Turn the Ship Around!

“I imagine a world where we all find satisfaction in our work. It is a world where every human being is intellectually engaged, motivated and self-inspired.”

- Turn the Ship Around! page xxx

David Marquet, an experienced naval officer, had an idea to turn his ship around. He shares the story of how, by challenging the navy’s traditional leader-follower approach, he propelled his ship, within one year, from worst to first in the fleet. How? He rejected leader-follower as their model.

The idea came to him when he gave an impossible order to his crew (of more than 100 sailors aboard the USS Santa Fe, a nuclear-powered submarine) and they blindly followed him because “he told them to.” What if, instead, they were each empowered to challenge and to lead?

Turn the Ship Around! is the story of Marquet’s journey with his crew. He shares the phases of struggle from his frustration, questioning, and ultimate rejection of the leader-follower model, to the trials and tribulations adopting the new model, to the ultimate overwhelming success with the leader-leader model. As he says, the steps are evolutionary while the result is revolutionary.

His book is a call to action for all those frustrated workers and bosses for whom the leader-follower model just doesn’t cut it! You will find answers in these pages and those answers will lead you to greater success.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Thinking Anew

"At its core is the belief that we can all be leaders and in fact, it’s best when we all are leaders."
- Turn the Ship Around! page xxvii

Leadership in the navy, and perhaps in your organization, is typically about controlling people. It divides your team into two groups: leaders and followers. This model worked well in the physically demanding factories of the Industrial Revolution. But today’s work is less physical and more cognitive. Should we still be using a model developed for physical labor for our intellectual work? David Marquet doesn’t think so.

He proposes the leader-leader model is far superior to the leader-follower model. Why? It achieves greater improvements in effectiveness and morale and makes the organization stronger. These improvements endure beyond the tenure of the current leader. They are independent of the leader’s personality or presence. They are resilient and don’t require the leader to always be right.

As Stephen Covey says in the forward “Our world’s bright future will be built by people who have discovered that leadership is the enabling art” (xxi).

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Three keys to leader-leader

"The core of the leader-leader model is giving employees control over what they work on and how they work."
- Turn the Ship Around, page 206

The mechanisms outlined in this book to turn passive followers into active leaders can be summarized into three C’s:

  1. Control
    • Resist the urge to provide solutions
    • Eliminate top-down monitoring systems
    • Think out loud (both superiors and subordinates)
    • Use “I intend to….”
    • Short, early conversations make efficient work
  2. Competence
    • Don’t brief people, rather certify them
    • Learn (everywhere, all the time)
    • Continually and consistently repeat the message
    • Specify goals, not methods
  3. Clarity
    • Build trust and take care of your people
    • Achieve excellence, don’t just avoid errors
    • Encourage a questioning attitude over blind obedience
    • Use immediate recognition to reinforce desired behaviors

Marquet also includes ideas to start to achieve the above. For example, to work on Control, ask people to complete this sentence “Our company would be more effective if [level] management could make decisions about [subject].”  Then ask them what, technically, do the people at this level of management need to know in order to make that decision?

To achieve Clarity, have people write their ‘end-of-tour’ awards (3 years into the future) or at a minimum, their performance evaluation for the next year.

To identify the specific changes needed to achieve the broader ‘cultural shift’, he suggests that people complete the following sentence: “I’d know we achieved [this cultural change] if I saw employees [what specifically]”. I work with pharmaceutical teams to help them achieve a more patient-focused culture, and this question helps them clarify what exactly this patient-focused mindset means to them and what they do each day.

He also offers ideas to help measure the above. For example, to measure competence, ask people how many minutes a week they spend learning on their own. Typically, it’s a small number. An organizational measure of improving health would be to increase that number. Isn’t it true, when you look around, the people and teams who are self-directed learners are the most successful?

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Do this not that!

"I believe that rejecting the impulse to take control and attract followers will be your greatest challenge and, in time, your most powerful and enduring success"
- Turn the Ship Around! page 216

Marquet provides a description of the three-step exercise he uses to help organizations achieve leader-leader outcomes.

  1. Identify where excellence is created in your company (what internal and external interfaces generate excellence).
  2. Determine what decisions the people responsible for those interfaces need to make to achieve excellence.
  3. Understand what it would take to enable those people to make the decisions that lead to the excellence.

To achieve leader-leader instead of leader-follower think ‘partner’ not ‘control.’ Here are the top ten mind shifts. Which ones do you need to work on?


Don’t do this Instead do this!
Take control Give control
Give orders Avoid giving orders
Brief (tell) Certify (train)
Have meetings Engage in conversations
Focus on technology/products Focus on people
Think short term Think long term
Want to be missed after you depart Want not to be missed after you depart
Protect information Pass information
Increase monitoring / inspection Reduce monitoring / inspection
Have a mentor-mentee program Have a mentor-mentor program

Are you ready to take the first steps toward an empowered and engaged team? Are you ready to embrace the changes that will unleash the intellectual and creative power of your team members? Do you have the stamina for long-term thinking?

No matter your business or position in that business, you can apply Marquet’s ideas. Your reward? A team of leaders where everyone takes responsibility. They will not only be more effective at their work, they will be more engaged, happy and healthy. For most of our organizations, that’s a ship turned around!


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Jill Donahue

ABOUT Jill Donahue

Everything I do is focused on improving patient outcomes. I do that by being a student and teacher of ethical, effective influence. I teach pharma people and health care professionals how to improve their ability to influence others...
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