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Competence: A Key Pillar of “Leader-Leader” Management


Over the past several weeks (see posts here and here), we’ve covered the eight core mechanisms of Control identified by retired U.S. Navy Captain L. David Marquet in his book Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders. Captain Marquet argues that giving employees greater control over what they work on and how they work tends to unleash hidden talent and creativity that drives operational excellence.

But simply giving employees greater control – without the necessary success conditions in place – is a recipe for chaos, not excellence. As such, Captain Marquet devotes roughly two-thirds of his book to the two enabling pillars on which the success of Control depend – namely Competence and Clarity.

What are the mechanisms for developing greater Competence so that the Leader-Leader approach may succeed? Captain Marquet and his team onboard the USS Santa Fe identified five core strategies.

  • “Take deliberate action.” As Captain Marquet put it, using “take deliberate action” on the Santa Fe “was the single most powerful mechanism that we implemented for reducing mistakes and making Santa Fe operationally excellent.” It meant that “prior to any action, the operator paused and vocalized and gestured toward what he was about to do, and only after taking a deliberate pause would he execute the action.” On a submarine, turning the wrong valve, opening the wrong breaker, or thoughtlessly moving aside warning tags could be life-threatening. In less “physical” and more service industries – like the practice of law – “take deliberate action still applies, but in a slightly different way. It applies [for example] at the moment someone signs a form, authorizes an action, or enters a keystroke.” Indeed, I have blogged in the past (here) about the power of checklists in the practice of eDiscovery, which are a great way to implement “take deliberate action” in our industry.
  • “We learn (everywhere, all the time).” “[A]s authority is delegated, technical knowledge at all levels takes on a greater importance. There is an extra burden for technical competence.” Captain Marquet and his team aboard the Santa Fe struggled at first for how to instill a hunger within the crew for greater personal competence and accountability. In the end, they created their own ship-specific creed, which began with the question: “What do we do on a day-to-day basis?” Suggestions ran the gambit from “We supervise,” to “We prepare for war,” to “We operate systems of the submarine.” But in the end, the crew of the USS Santa Fe answered that question with the simple reality that “We learn.” The entire creed they developed is well worth reviewing – see pages 129-131.
  • “Don’t brief, certify.” The military – like many companies – loves its briefings. But as Captain Marquet observed, “A briefing is a passive activity for everyone except the briefer. . . . There is no responsibility for preparation or study. It’s easy to just nod and say ‘ready’ without full intellectual engagement.” And so, as they did on many occasions, the crew of the Santa Fe turned briefing on its head. No more, for example, would the diving officer of the watch brief the bridge crew on the diving procedure before a dive by simply reading from the Ship System Manual. Instead, he would ask questions of the team to make sure each person was prepared to accomplish the diving steps both correctly and safely. They would, as Marquet put it, no longer “brief,” but instead “certify.” He noted such certifications could apply “whether [the task was a] surgical procedure or sales pitch.”
  • “Continually and consistently repeat the message.” Captain Marquet’s surprise and disappointment with his own chiefs gave rise to his insight that to increase competence, one must repeat key messages continually and consistently. The chiefs were the very same people who had helped him start Leader-Leader aboard the Santa Fe, who had helped write the creed noted above, and who had heard Captain Marquet talk a hundred times thus far about how things would be run on the ship. And yet they also allowed one of the submarine’s quartermasters of the watch – essentially the ship’s chief navigator, a mission-critical position – to work under stressful conditions for 36 hours straight with no sleep, even though certain of them could have helped stand watch. And they allowed this even though they had themselves agreed that if Leader-Leader was to succeed, they would have to be more involved – not less – “participating, sharing the pain with the crew, not acting like some privileged aristocracy.” When the sleep-deprived quartermaster went AWOL from the Santa Fe so that he could get some sleep in an on shore barracks, Captain Marquet did not send him to “Captain’s mast” – one step short of a formal court martial. Instead, he gave the crewman a pass (a risky move on Captain Marquet’s part), and used the experience to repeat to the chiefs – and the entire crew – the message of intent-based leadership that would be practiced on the ship.
  • “Specify goals, not methods.” A fire on a submarine “was one of the most life-threatening accidents we could have.” And so, with good intent, the Navy had established detailed guidelines about who should attack fires and how they should do so. The problem, Captain Marquet observed, is that the crew had started to slavishly follow the guidelines while ignoring the true goal – which was (and should be) to put out any fire as quickly and safely as possible. As such, he empowered any crewman in the vicinity of a fire (either real or in a drill situation) to handle the necessary equipment to extinguish the fire, rather than waiting on the people to arrive who “should” put out the fire, per the guidelines. He and the crew did this throughout other systems and processes on the ship – all by keeping the goal in mind and letting methods support accomplishing the goal, rather than being an end in themselves.

Developing Competence by the mechanisms above – though vitally important – cannot alone ensure the success of the intent-based leadership model. Next week, we’ll take a look at the final enabling pillar, that of Clarity.