Turn the Ship Around Summary and Review

by L. David Marquet
Has Turn the Ship Around by L. David Marquet been on your reading list? Read this quick book summary to get the key ideas.  If you’re a manager, you’re aware that constantly improving your leadership skill set is important in order to keep your team centered and aiming in the right direction. What happens when your strategies don’t work? What do you do when your employees seem uninspired by the work you assign?  Maybe this is a good time to reflect on how you lead. Over the course of this book summary, you’ll gain information about leadership from the first-hand experience of the author, L. David Marquet, a U.S. Navy officer. Marquet successfully transformed one of the navy’s worst performing submarines into an effective team.  During this process, Marquet discovered that encouraging others to become leaders ended up making him a better leader, and coincidentally empowered the entire team to perform better and succeed as a unit.  In this summary of Turn the Ship Around by L. David Marquet, you’ll also learn
  • why the style of leadership that built Egypt’s pyramids is no longer relevant;
  • why the best way to lead is to encourage more leaders to step forward; and
  • why briefing people on projects puts them to sleep rather than inspiring them.

Turn the Ship Around Key Idea #1: The United States has been confronted with a leadership crisis, and that is bad for business.

Be honest: Do you like your job? If you answered “no,” you’re not the only one. Unfortunately, United States job satisfaction is at an all-time low. Less than half of U.S. workers felt satisfied at their jobs from 2004 to 2012; in 2009, a survey conducted by the COnference Board demonstrated worker satisfaction to be at its lowest rate in history. Another trend other than dissatisfaction in the workforce has emerged in recent years: we’ve experienced a significant dip in overall productivity. Up to $300 billion has been lost due to issues surrounding productivity in the U.S. alone.  These issues in the workforce are pertinent, but times have not been easy outside the workforce either. U.S. unemployment was at 9% for a record amount of time, 31 months, which ended November 2011.  If the U.S. workforce were a patient, a doctor wouldn’t hesitate to say the symptoms are not positive. But before they worsen, we need to determine where the actual illness is. In order to do this, we must examine the structure of organizations struggling with these issues. We have designed our organizations according to a certain type of leadership for many centuries. The Egyptians harnessed this type of leadership to build the pyramids, and this strategy also kicked off the Industrial Revolution.  The approach we’re talking about here is the leader-follower approach. With this concept, decisions are made by a leader (a boss) and are then carried out by the followers (the workers).  This type of system is a perfect fit for work that requires physical labor, since menial tasks can be delegated among many different workers in order to boost efficiency. But, many of today’s jobs are mainly cognitive tasks and decision-making, which does not fit the mold for a “follower” workforce.  This results in the leader-follower approach being a troubling choice in many situations. Consider it like this: it’s a great strategy for building great pyramids, but not for operating a nuclear-powered submarine or even starting a technology business! In order to truly empower workers, we need to reevaluate our overall idea of leadership. Discover where to start below. 

Turn the Ship Around Key Idea #2: The key to organizational success is a leader-leader approach, where everyone pitches in their ideas. 

Clearly, the leader-follower approach needs a reboot. What are some other alternatives?  Our best bet to creating a satisfied, empowered workforce is to go for a completely different leadership style: a leader-leader system. This approach demonstrates that leadership isn’t an unattainable quality that a select few are born with. Rather, this approach recognizes that we are all leaders, in some way or another.  The difference between this approach and the leader-follower approach is how decisions are made.  As we’ve learned in the leader-follower structure, all information is sent up the chain of command, and a decision is made only by the person at the top of this chain.  Contrastingly, in a leader-leader system, decision-making power is evenly distributed throughout the chain of command. This allows individuals to act on newly arriving information without having to wait for it to ascend the chain. For example, a navigator realizes his submarine is not on course and is in dangerously shallow water. Rather than alerting his commanding officer, he jumps into action and rectifies this issue safely and effectively.  This example is not hypothetical – the author experienced it directly. The USS Santa Fe, a nuclear-powered submarine with the U.S. Navy, had notoriously poor performance. It also had the worst crew retention rate of any craft. This all changed when Marquet became its commander and enacted a leader-leader style of leadership. He aspired to take this sub from one of the worst performing in the fleet to one of the best.  The submarine’s tactical effectiveness grew from “below average” to “above average to excellent” in inspections, about 36 crew members chose to re-enlist, and the USS Santa Fe was awarded the Arleigh Burke Trophy for most-improved ship in the fleet – simply by switching the leadership style on board.  The leader-leader approach is clearly advantageous. So how do you implement it in your own organization? We’ll discuss this more below. 

Turn the Ship Around Key Idea #3: Empower your employees by giving them more responsibility, which will make them more productive. 

Now that we know a leader-leader approach can increase the effectivity of your team, how do you implement it into your business?  In order to establish a leader-leader structure, you must start by essentially rewriting the foundations of your organization to reflect this shift in structure.  It’s important to ensure that the decision-making process involves your employees, and is sustainable over time. However, you may need to delegate some of your power as a manager. Though this may be uncomfortable or frightening, it is the first step to changing the deeply ingrained hierarchical system of your organization.  In the case of the USS Santa Fe, this translated to moving more of the power typically reserved to captains to the chiefs, individuals down the chain of command who are responsible for individual divisions within the submarine. Before making any other moves, Marquet spoke with each chief and asked how he could individually empower them to make decisions.  In this information gathering, he discovered that the first thing many of the chiefs wanted more responsibility over was the men in their particular division, beginning with the ability to authorize leave time. Historically, granting access to leave time started with an application signed off by the chiefs, which then ascended the ranks of command to be approved by three different officers, a department head, and an executive officer, who was higher on the chain than anyone else.  Marquet put an ending to this inefficient process by giving the chiefs of the submarine the ability to fully approve leave. Once the chiefs were granted greater responsibility over their men and division, they became more passionate about running that division at its highest performance. This began to improve overall efficiency almost immediately.  There are other ways to empower a workforce outside of reassigning responsibility. The USS Santa Fe began using a simple three word phrase to empower all people in the crew to make decisions about the running of the submarine. This phrase was : “I intend to…” For instance, If the navigator believed that the craft should change course, he would come to his captain and say, “I intend to alter our course,” instead of requesting a change of course. In this case, the captain can quickly approve this decision with an affirmative answer, but the decision was ultimately made by the navigator.  So far, we’ve seen two examples of how passing responsibility to individuals further down the chain of command is essential to the leader-leader structure. But, there are further steps that should be taken to maintain this dynamic.  Up next, we'll learn the pillars of competence and clarity, and why they are integral to the leader-leader structure.

Turn the Ship Around Key Idea #4: Ensuring employees can handle more responsibility is just as important as giving it to them. 

It may seem like a risk to give your employees more responsibility. We know that this is empowering to them, but are we sure they can handle it competently?  Luckily, practical mechanisms exist to ensure that your workforce builds and subsequently maintains their competence levels. The first tactic concerns itself with “taking deliberate action.”  One time, a crew member on the USS Santa Fe broke protocol and turned off a circuit breaker earlier than he was supposed to. The captain of this crew member’s division had to guarantee that something like this wouldn’t happen again. Extra training wasn’t the answer since the crew member accepted that he went against protocol. More supervision was also not the answer, since there was plenty of supervision in place.  The issue came down to a sheer lack of attention, which the captain solved be enacting a policy of deliberate action. With this policy, the members of the crew must now pause, vocalize, and gesture to what it is they intend to do before they did it.  From something as simple a turning a valve to completely changing the course of the craft, taking deliberate action lessened errors in all situations, regardless of the task. This occurred because taking deliberate action allowed others to monitor and correct mistakes before they could happen.  This technique helped the USS Santa Fe ascend to receive the highest grade ever awarded on its nuclear-reactor operations inspections. However, there was another integral change on board the USS Santa Fe that increased crew competence. When superiors were assigning tasks, the emphasis was shifted from briefing to certifying. During a briefing session, you can only confirm the competency of the person delivering the brief. The individuals receiving these instructions often daydream or completely stop listening halfway through if it’s a task they’re familiar with.  Instead of simply giving information, certifying required crew members to answer questions about the task they’d been assigned in order to be allowed to work on the task. Crew members must provide acceptable answers to receive the go ahead on a specific task. With this method, unprepared or inattentive members can be identified and addressed, allowing you to ensure that the individuals working on the task at hand are competent. This also allows for further training of employees who could not answer the questions about the task adequately,if need be.  Using these tactics, Marquet was able to further increase efficiency, employee satisfaction, and employee performance through the leader-leader structure aboard the USS Santa Fe. But, there is one final element that is vital to bringing this newly empowered crew to its full potential, as we’ll learn below. 

Turn the Ship Around Key Idea #5: Goals need to be stated clearly by the corporation in order for a leader-leader strategy to succeed at its highest level.

Since the power to make decisions lies with each individual in a leader-leader organization, it is important that all employees are on the same page when it comes to goals.  So how do you make sure of this? The core values of your organization must be upheld in order to maintain unity and productivity. One method of doing this is to inspire company members with the company’s legacy or history.  Emphasis was placed on the historical importance of the work done by the crew of the USS Santa Fe, which included making an announcement to the entire craft each and every time it sailed past a sunken submarine. This bolstered the crew’s sense of purpose: to serve and protect the United States.  In the same way, corporations can use their history to inspire. For instance, Apple steadily hold meetings with its employees in which the philosophy of “thinking differently” is highlighted throughout the company’s history. These meetings help to reinforce original thought as both a corporate and personal goal in the minds of Apple employees.  Another way to strengthen core values is to award employees that uphold these values in the tasks they perform. Unfortunately, administrative issues often get in the way of administering immediate praise, so by the time the praise is given, the task has been forgotten.  Marquet understood that immediate recognition and praise had the greatest impact on the crew members of the USS Santa Fe. For example, if a crew member recognized a potential disaster and made quick-fire decisions to successfully avoid it, this success was announced to the rest of the division shortly after, which would immediately reinforce the core values of the ship as a whole.  The structure of rewards can also have an impact on the productivity of an organization. Rewards in which employees are incentivized to compete against each other, man-versus-man rewards, are counterproductive. On the other hand, man-versus-nature rewards turn all employees against an external enemy, which causes them to work together and build camaraderie. An example of this would be to reward employees when the company-s stock price supersedes the stock of a competitor.  The USS Santa Fe is a perfect example of how simply changing how we think about leadership itself through a leader-leader structure can increase productivity and empower workers.  Remember back to the statistics regarding the U.S. economy from the first key idea; it’s clear that the economy could use an overhaul! If organizations across the nation took steps toward shifting to a leader-leader dynamic, imagine the success that would result. 

In Review: Turn the Ship Around Book Summary

The key message in this book are as follows: A top-down approach to leadership is not effective and avoids investing in the leadership skills each individual naturally has. Only a few institutional changes are required to shift to a leader-leader structure, but it does require a complete reevaluation of the way we understand leadership.However, the benefits of this switch will directly affect both the employees and the organization as a whole. Actionable advice: Communication is key! Don’t try to perfectly complete a project before showing it to your boss. Keep your boss up to date with your progress with short and frequent conversations to ensure that you are both on the same page regarding the end goal.  Suggested further reading: Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek Leaders Eat Last explores the way that neurochemicals influence the way people feel and act, and ultimately examines the discrepancies between the intended functioning of our bodies and how they function today. We are in need of true leaders who can steer us back to the correct path.