Turn the Ship Around

I was really excited when I got the package from my favorite online bookshop and started to unpack ”Turn the ship around” by L. David Marquet. I have a thing for modern management and submarines (more about that later). I can’t imagine a more hierarchical and ”command & control”-dominated world than the one onboard a nuclear driven submarine! Therefore it’s very fascinating to read how David Marquet was able to turn this strict leader-to-follower paradigm into a new way of thinking with a leader-to-leader approach.



Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by submarines. I can’t really explain why, and I have never been inside one of them. It was ”close” once when I visited Fisherman’s Wharf in San Fransisco, where USS Pampanito from WWII is tied up, but I bailed out, being a little claustrophobic. That originates from when I was accidentally locked into a closet when I was seven years old (me and a friend was playing with a flash-light and I wanted it to be total darkness and closed the door but the lock was jammed). At the age of eleven I watched ”Das Boot”, it’s a tv mini-series that is an extended version of the movie ”Das Boot” directed by Wolfgang Petersen from 1981. I think the summary from imdb.com pretty much nails what it’s all about: ”The claustrophobic world of a WWII German U-boat; boredom, filth, and sheer terror.” The sounds from the sonar still gives me the creeps! Looking around a bit on the Interwebz I’m not alone saying that this is the best movie around about submarines!


Picture taken from ”Das Boot” found at http://www.guesswhichmovie.com

I just had to re-watch ”Das Boot” once more when I started to read this book! The movie is even more claustrophobic than I remembered it to be, a true recommendation of course! I guess the life on a submarine nowadays doesn’t look like it was during WWII. Another more modern submarine movie is ”The Hunt for Red October” from 1990 with Sean Connery in the leading role. In fact, on the backside of the book it says ”It’s the Hunt for the Red October meets Harvard Business School”. Do you want to hear more about submarine movies, or shall we start to talk leadership and my review of ”Turn the ship around”? I’ll continue with the latter.


In the introduction of the book the structure of Leader-Leader is introduced. I’d like to quote that text.

”The leader-leader structure is fundamentally different from the leader-follower structure. At its core is the belief that we can all be leaders and, in fact, it’s best when we all are leaders. Leadership is not some mystical quality that some posses and others do not. As humans, we all have what it takes, and we all need to use our leadership abilities in every aspect of our work life.”

The book is divided in four parts and they are:

  • Part I – Starting over
  • Part II  – Control
  • Part III – Competence
  • Part IV – Clarity.

First chapter of Starting over is appropriately called Pain. There are seldom any change without pain. Why change if you can’t see any benefits of it? Remember the old saying ”If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” from Bert Lance. Davids failure, and subsequent pain, came from his unsuccessful attempt to empower his team on USS Will Rogers in 1989. They wished the old engineer back that just ”told them what to do”. Why is top-down, leader-follower still the dominating structure? It’s because it can be effective if you are measuring performance over a short run. Leaders are rewarded for being missed when they quit. When performance goes down after their departure, this is taken as a sign of good leadership. But in fact it should be noted as a failure, not training the people and building a culture that ”survives” on it’s own. Are you asking questions to your colleagues to make sure you know, or to make sure that they know? The part ends with the turning point for David Marquet, it happened when he approached one of the crew members with a simple question ”what do you do onboard?” and got a cynical ”whatever they tell me to do” back. That was rock bottom, from this point on everything could only be better.

Second part Control starts off with an inspiring quote:

”Don’t move information to authority, move authority to the information.”

This means that information should not ”move up” in the hierarchy for make a decision, instead empowerment shall ”move down” as close as possible to the source of information. I.e., everyone shall become managers of their own work. As a leader how do you make this happen? David stated the ”caring but not caring”-paradox. That is, caring intimately about your subordinates and the organization but caring little about the organizational consequences to yourself. One great thing to ”move down” control in the hierarchy is the ”I intend to …”-mechanism they started to use. Don’t tell your  subordinates what they shall do, make them think for themselves and the formulate their thought by using for example ”I intend to submerge the ship” and the captain gives an ok by saying ”Very well”.

Moving on to the third part, Competence, that focus on the mechanisms they employed to strengthen technical competence, first one being ”take deliberate action”. This means that, prior to any action, the person pauses and says what he or she intends to do. The benefits are twofold; 1) It forces you to think before an action and 2) persons around you can stop you if you are about to make a mistake. Competence needs to be in place before you can give control, otherwise it will just be chaos.

Final part Clarity introduces the mechanisms devised to implement leader-leader practices by stressing clarity. To mention a few of them:

  • Achieve excellence, don’t just avoid errors
  • Build trust and take care of your people
  • Begin with the end in mind.


I let the author summarize the book:

”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.”

I can truly recommend ”Turn the ship around” to everybody that wants to ”submerge” into modern management in general, and the leader-to-leader philosophy in specific. This is the best book around about ”sub optimization” (get it? 🙂 ).

All the best,
 Tomas from TheAgileist

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