Systems is a mechanism for CONTROL. Providing a system for employees that allows them the freedom to reach goals in their own way will help them take ownership of what they do. Don’t whine that the people in your organization don’t “take ownership” if you’re standing over their shoulder telling them what to do each step of the way. If you want them to trust your leadership, then trust theirs first!
  • Think Out Loud is a mechanism for CONTROL. We don’t want to be wrong and we don’t want to be corrected. Therefore we say as little as possible. But thinking out loud in a culture of trust ensures things are done right. People can critique one another without fear of embarrassing or humiliating one another.
  • Embrace the Inspectors is a mechanism for CONTROL. Submarines have a lot of inspections. Instead of being afraid of the inspectors, the crew were encouraged to ask them questions about problems they were having. “I’m stuck on this problem, how are other submarines dealing with it?” Welcoming outside criticism from those willing to help, will bring a higher level of excellence.

Part 3: Competence

Giving control to others isn’t enough – they need to be competent in their roles and the decisions they make.

  • Take Deliberate Action is a mechanism for COMPETENCE. Are people engaging their minds when taking action? Or are they so familiar with the process that their mind wanders and mistakes are made because they’re not being intentional about their decisions? Coupled with “Think Out Loud,” these two mechanisms help bring about corrective excellence. In one word: prudence.
  • We Learn (Everywhere, All the Time) is a mechanism for COMPETENCE. When you are committed to learning everywhere at all times, you recognize that you aren’t the smartest person in the room, you value others opinions, and your willingness to learn increases your technical competence.
  • Don’t Brief, Certify is a mechanism for COMPETENCE. In the submarine world a brief is talking to the crew, whereas in certifications “the person in charge of his team asks them questions.” (pg. 139) Engaging your people requires them to think and respond with what they would do in a situation. No one listens to briefings and only the person in charge actually studies for them.
  • Continually and Consistently Repeat the Message is a mechanism for COMPETENCE. If you have a stated goal for your organization, it is not enough to state it once. As the leader in charge, you will always be thinking about it…but no one else will think about it as much as you do, and they require constant reminding.
  • Specify Goals, Not Methods is a mechanism for COMPETENCE. “Provide your people with the objective and let them figure out the method.” (pg. 159)

Part 4: Clarity

Clarity means people at all levels of an organization clearly and completely understand what the organization is about. This is needed because people in the organization make decisions against a set of criteria that includes what the organization is trying to accomplish. –Turn the Ship Around!, pg. 161

  • Building Trust and Taking Care of Your People is a mechanism for CLARITY.Taking care of your people does not mean protecting them from the consequences of their own behavior…[but] giving them every available tool…to achieve their aims in life, beyond the specifics of the job.” (pg. 172)
  • Use Your Legacy for Inspiration is a mechanism for CLARITY. What kind of a history does your organization have? Helping your people understand the past inspires them to continue into the future.
  • Guiding Principles for Decision Criteria is a mechanism for CLARITY. Do your people know what principles should guide each decision they make? If not, clarify those guiding principles so they can make decisions that are in line with your organization’s purpose. Work with your people to craft those guiding principles – give them a voice in the process.
  • Use Immediate Recognition to Reinforce Desired Behaviors is a mechanism for CLARITY.
  • Begin With the End In Mind is a mechanism for CLARITY. What do you really want to accomplish? Specifically. How many years will it take to accomplish it? When you start with the end in mind, it gives you a canon to measure your progress.
  • Encourage A Questioning Attitude Over Blind Obedience is a mechanism for CLARITY. On one occasion Marquet tried correcting the course of the sub and a sailor said, “You’re wrong captain.” He looked at the charts again and realized he, the captain, was indeed wrong. And if they would have followed his orders they would have been in the wrong position to pick up a team of SEALS off shore. Do people feel freedom to correct your mistakes?

The last three chapters speak of the incredible results that instituting a Leader-Leader model had on the the USS Santa Fe. Rather than empowering his crew, Marquet emancipated them! “You know you have an emancipated team when you no longer need to empower them. Indeed, you no longer have the ability to empower them because they are not relying on you as their source of power.” (pg. 213)


Do you want everything to fall apart when you leave your organization? By the way that many leaders lead, you’d think that was true. When the success of an organization relies solely on the abilities and personally of the leader in charge, people remain followers, disengage their minds, and passively wait to be told what to do. Is that the kind of organization you want to lead? I have only touched on the incredible practicality of this book by giving you a brief summary. I hope I have given you enough of Marquet’s ideas that it has wet your appetite to pull up to the table and eat a hearty bowl! Emancipate your people to be the leaders they have the ability within them to be. They are waiting; the choice is yours.

Information and Personal Rating

General Information:

Personal Ratings (1-10)

  • Applicability: 9
  • Readability: 10 (easy read – great story!)
  • Originality: 8
  • Recommendation: Yes – absolutely! Put it next on your “To Read” list.

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