Book Cover

We continue the re-read of L. David Marquet’s Turn the Ship Around! This week we tackle Chapters one and two. The two chapters, titled Pain and Business as Usual, establish the foundation which positioned Marquet to build his management style. Chapters one and two are part of Part I. The book is broken into IV parts, which provide a macro change arc to drive the story.

Part one (Chapters 1 -7), titled Starting Over, develops the reasons that Marquet became frustrated with the leader as a hero/leader-follower leadership style that is common in the Navy and in many command/control driven organizations. The title of this section is a reflection of the need to find a new way of leadership in an environment that requires assumes the leader has the most technical competence while that might not be true.

Chapter One: Pain

Chapter One opens with a question “How has failure shaped you?“ The idea that a failure is a learning event is powerful. Kevin Kruse, the author of 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, begins all his podcast interviews with a similar question. The concept of fail early, fail fast in agile is statement less about failing than it is about learning. Regardless of the popularity of the concept, learning from failure, it is still a provocative statement to open the meat of the book.

In Chapter One, Marquet recounts his time on the USS Will Rogers (a ballistic missile submarine). On the Will Rogers, there was a constant tension between doing things right and meeting deadlines. Every person that has worked on a project has, at one time or another, felt this tension. I am sure we could all recount stories where a team or leaders strayed over the line to get the job done. In agile, one definition of the concept of technical debt is the outcome of meeting deadlines at the expense of not doing the right thing.

During his time on the Will Rogers, it was Marquet’s intent to leverage the technique of asking questions, which he learned while on the USS Sunfish (discussed in the Introduction) to empower his subordinates.  Unfortunately, his attempt at empowerment failed. The failure was a source of learning, but at the same time it damaged both his and his engineering crew’s reputation with the captain of the USS Will Rogers. The failure of the approach caused Marquet to revert to the leader-follower leadership style. He became the indispensable cog, the leader in the leader-follower machine, and the bottleneck in the process.

Late in the chapter, Marquet makes three observations/questions which are important points to reflect on.

  1. Why is empowerment needed? In Marquet’s mind, people are born empowered. The need for empowerment programs was an admission that “we” had actively disempowered people. Addressing this issue is more than posters in the workplace and PowerPoint presentations.
  2. Do you like being managed the same way you are told to manage others? If the answer is no, there is a  cognitive dissonance which demotivates both leaders and followers.
  3. Why couple technical competence directly to leadership? If the leader is the center of all technical competence, changing the leader changes the competence of the entire organization. This will limit the organization.

Captain Marquet closes the chapter with the quote “I began to wonder whether everything I’d been taught about leadership was wrong.” The comment foreshadows an answer Marquet uses the rest of the book to expound upon.

Chapter Two: Business As Usual

Marquet describes the process he went through to prepare (in vain) to take over the USS Olympia, a nuclear attack submarine. The preparation process was intense, in-depth and self-directed.  Preparing to take over command of a submarine is a long arduous process that requires a year. The Olympia was a plum assignment that Marquet wanted very badly. The submarine very well managed boat as evidenced by reputation and inspection records. Everyone was happy with the leader-follower approach used by the captains of the boat. Note – submarines have two full crews that rotate, one is in port while the other is at sea.

An important takeaway from the observed success of the leader-follower model used on the Olympia is that of measurement time frame.  If you are only measuring the performance of the leader-follower style of leadership when a highly functional and technically competent leader is in place then you miss the long-term implications. The leader-follower approach allows followers to disavow being responsible and accountable. The leader retains responsibility and accountability. Not only is the leader a bottleneck, but because they are indispensable, it is very hard for them to leave without a reduction in performance.

The preparation to take over the Olympia culminated with the notification that Captain Marquet would instead be taking over the USS Santa Fe. The Santa Fe did not have quite the reputation as the Olympia, hence the title of the book. The shift from the Olympia to the Santa Fe had a more profound implication, all of the technical preparations were rendered mute by the change making it more difficult to follow the teader-follower leadership model due to lack of technical competence. Marquet struggled with the change because “the foundation of my leadership approach, my technical competence, was for the wrong submarine“. In a leader-follower model, lack of competence is a big problem, hence the weakness in the model.

Remember to buy a copy of the book and re-along: Turn the Ship Around!

Previous Installments

Week 1: Game Plan

Week 2: Forward and Introduction