Turn the Ship Around

I heard about Turn the Ship Around from a few friends and finally got round to reading it, and a great read it was. Also the fact that Stephen Covey; author of one of my favourite books; was on this ship as well, intrigued me in reading the book.

As the title suggests, the belief and the benefits of leadership occurs at all levels is the recurrent theme throughout the book. It’s the common catchphrase along with – ‘Move decision making to where the information is’ It’s a book about empowerment and change.

The three most powerful points I took from the book were;
  1. Realise that the system is the problem not the people

  2. Delivery of empowerment is paradoxically dis-empowering; as it suggest an authority giving it. Start with I intend to...

  3. Taking care of people does not mean protection from consequences, more about supporting their ongoing education and less about irresponsible behaviour

Evolution leading to revolution.

The book presents a real life account of Lieutenant David Marquet and his successful approach to turning the Santa Fe, a submarine in the US Navy, from the worst performed to the best performed. He did this by empowering the sailors under his ‘command’ to make decisions by stating intent. The journey starts with immediate results, within 24 hours, but took 2 years to fully bed in. ‘The steps were evolutionary. The result was revolutionary.’

Empowerment programs aren’t new, they’ve existed for some time, however they tend to fail most of the time. Why is this? He tells us of several dysfunctions that are viewed as ‘normal’ but really could be described as ‘anti-patterns’. For example: ‘When the performance of a unit goes down after an officer leaves, it is taken as a sign that he was a good leader, not that he was ineffective in training his people properly.’ But, how and where do you start? By establishing trust.

Realise that the system is the problem not the people. The system rewards local and short term performance. An example mentioned in the book states that each officer is encouraged to maximise performance for his tour and his tour alone. There is no incentive or reward for developing mechanisms that enable excellence beyond your immediate tour. Imagine the impact of this on the thousands of decisions made by the commanding officers throughout the Navy, the author asks. The system encourages aversion to mistakes and the crew was becoming gun shy about making mistakes.

The best way not to make a mistake is not to do anything or make any decisions – was the unwritten rule. A common joke sadly was ‘Your reward is no punishment’

I intend to…

Marquet recommends that you find the genetic code for control and rewrite it. He tells us that many organisations lack a central principle, a genetic code, behind their empowerment programs. Further, empowerment programs cannot be directed as they imply authority has been given by someone else to become better. In other words delivery of empowerment is paradoxically dis-empowering.

To put it into action, you will need to ‘act your way to new thinking.’ An example in the book shows that improving morale was the first step and a simple suggestion for the sailors on board was to welcome visitors by greeting them with the name of the visitor, your own name and a welcome aboard the ‘[name of the ship]’ This is an example a culture changer and an important early step. In this instance bring back pride.

To establish control, one should institute short, early conversations. The crew relayed what they were doing to commanders rather than being directed. This enabled feedback (to improve) and importantly allowed them to retain control. They last 30 seconds but save hours of time. Marquet also tells us about the power of words. Sailors used to ask permission, but were then asked to use start their sentences with ‘I intend to …’ Asking permission is an example of dis-empowering phrase and I intend an example of an empowering phrase. One must also resist the urge to provide solutions.

You must allow time for others to react to the situation as well. Only provide the solution if they recommend it. Some decision making though is urgent – you will have to make it but allow the team to evaluate it after. Other times a delay can allow team input. In making input encourage dissension – ‘If everyone thinks like you, you don’t need them.’

The level of informal conversation is a good indicator for team health. In a strict hierarchical environment discussion is repressed and frowned upon. The opposite approach actually gave a better gauge of how the ship was operating and whether information was being shared. A lack of certainty can be viewed as a strength! Certainty implies arrogance. There is a linkage – arrogance leads to silence and therefore chances for mishaps to occur.

Intent to do some action is stated with the view to eliminating automatic mistakes. This forces the message giver to deliberate action. There doesn’t have to be anyone else around to do this. To emphasize the point more, actions are deliberate in that they are vocalized.

Control without competence is chaos.

Competence is built up via learning and we learn all the time. We learn by doing and do this everywhere, all the time. An increase in competence allows delegation of control. Incompetence breeds all manner of dysfunction. Learning increases competence which allows confidence for control to occur where the information is.

Certification is another mechanism. So it’s not just a meeting or a brief. To certify means that we are ready for the job and failing certification is less costly than bungling a task. Study to learn and be responsible for their jobs became the norm amungst the sailors aboard the ship. Meeting briefs became a thing of the past. Repetition is a well-known mode of human learning, and therefore there is no redundancy in constantly repeating a message. Continually and consistently repeat a message.

The author tells the story of a officer nicknamed Sled Dog; a hard worker who came to be over worked and underappreciated. This lead to him going AWOL. The natural course of events would have meant a severe disciplining. However, Marquet dug deeper and found the root causes. Sled Dog was an admired member of the crew. His skills were invaluable. Too lose him would mean a regress for the US Navy and for Sled Dog personally. Knowing the causes Sled Dog was retained and his issues were dealt with in a humane way and he continued to improve and excel.

Build trust and take care of your people

A key enabler is to specify goals and not methods. By specifying the method we have control diminished. This leads into delivering clarity. It requires trust, which occurs over time, and then also taking care of your people – in work and outside of work. Work at overcoming your own in-tolerances of inadequacies. Taking care of people does not mean protection from consequences, more about supporting their ongoing education and less about irresponsible behaviour.

Clarity requires guiding principles and there are several listed such as Initiative, Innovation, Intimate Technical Knowledge, Courage, Commitment, Continuous Improvement, Integrity, Empowerment, Teamwork, Timeliness and Openness. Marquet states that they exercised participative openness: freedom to speak one’s mind. Additionally, they exercised reflective openness, which leads to looking inward. “We challenge our own thinking. We avoid the trap of listening to refute.” It follows that from these guiding principles we need leadership at every level. Guiding principles should be well known as they aid with clarity.

And when something of merit does occur – give recognition immediately to reinforce the designed behaviour. Do not let this occur later. Further, providing feedback and comparing against other teams can be positive; the authors calls this 'gamification'.

Begin with the End in Mind.

This is a repetition of Stephen Covey’s statement. Look out years in advance and devise ways of measuring performance against the goals. Employees can write down their own goals which should flow hence forth from the company goals.

Don’t be afraid to question orders.

Blind obedience can lead to catastrophic results. Perhaps someone should have questioned the captain of the Costa Concordia prior to allowing the ship to change course to be closer to the dangerous reef. Does your culture allow this? What would you rather have?

Marquet’s journey from Leader-Follower to Leader-Leader turned traditional leadership on it’s head.

Below is a table summary from the book.


Words are important, so replace Empowerment with Emancipation. Emancipation recognises the inherent talents of your people. Empower implies to give permission. An emancipated team is one that does not need empowerment. That freedom is importantly backed by competence and clarity. If a nuclear sub commander can give control to those under him and achieve amazing results, so can you.


What I took from it.

The importance of team and culture above anything else. Many business cultures focuses on the customer first; but the author showed through his personal experience on the Sante-Fe, that you can turn a bad culture into a thriving culture by putting the well being on your team first. By empowering your team to take ownership of their own areas of responsibilities you create leaders of all. I already put to practice with my own team the idea of " RJ, I intent to...." with them giving me clarity on what they want to do and why, so that I only have to respond with a "very well!"

My Rating

I enjoyed this book as it gave some great ideas for applying various ways of thinking to leadership. Some of the concepts are quite profound and I liked the link with some of the 7 Habits by Stephen Covey.

The author clearly understood how people can thrive and grow and was brave enough to apply it in one of the most rigid top down hierarchies there is; the US Navy. However, I feel that the book is very much for an American audience and the story line will be best understood by people with a military background. I did find the business applications from the book very useful.