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The concept of leadership is based on an unwritten assumption that we divide the world in two: leaders and followers. It revolves around one group coercing, scratch that, motivating the other group to do something. How can we ? Submarine Commander, David Marquet explains.
What we learned from this episode
The problem with modern organizations is the top-down approach disguised as effective leadership. We don’t dig deep enough to understand the fundamental assumption of leadership which is one group of people is telling people what to do and the other group does it.
When people make commitments, they’ll hold themselves accountable.
What you can do right now
Give up control in small ways to build an empowering team around you. Say, in your next meeting, start your questions with what or how. Instead of asking binary questions like, “Should we do X?”, try asking something like “How confident are you?”. This elicits a nuanced response from your team which will help you learn something you might not have otherwise.
Remove the speed bumps that allow people to speak up in times of uncertainty.
“…and it’s this division of the world into two that is really one of the key things we got to leave behind because in that when you divide people in two, leadership is inherently coercive because one group of people is making decisions on what to do and a different group is doing it.”
“I rose to the ranks because I was so awesome at telling people what to do that they made me a submarine commander.”
“I’m okay with hierarchy. I think denying it when it exists is not helpful and I think steep hierarchy is the problem.”
“Anything you do that makes it where you’re trying to put your idea into somebody else as opposed to invite their ideas onto you I think steepens the power gradient.”
“It was only after I’d left and I saw how the people continue to do well and the organization did well without me that I had the courage to say that that was leadership because leadership is always about other people.”
Today, our guest is David Marquet. He’s the author of “Turn the Ship Around” and a former naval officer and this is Work Minus the Wrong Language. Hi, David. How are you?
Hey, great. Welcome everyone. Welcome to the show.
It’s great to have you. You have a very interesting story. So, I want to just jump right into it. So, tell us about your career in the navy and how you ended up writing this book.
I came to the ranks as a submarine officer and my leadership book, when I graduated from the Naval Academy, said leadership is the art and science of directing people’s thoughts, plans, and actions, directing thoughts, plans, and actions. And it went on from there. And basically the concept of leadership is that it’s predicated on this unspoken, unwritten assumption that we divide the world in two: leaders, followers. Thinkers, doers. White collar, blue collar. Salary people, hourly people. And it’s this division of the world into two that is really one of the key things we got to leave behind because in that when you divide people in two, leadership is inherently coercive because one group of people is making decisions on what to do and a different group is doing it. So, we fundamentally have to coerce. Now, we don’t use that word. That’s such an impolite word. We say we motivate them or we inspire them or we get them to think it’s their own idea. But fundamentally, we have to get someone else to do something that we’ve decided that they should do. This is the Achilles heel of the modern organization because people don’t dig deep enough into their fundamental assumptions to realize that they’re operating with this and so everything else is window dressing on top. Well, once you realize the whole thing is about getting everybody to think as well as do then it changes everything and this whole thing about coercion goes away. And people say, “Well, how do you hold people accountable?” Even that question is based on the fact that I need to hold you accountable because I’ve decided what you need to do.
And people are dumb and stupid, right?
Yeah. Exactly. And if people are choosing their own path, what to do and how to do it, there’s no requirement. There’s accountability to the team because people make commitments. “Hey, I’m going to get this done. I’m going to be here at a certain time to pick you up.” And I don’t need to hold you accountable. You’ll hold yourself accountable or the team will. Anyway that’s just one little thing. But the idea is in my mind is that we’re dragging along these anchor chains that we don’t even realize we’re dragging along and it’s basically this connection with this class structure of leadership, leaders, followers, thinkers, doers.
And you came out of the navy where it’s ingrained into the system. It’s written in that there is this division, right?
Exactly. So, I was really happy with this. I was like, well, not really happy. I mean, when I was in the subordinate role, I felt unfulfilled, untapped, underutilized, and that kind of thing. But I was very happy going around telling people what to do because I had a great sense of “Look what I made happen.” Of course, it was not very satisfying for the rest of the team and didn’t tap their knowledge. So, my story is I rose to the ranks because I was so awesome at telling people what to do that they made me a submarine commander. But at the last minute, I shifted to a submarine one that had different equipment than the one I’ve been training for 12 months to take over. And so, when I walked out on the ship, the reason I went there is because it had the worst morale, worst performance on the fleet, and the previous captain quit abruptly a year early so the navy didn’t have a successor and said, “Okay. Marquet, don’t go where you were going. We’ll leave that person there a little while longer. You go over here to the Santa Fe.” And I walk on board and we just all go back to our familiar patterns. I’m giving orders. The crew is following. But early on, I gave an order, it was a very minor technical thing but it was an order that could not be accomplished on this ship. It was basically like saying, “Shift your car into fifth gear,” but you only had a four speed gearbox.
But the scary thing is the officer parodied the order and the crewman who was supposed to turn the knob just like looked at us and said, “What?” And I was like, “What’s going on?” And he’s like, “Captain, there’s only four gears, not five speeds.” And it was embarrassing and I looked at the officers like, “Hey, Bill, what happened here? Did you know this?” He said, “Yes, sir. I did.” I said, “What? Why’d you order it?” And he said, “Because you told me to.” And we’d done the same thing that every other organization had done, every other top down organization. We say, “We’re going to tell you what to do, but, oh, by the way, the burden’s on you to speak up if you think it’s wrong.” In other words, it’s not the burden on me to make sure it’s easy for you to speak up, but it’s the burden on you to speak up. And this is backwards, too, and then people, of course, don’t speak up and then we blame the later and we absolve ourselves and say, “Well, I told him to speak up.” And we know many industrial accidents where people died because they didn’t speak up and then we blame them as opposed to saying the structure or the culture is not one which makes it easy to speak up. You want to do something? Remove the speed bumps that allow people to speak up in times of uncertainty.
And one of the things that you really landed on in terms of one of the speed bumps was language. So, I want to get into some of the things you decided to stop saying and some of the things you started to start saying. What was that process like?
So, after I made this order that couldn’t be done and I got the officers together and said, “Hey, guys. We’re not in a good way. We’re going to die because eventually you’re just going to do what I say and eventually it’s going to matter.” And everyone’s looking at their shoes, like, “Yeah, yeah, we knew that”. And I wanted to fall back on what I’ve heard so many times. “Hey, you’re empowered. Take initiative. Be proactive. Speak up.” And I did that I think. But then it got reflected back to me and someone basically pointed out that I was not taking responsibility for my own behavior and it was really my behavior of telling people what to do all day long which made it hard for them to speak up. And so, after a short conversation, we made a deal. I said, “Okay. I’m never going to tell you what to do but you can’t be asking me to tell you what to do.” We love to ask permission for things in the navy. “I request permission to load a torpedo, submerge the submarine, start the reactor.” Things like this. But then I would order it as the captain. “Submerge the submarine.” Sounds great. Looks good in a movie. And I said that’s still me ordering it.
So, in order to get out of that, you have to tell me what you intend to do and you’re hereby granted permission unless I stop you. If you send me an email and tell me you’re going to load torpedoes tomorrow at noon time and I don’t even answer it, you have permission to execute your plan. And it hints on this word “intent”. It was a very special word for us. “I intend to…” Now, it was special for a couple of ways. One, it happened before the event so you wouldn’t say, “I just submerged the ship.” No, that’s not what I’m looking for because we want to invite feedback before the thing happens. Invite feedback. Don’t teach people how to give feedback. Create a structure where they’re inviting feedback. “Hey, I intend to load the torpedoes tomorrow at noon time.” That’s a public statement to the team. How does this affect everybody? Does anyone have a problem with that? Does anyone have any ideas? That kind of thing. And then the tactics guy can say, “Oh, yeah. We’re going to be in a situation with shallow waters so we need a certain kind of torpedo with certain settings on the torpedo.” And the engineer can say, “Okay. Well, I’ll make sure I don’t mess around with a hydraulic system when you’re loading torpedoes.” So, all of this happens because you stated ahead of time.
But the key thing is the ownership rests with a team. Leaders come to me all day long. They bemoan the lack of ownership and say, well, let me just watch your behavior for like ten minutes or look at some of your emails. As soon as you’re out there telling people what to do and then you say you’re going to go check on it, “Hey, how are you doing on those tasks I gave you?” They don’t own it. You just took all their ownership. You own it. So, don’t bemoan the lack of ownership after you’ve stolen the ownership. If you want ownership, let them own it. So, it worked for us. It cascaded down the ship and the officers started saying it to me and the crew to the officers and and it was really just a trick to get people to think. We had plenty of doing. We had plenty of compliance. What I needed was commitment, thinking, and a mindset of improving, not a mindset of proving. So, it works for us and the cool thing is it worked on a short run. We won all these awards and morale went way up. We set records. But the cool thing is over the long run, it also worked. Ten of the officers ended up becoming submarine commanders and it’s a highly disproportionate number and I attribute it to the fact that they were basically learning how to think like submarine commanders way back when and so then it became a natural extension for this navy to say, “Oh, look, these people think like submarine commanders. Let’s make them submarine commanders.” It wasn’t a conscious plan but I think was symptomatic, though, the fact that I treated people like leaders and invited them to think as opposed to treated them like followers and ordered them to comply.
Now, I assume in the navy, this kind of action would be almost like revolutionary. People are like, “What is going on? This is not anything we’re used to.” In the business world, you would think we can almost hide behind the fact, “We don’t have much of a hierarchy. We’re a flat organization.” But even though the behaviors are still very similar, right?
I think every organization that has told me “We’re flat” that I’ve ever seen is not flat. There’s always some difference. Someone has more stock. Someone has more vigor and youth. Who knows what? And so, one thing good about the navy is at least the hierarchy is visible whereas in some businesses there’s an invisible hierarchy or we deny hierarchy that exists which results in dysfunctional behavior. But having worked with businesses over the last six years, I can’t think of a case… Well, the best example I can think of is there’s a consultancy in Stockholm that we worked with called Crisp and there’s no CEO. So, they’re like 30. Basically everybody does everything. There’s a couple of admin people that keep the office running and that kind of thing. But basically everybody else does content, they do sales, they do contracts, they do everything. And that’s the closest I can think of. But for the little larger businesses, an oil company or a tech company or a hospital, there’s all hierarchies. And I’m okay with hierarchy. I think denying it when it exists is not helpful and I think steep hierarchy is the problem.
What are some ways for people to tell if they have some invisible hierarchy? I guess in terms of language, too. What are some of the cues, like if you were to go back and read somebody’s email, what are the phrases you look for?
Ways that we enforce hierarchy. There are some very obvious physical ways. Thicker carpet, barriers to entry, bigger offices. But in emails, we use things like, “Hey, I’ve been doing this a long time.” So, there’s longevity. Claiming experience when fresh eyes might actually be better. “Well, I’m a certified ABC trainer. What are you?” So, we hide behind those things and we use these things to suppress fresh ideas, diversion thinking, and any of this massive coercion. I was reading a transcript of an industrial accident and they make a decision to do something which ends up being fatal but then they mock, the leaders actually mocking people who would make a different decision. So, we’re joking and putting down and ridiculing people. So, now they’re locked into the decision, even though it now starts to become apparent that it’s a bad decision. Could the leader now change? No, because the leader’s already mocked people who would change and so they’re trapped and it’s horrible because you can see how just they end up sailing to their deaths. So, it’s subtle but these are the things that people do. Anything you do that makes it where you’re trying to put your idea into somebody else as opposed to invite their ideas onto you I think steepens the power gradient.
Now, if somebody is listening to this and they feel like, “Okay. I love this idea. Tomorrow I’m just going to turn everything over to my team. I’m going to step back, not give any orders.” Bad idea, right?
Yeah. So, there’s two things bad about that. One, it’s probably too big of a jump. You want to do this very, very gradually because you want at every step to understand the cracks. We call it the lateral leadership. So, let’s say you’re in a highly top down, “I’ll tell you what to do” environment where you have this relationship. The first step is simply “Tell me more. What do you see?” Observation and description. Then you move to “Well, what do you think?” Judgment and analysis. Then you would move to recommendations. “What should we do? What do you recommend?” But you’re still approving it. Then you move to intent where now the bias is shifted. “We’re going to do it unless I say no.” So, we move from permission to veto. But it’s step by step by step by step. It’s very incremental and that’s one of the big mistakes I see. The other thing is you can only give decision making authority to the extent to which people technically understand their job and understand what you’re trying to do with the organization. Here’s the story. My daughter says, “Gee, I’d really like to stay up to midnight but right now my bedtime is 9:00.” And I say, “Okay. Great. Your bedtime will remain 9:00 until you prove you can stay up ‘till midnight.” “Well, how can I prove I can stay up until midnight but have to go to bed at 9:00?” So, what you want to do is say, “Well, let’s run an experiment. For two weeks, your bedtime is midnight.” But then we’re going to evaluate it. Now, that’s not forever. But we’re going to look at it. We’re going to see how was that for you? How was that for me? What did we learn? And then make some adjustments. Or if you want to go further, you say, “Well, maybe, we’ll just say it’s 10:30 and we’ll do that for two weeks and then we’ll go to midnight.” Or something like that but the idea is by giving the people the authority to make decisions over their lives in small steps, it’s safe for you and it’s safe for me. And we as leaders need to trust first. We give them the authority first. We say, “Okay. Great. You can decide when your bedtime is. I’m going to trust you have the technical competence and the clarity to do that but it’s going to be in a small way so if there’s a screw up we don’t class the whole company.”
David, at what point did you realize that you would hit on something very novel that was useful outside of just a naval context? And when did you decide you wanted to do it in business instead of just maintaining some consultant inside of the navy?
We had the experience on the submarine. It felt great. We got awards and I got promoted and it was an amazing experience. I don’t want to minimize it. But at this point, it’s still what I would call accomplishment or achievement because I was there. It was only after I’d left and I saw how the people continue to do well and the organization did well without me that I had the courage to say that that was leadership because leadership is always about other people. So, when I left the navy, I wrote the book, I mean, you never know with a book, but my hope was that people would see it as a universal story that involves humans and that’s largely been the case. And then businesses call and they say, “Hey, we want help. We believe in the structure that you created. We want help doing the same kind of thing.”
One of the things I really liked from your talks was you had this line about the difference between taking control and attracting followers and giving control and creating leaders. Can you expand on that?
So, I think it goes back to this class analysis which is we divide people into leaders and followers. Now, I think there is leadership and followership but the wrong kind is the “I’ll follow you and you follow the person above you” and it becomes a game of attaching yourself to the right rising star in the corporation. And if they get pulled into CEO then you’re on an automatic path to senior vice president. Well, we tried that in the Middle Ages. It’s called feudalism, this pledging fealty to a superior. And the way I like to think about it is we’re all leaders in that we lead ourselves in following the principles of the organization. So, we’re followers, including the person on top, equally accountable for following the values, principles, mission of the organization. But we lead ourselves in terms of how we do that. And I think it’s the leader, follower structure where I’m following a person which results in the worst possible behavior we’ve seen on human beings. When you look at the Volkswagen Dieselgate and Wells Fargo scandals, these different scandals, the excuse is always, “Well, I was just doing what I was told,” right? No principle will tell you to do that kind of thing. People will or they hint that you should cut corners or whatever and it’s the absolution of our own responsibility by saying, “Oh, well, someone else told me to do it.” If the responsibility for making a decision rests squarely on your shoulders, I think we get to see humans make much better decisions.
David, why don’t you close us out with telling us what’s one small way we can all change our language? Anyone who’s in a leadership position can change the language to help people to take more ownership?
Start your questions with what or how. So, what I’ve seen a lot of times is we’ll go to a meeting and people say, “Well, should we do A or B? Is it safe? Are we ready to go? Is the software ready? Is the product ready? Should we launch on time?” And these are all binary questions which put people in a box and they’re very blunt. And it’s very hard to say no. So, what we encourage people to do is say, “Well, how confident are you? How safe is it? How sure are you?” And let people score it one to five and hold up their hands. We use cards sometimes. And that’s the nuanced input into a decision which may end up being a binary decision, launch the software or delay the product launch. But the input should be nuanced. So, start your questions with what or how. Try that for a week and see how hard it is and see if there’s something you learn that you might not have learned if you just asked the binary question.
Great. Well, David, it’s been great to connect with you, to hear your stories. Where can people go to learn more about your book and your work?
Well, the book’s available on any online place, “Turn the Ship Around”, and we have a website davidmarquet.com but we also have a YouTube channel called Leadership Nudges where we have these little 60 second, typically, clips where they have things like I just talked about. “Start your questions with what or how.” Another one of my favorites is “Next time you go to a restaurant, don’t order. Let the waiter pick. Tell them not to play it safe.” And then you don’t know what it is until it comes in front of you but you also have to make it safe for them to pick for you. So, these little activities to help train your brain how to give up control in small ways and build an empowering team around you.
Nice. Love it. Well, David, thanks a lot for being on the show and sharing your insights with us.
Cheers and thanks to all the listeners for your attention.
As the Captain of a nuclear submarine, David Marquet created Intent-based Leadership. He is a nationally recognized speaker and authored the Amazon bestseller Turn the Ship Around.