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How to turn followers into leaders

Tips from nuclear submarine captain David Marquet at IMD Global Leaders Signature Series

December 12, 2014

How David Marquet turned a nuclear submarine around by giving up total control is the story the former US Navy Captain came to tell recently at an IMD Global Leaders Signature Series event.

“Some people do the impossible,” said Professor George Kohlrieser, director of IMD's High Performance Leadership (HPL) program, to introduce Marquet. “This is the story of a miracle and a paradox, because it is counterintuitive to our understanding of high performance leadership.” Marquet, he explained, turned a nuclear submarine around in 18 months to the highest level of commitment not by taking control, but by giving it up.

From last to first
For his first assignment as captain of a nuclear submarine, Marquet was switched at the last minute from the USS Olympia, a vessel he had been studying for a year, to the USS Santa Fe, a vessel he knew nothing about and that was considered “the Enron of submarines.” It ranked last in the US Navy in crew retention, morale, and operational readiness, but by the time Marquet left, it was ranked No. 1. And after his departure, the submarine continued to win awards and promote a highly disproportionate number of officers and enlisted men, including 10 subsequent submarine captains.

Nuclear submarines are an amazing piece of engineering. For 17 years they can produce their own water, energy and air, only needing to resurface for food, Marquet explained. The USS Santa Fe, on the other hand, was known for its constant need for repairs and for the low level of reenlistment from crew. Only 3 out of 135 sailors had reenlisted when Marquet took command.

“All of a sudden, I was that poor guy. It was scary because I was in charge, but I didn’t know all the answers,” Marquet admitted. He was put in charge of a crew that was waiting for his orders. “You can give good orders, or bad orders, and they’ll still follow,” he said. So, instead, he immediately decided on two things: not to give any orders at all and to cancel all briefing sessions. Not exactly the behaviour expected of a nuclear submarine commander.

         David Marquet at IMD

Making leaders out of followers
Marquet had intuitively embraced the idea that his team members needed to take control of their own duties and become accountable to themselves, instead of hiding behind the command line of an imposed hierarchy and answering “You told me to.” He refused, for example, to sign off on the menus under the premise that if the food was not good, it was the cook’s responsibility to make it better, not his.

“Authority has to be pushed down, not up,” he explained. Managerial decisions are too often made in absence of the information that would make them better. In his view, if followers are made leaders in their field of expertise, then the performance quality of the entire system increases.

“You’ve never seen half a submarine sink,” he quipped to illustrate the strength of shared responsibilities.

Marquet recognized that the greatest challenge was to educate followers to not be followers, to not take orders blindly, but to take instead command of their own actions. “Do you want people to think, or do you just want them to do,” he asked. He would invite team members to explain their intentions and what they were attempting to achieve. “By getting people to explain their thinking, they start to think like captains. They learn their jobs at a much deeper level.” Before long, he said, he had 135 active and engaged leaders on his team. They had gone from a culture of “I” to a culture of “we.”

Creating the right environment
But in order for people to express their thoughts, they need to feel safe, he advised. “Leaders should step back to create space. They need to learn to listen. If they don’t listen, people get frustrated or angry, which creates a toxic atmosphere.”

Marquet then delivered what he considers the key element to high performance leadership: “Leaders need to fix the environment, not the people.” He mentioned the Darley and Batson: Good Samaritan Study made in 1963 that revealed how only slight changes in the environment can modify people’s behaviours.

“At the end of the day, leadership is about creating an environment where people go out and do great things. The people whose lives you’ve touched end up doing things that they never thought they could do. Leadership is about achieving greatness.”

The result of Marquet’s experience was turned into an Amazon #1 Best Seller "Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders." Fortune magazine named it the #1 must read business book of 2012 and called it the "best how-to-manual anywhere for managers on delegating, training, and driving flawless execution."

This event was the latest in IMD's Global Leaders Signature Series, which has previously featured figures such as Bill Clinton, Warren Buffett and Daniel Goleman.

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