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Unleashing Hidden Talent, Part II: The “Leader-Leader” Model

Turn The Ship Around

Toward the end of his book Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders, retired U.S. Navy Captain L. David Marquet summarizes his approach this way: “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.”

Last week we covered the first four mechanisms Captain Marquet and his team developed while serving on board the USS Santa Fe for freeing employees to exercise greater Control. Captain Marquet argues that the benefit is the unleashing of talent, energy, and creativity throughout an organization – with the added bonus that new leaders “spring up” organically.

The final four mechanisms in the Control pillar include the following.

  • “Resist the urge to provide solutions.” It was midnight, and Captain Marquet needed a few hours of rest before the crew of the Santa Fe would engage in a mock combat drill off Hawaii. In that moment, he slipped back into the shortcuts inherent in the traditional Leader-Follower model. Instead of engaging his navigation team in a more time-consuming dialogue of how and why the ship needed to be at precise location, he instead pointed at the charts and said “we need to be here at 0600.” When he arose, Captain Marquet was dismayed to learn that not only was the Santa Fe not in position yet, it was also pointed in the wrong direction. His navigators had taken a careful route to avoid detection at the expense of getting the ship in the best tactical position for the drill at hand. “By pointing at the chart and giving my crew the solution, I had made things worse. I deprived them of the opportunity and obligation to think.”
  • “Eliminate top-down monitoring systems.” It is common on Navy ships for the Executive Officer (or “XO”) to maintain a “tickler” binder that contains a record of reports that are owed up the chain of command on a range of topics, including required ship maintenance. Due dates are tracked in the tickler but often missed – as Captain Marquet described it, “we had a system that was focused on understanding the status [of required work] instead of actually getting the work done.” Each week, the XO would conduct a “tickler meeting” with the department chiefs and department heads to review status – valuable supervisory time that largely did not contribute to meeting the deadlines. And so, the crew of the Santa Fe turned the process on its head – the department chiefs would own the reports and deadlines, ensure that the work gets done, and check in with the XO letting him know what they were doing, what remained to be done, and what help was needed. This provided a more efficient process and clarity as to who was responsible for getting the work done – a win-win for the Santa Fe.
  • “Think out loud.” Thinking out loud in the military is a novel concept – but one that Captain Marquet made the norm on board Santa Fe. He did so because it is so easy to revert to Leader-Follower methods – and thereby sap the initiative and confidence of team members. Case in point – the Santa Fe’s return to Pearl Harbor following the tactical exercises off Hawaii. The channel into the harbor is especially narrow, where every second counts when it comes to positioning a craft. The Santa Fe had surfaced, and Captain Marquet was harnessed in watching the entrance to Pearl Harbor from the bridge. As he listened to the control room crew some 30 feet below him mark the ship’s position, he felt a turn was happening too late. Into his microphone, he said to his navigator “are you going to turn?” His navigator, with a slightly miffed tone, said: “Yes, three seconds. I thought they were early.” As Captain Marquet put it, his navigator “was no longer driving the submarine, I was.” The solution: thinking out loud to communicate necessary context and details for everyone’s benefit. With hindsight being 20/20, the navigator could (and should) have said something like “Captain, the navigator has been marking the turns early. I am planning on waiting five seconds, then ordering the turn.”
  • “Embrace the inspectors.” Most people fear inspectors – as did the crew of the Santa Fe when Captain Marquet assumed command. Like many other areas, he turned this issue on its head. He and his crew proactively shared good things that were happening on board with inspectors, but also handed them – from the start – “a list of known deficiencies,” things that were “so fundamental to the design or so difficult to repair that we had been unsuccessful.” By embracing the inspectors and using them as a powerful vehicle both for learning and for securing resources needed to solve issues on board, the crew of the Santa Fe maintained control of their own destiny.

The four mechanisms above – together with the four covered last week – are powerful tools for Control. However, such control cannot exist in a vacuum. In coming weeks, we’ll cover the fundamentally important supporting pillars of Competence and Clarity.