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Clarity: The Second Pillar of Intent-Based Leadership


With this post, we come to the end of a fascinating journey reviewing the intent-based, “Leader-Leader” management model developed by retired U.S. Navy Captain L. David Marquet in his book Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders. We covered Control over two posts (Part I and Part II). And last week we covered Competence – the first of two enabling pillars supporting control.

We turn now to the second enabling pillar, that of Clarity. As Captain Marquet put it, greater control cannot flourish within an organization unless “everyone throughout the organization understands 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.” If clarity is missing, then decision making will be skewed and suboptimal decisions will be made.

Captain Marquet and his team identified seven mechanisms for stressing clarity.

  • “Achieve excellence (don’t just avoid errors).” Captain Marquet inherited a ship that was filled with risk-averse, timid sailors who were more focused on avoiding errors than achieving operational excellence aboard the Santa Fe. To get past this, Captain Marquet began to connect the day-to-day activities on the submarine to something larger – he reminded the crew of its noble purpose, and he connected current endeavors with the submarine force’s “rich legacy of service to and sacrifice for the country.” Once the crew “remembered what we are doing and why, they would do anything to support the mission.”
  • “Build trust and take care of your people.” The team aboard the Santa Fe intentionally worked to support each other, both professionally and personally. And although that was good in and of itself, other benefits flowed from the way people were treated. “Because the crew was convinced that I was ‘on their team,’ there were never any issues with negative responses to constructive criticism.” And “[h]ad they not believed I was doing everything I could for them, it would have been a lot tougher when I asked them to work so hard.”
  • “Use your legacy for inspiration.” Every company – just like the Santa Fe and the Navy’s submarine force – has an origin story. We certainly do here at Level 2 Legal – and we speak of it often, as it strongly supports our core values. (See our story here and our core values here.) Captain Marquet argues persuasively that organizations should “tap into the sense of purpose and urgency that developed during those early days or during some crisis,” so that they can be embedded into guiding principles and used in efficiency reports and personnel awards.
  • “Use guiding principles for decision criteria.” Guiding principles that “accurately represent the principles of the real organization, not the imagined organization,” can be effective clarity tools. The principles Captain Marquet and his team developed for use aboard the Santa Fe are worth reviewing in their entirety (see pages 179 to 181). Once drafted, the principles should then be woven into everything that happens in an organization – from the way service is delivered to how people are evaluated and rewarded.
  • “Use immediate recognition to reinforce desired behaviors.” Too often – both aboard the Santa Fe and in our news feeds today – reports of the negative or problematic crowd out that of the positive, helpful, and good. Recognition of a job well done, a project completed ahead of schedule, or effective assistance rendered to colleagues would be recognized during annual evaluations (if at all). To combat this tendency, Captain Marquet and his team began a program of immediate recognition for good things that happened on the Santa Fe. As he put it, “[w]hen I say immediate recognition, I mean immediate. Not thirty days. Not thirty minutes. Immediate.”
  • “Begin with the end in mind.” Not always allowing the urgent to crowd out the important was just as vital on the Santa Fe as it is at most organizations. To facilitate long-term, strategic planning and clarity, Captain Marquet required his team to write their “end-of-tour awards” when they first came aboard ship. Careful to make the components specific, measurable, and attainable, he found that having such dialogue allowed everyone to focus on achieving operational excellence from the get-go. An additional benefit was that morale improved as people knew from the beginning how they would achieve their personal and organizational goals.
  • “Encourage a questioning attitude over blind obedience.” In perhaps the most “un-Navy” like suggestion in his book, Captain Marquet encouraged a culture of respectful, good-faith questioning aboard the Santa Fe, rather than the traditional blind obedience to orders from above. Of course, putting such a mechanism in place could only succeed in a culture where everyone was genuinely respected and had the requisite technical competence to legitimately raise questions. But when implemented correctly, it had the benefit of making every decision better.

Control, as enabled by Competence and Clarity – that’s the intent-based, “Leader-Leader” formula that Captain Marquet used to turn his former ship – the USS Santa Fe – from last to first in the fleet. If it can work in the traditional, top-down, “Leader-Follower” model of the U.S. Navy, it might just help elsewhere, too.