Turn the ship around is the book from captain David Market who implemented radical delegation when he took charge of the submarine Santa Fe. In a nutshell, this approach aims at giving the control to the staff by building mastery, aka competence and providing clarity, in other words purpose. As a result, the benefits are commitment and excellence. In this post we will review the meaning, key points and lessons of the Turn the ship around approach also called the Leader-Leader model.

Turn the ship around overview

Leader-Follower vs Leader-Leader as developed in Turn the ship around

Most of the organization inherited from the culture of the industrial age the Leader-Follower management. This form of management is about controlling people. So, it split people into 2 groups: leaders and followers. This may work for physical tasks where thinking is marginal but not for cognitive tasks.

Today, main part of our work is cognitive. Followers have limited decision-making and little incentive to fully engage their brain and energy. Actually, people receiving orders usually run at half speed, under-using their cognitive skills and lacking initiative.

So there is a need to switch paradigm from the Industrial Age of “control” to the Knowledge Worker Age of “release.” This is what David Market calls in his book Turn the ship around, the Leader-Leader model. The core belief in this model is that all people are potential leaders and that they give their best when they can act as such.

In addition, Leader-Leader organizations are significantly more resilient as they do not rely on a designated leader expected to be always right. At last, Leader-Leader organizations grow naturally new leaders to be eventually promoted to the next level of hierarchy.

The context of Turn the ship around

Before he took command of Santa Fe submarine, captain David Marquet, trained over 12 months on a class of submarine. But 1 month before taking command, he was finally assigned on another type of submarine. This was for him the ultimate trigger to experiment a new way of commanding more based on delegation. In addition, he was to starting from scratch as he tried in his past missions, delegation in the Navy environment.

And the challenge was huge, as in addition to experiment a breakthrough approach in the military environment, the submarine crew was doing poorly. Actually, the crew was at the bottom of the fleet at all levels, technically, operationally, and emotionally.

Furthermore, the crew was lacking confidence and was disengaged. When captain David Marquet passed crew members, they seemed embarrassed, avoided eye contact and conversation. Surely, they had been told over and over they were the worst submarine in the Navy so they took this as a fact. At last, disengagement was tangible with unmistakable cynicism. To illustrate, he asked once the question to a crew member “What do you do on board?”, and the reply he got was “Whatever they tell me to do!”. Clearly, this is the response from a frustrated follower who is unhappy with his status and truly away from responsibility.

As a consequence to the deployment of this new management approach, the crew turned from one of the worst, to one of the best, in just one year… So, let’s review how captain David Marquet achieved this miracle!

Turn the ship around key points

Bad Management not Bad Crew

The first principle in the approach is to consider that the issue is the management, not the staff. In other words, that there was too much leadership and leadership of the wrong kind: the leader-follower leadership. As a consequence, all crew below the captain and the department heads had their brain shut off. To put it differently, with 135 men on board, only 5 of them were fully engaging their cognitive capacity to observe, analyze, and solve problem. Surely a poor ratio and a waste of 96% of the brain capacity in the ship.

At last, the final challenge was that this transformation was to happen with the same crew just by changing the way they interacted and behaved. Of course, whatever the level of delegation, the captain remains accountable. Truly, a quite uncomfortable position during the transition phase.

Targeting Excellence vs avoiding errors and meeting the process

The second principle, is to refocus on what matters. What is the focus of your organization? Reaching excellence or just the minimum level by avoiding errors? Indeed, if you target the minimum level, you miss the opportunity for excellence and further improvement.

The way people see processes is a good illustration. Clearly, a process is just a way to achieve an objective. Following a process and thinking to meet the minimum level is also passing aside the opportunity to address better the purpose of the process. What matter is not the process but its outputs and even more the outcomes (value generated by the outputs).

Have your processes become the master rather than the servant?
David Marquet

Give control by building mastery and providing clarity

There are 3 pillars in the Turn the ship around approach. Firstly, give control. Then accelerate by building the skills for more delegation, the mastery, and by providing, the intent, the purpose of each action, the clarity. You may have noticed that these 3 principles are the same than the ones from Daniel Pink’s theory on motivation. He describes them in his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” To illustrate how they match:

Turn the ship around is the book from captain David Market who implemented radical delegation when he took charge of the submarine Santa Fe. The summary of this approach called the Leader-Leader model aims at giving the control to the staff by building mastery, aka competence, and providing clarity, in other words purpose.
  • Control that is delegation stands for Autonomy in Daniel Pink’s model
  • Mastery has the same name in both model
  • Clarity stands for Purpose in Daniel Pink’s model

So, David Marquet stresses how delegation, give control, requires mastery and clarity. And the pillars are the intrinsic motivation drivers as identified by Daniel Pink. We will review those 3 pillars.


Turn the ship around first pillar: Give control

Giving control is about granting responsibility to people. Not only to make decisions about how they are doing their work but also toward what end. The approach of captain David Marquet was a breakthrough in this area. Indeed, in a submarine, information is used to channel up the chain of command to decision makers. Instead, he took the approach of pushing down the responsibility for the decision where the information lived. This is one on the principle in Agile and Agile at Scale.

Don’t move information to authority, move authority to the information.
David Marquet

Initiate the delegation trend with a first set of emblematic responsibilities for decision to delegate

The first step of the change for delegation and to give control, is to identify a first list of responsibilities for decision where delegation would make sense but also would be visible and appreciated. Here the symbolic impact of these decisions to be delegated is the main criteria to choose them.

Another criteria, is to chose decisions that require cognitive skills. Repetitive tasks (well defined and predictable) and risky tasks covered by procedures are not the good candidates. Surely, in a nuclear submarine, everything that is related to the nuclear reactor fits in this category.

Nevertheless, delegation is not something that is top-down only. Management proposes delegation and collaborators have to decide to accept it. As a matter of fact, authority comes with responsibility not just more privileges. So collaborators should understand the impact for taking the responsibility for new decisions and their management should address their concerns. Accordingly, concerns fall in 2 categories that are just the 2 other pillars of the Leader-Leader model: lack of competence, aka lack of mastery and lack of purpose, aka not enough clarity. So it is important to provide them with this clear and explicit request for delegation. Truly, this is the prerequisite to trigger commitment. Not doing so will have the opposite effect of disempowering.

Act the new way of thinking before actually changing mindsets

Here an approach that is a little bit of a paradox as the usual belief is that you start to change mindsets then behaviors follow. But neurosciences actually demonstrate it. Indeed, once people have made a decision, they will act accordingly and stick to it whatever was the reason of the decision at start. The French authors Jean-Léon Beauvois and Robert-Vincent Joule developed this idea in their good book, “La soumission librement consentie”. In English the title would be “The voluntary submission”. But the book has not been translated to English at this date. So, if you can have people agree to behave according to the new good behavior, after some time, they will stick to it even if the decision was originally pushed from the outside. In addition, a team as a system will reinforce the good behaviors, so there will be a kind of social tightening.

To go further, let’s review the process of this practice. Firstly, make explicit the desired change and highlight what would be different. This first step is probably inspired from the Solution Focus approach with the preferred future. It is an ideal and perfect future. This allows to make it more tangible but also to identify, with what would be different, the options to reach this future.

The example they implemented in Santa Fe submarine was to boost self-esteem of the crew. Indeed, the crew identified that once they will be proud again, they will be open to conversations with people external to the ship. So, the leadership of the ship proposed them to act as such: presenting themselves with their name and the name of their ship. This experimentation was a success. 30% of the crew followed this guideline at start and this made it possible to trigger a positive trend.

Early feedback

The idea of this practice is to provide an early feedback on delegated tasks and problems the crew is working on. In other words, this early feedback provides them clarity and is an opportunity to learn from the experience of their manager. But it is not to tell them what to do and break the delegation. They keep control on the solution.

Align vocabulary on the expected stances and behaviors

For this practice, we will start with the example that captain David Marquet implemented in the Santa Fe. The use was to start actions saying “I request permission…“. This was a vocabulary contrary to the proactive mindset he was trying to develop. So he requested to change to “I Intend to …” to support the move of the crew from passive followers to active leaders. And this rewording drastically changed the level of pro-activity.

In addition, they noticed several side benefits. Firstly, it was possible for the leader to check without interfering that his collaborators were going in the right direction. Indeed, in addition to the decision, they were providing the rational. Secondly, they put the crew in the shoes of their next level of hierarchy by working on the intent behind their action.

Resist the urge to provide solutions

The management trying to go for more delegation have to fight against the temptation to provide solutions to go faster or to get the best solution. Indeed, this will slow down or even break the change to delegation. Actually, most decisions are not urgent. They may just require the management to anticipate. So, their collaborator have time to discuss and think about solution and decision.

Depending on the time sensitiveness of the decision, your should consider different approaches. If the decision:

  • is urgent, take it then have the team evaluate it.
  • needs to be made reasonably soon, ask for the team for input, even if short, then make the decision.
  • can be delayed, then request the team to provide inputs and oven better, delegate the decision with your final validation if needed.

Measure process, not actions

To support staff to become autonomous, do not measure their actions but measure the process and its outputs plus outcomes. Indeed, they are responsible for the solution as far as it reaches the objective. So the monitoring should be on the underlying process and on the outputs plus outcomes.

Think out loud

Another practice that the leaders implemented in the ship was to think out load: speak the thinking while on going. And this was for all, both crew and leaders.

This practice is similar to the one where the crew shared their intent with the rational. As a result, this practice was useful to check that they were going in the right direction without interfering as this would reduce autonomy.

In addition, as their manager were also following this practice, it was an opportunity for the crew to learn the rational of their manager. Not only the intent, what he was trying to achieve, providing clarity. But also the important elements of context and significant pieces of experience as a way to learn and develop mastery.

At last, it was also a way to prevent errors if any.

Note that this practice requires trust. Clearly, collaborators are usually reluctant to share their thought or work with their manager unless 100% sure.

Embrace inspection

In Santa Fe submarine, excellence was the target. So as a consequence, inspection was just an opportunity to get a feedback. Actually, for the areas of improvement, inspection was seen as a source of information and solutions. In addition, for the areas where the ship was especially innovative and expert, inspection was seen as a way to promote and share successes and good practices.

This mindset created an atmosphere of learning and curiosity in the submarine, as opposed to an attitude of defensiveness.


Turn the ship around second pillar: Mastery

Truly, in order to be autonomous and make decisions by themselves, people need to have the competency. What David Marquet calls Mastery. In this part, we will review the practices that specifically support development of competence.

Speak your act then pause before action

In order to move the crew from automatic actions delivered without thinking, captain David Marquet proposed them a singular approach: speak their action then pause to think deliberately about it. This practice may be relevant only in areas where there are many routine activities with a risk of acting in automatic mode and doing the wrong thing because you are not really present.

The side benefit they discovered was that as the operator expresses his action then pause, it makes it possible to other operators nearby to react if something is incorrect before the action is actually performed.

Learn whenever wherever

On the field learning is not enough, even if this kind of learning cannot be replaced. So, there is the need to study continuously. You need more knowledge to face your new delegated responsibilities but also to enable more delegation. And this is a positive trend: the more you learn and get knowledge, the more you enable delegation. With more responsibility, you get more committed and eager for further more responsibility.

Don’t brief your staff, certify them

Before an action, the use in submarine is to brief the crew about what they have to do. Without a doubt, this is a passive activity for all audience except the briefer. There is no responsibility to prepare and the only request is to acknowledge at the end of the brief that you are ready. This does not support true commitment.

Therefore, they decided on Santa Fe submarine to move from briefing to certification. On the contrary to briefing, certification is an active process. Staff has the responsibility to prepare and come to the certification meeting to ask questions. In addition, it comes with a responsibility. Indeed, if the certifier considers that the staff is not enough prepared, he can postpone the action. There is a little bit more here at stake and people are made responsible for their preparation.

Yet, there is a prerequisite on management side. In order to let staff gets prepared, they should plan events, identify who is going to play roles and notify them in advance.

At last, they discovered that this practice was an accelerator for learning.

When you walked around the boat, you’d see guys studying. Studying! On their own! But only if management did their part.
David Marquet

Continually and consistently repeat the message

Pedagogy is the art of repeating! And the message has to be consistent.

Specify goals, not methods

You want people to grow in knowledge in their role. So you have to let them find solutions and only specify the intent, and if any, the constraints, for instance security or compliance aspects. In addition, when become true experts of their role, they will be the best to find the more relevant and ingenious solution.


Turn the ship around third pillar: Clarity

Clarity means people at all levels of an organization clearly and fully understand what the purpose of their organization. Indeed, delegation is not possible if people do not understand the big picture and how their contribution fits in it.

Target excellence, don’t just avoid errors.

We have covered this practice in the introduction that is to me essential in this approach and drives everything else.

Build trust and take care of your people

Taking care of your staff can go at different levels. But if your truly care about them and you want to build a total trust then you should reach the ultimate level. Truly, whatever the challenges, what remains at the end are the people.

First level of taking care of people, is to take care of their success in their work. You want to support them and create the conditions so they can succeed in their day to day work but also in their career. In Santa Fe submarine, they adapted workload to let the crew prepare examination for promotion and even proposed practice examinations.

Second level is when you also take care for concerns outside the work. Of course, it is not about letting all personal issues get into the work environment. But it is about taking into account major life events. For instance, on Santa Fe where people had to leave their family for a long time, they made it possible for a crew member to spend time with is father during his last day of life and for a second one to stay with his wife and his new born baby.

Third level is when you accept that self-accomplishment means that people may have to leave to keep growing and you support that actively.

Note that taking care of people does not mean compromising discipline. Without a doubt, people have to face the consequences of their own behavior. Anything else is the path to chaos.

As a result of this practice, the benefits are staff less stressed and more committed. In addition, when staff feels valued and your reach this level of trust, they are more open to constructive criticism. Clearly, they take it as a feedback to improve, not a personal attack.

Use your values to inspire and to support decision as guiding principles

Many organizations used to have at start inspiring values but with time lose them. Surely it is a pity as those values are a source of inspiration, commitment and drive behaviors. So you want to keep them alive as your organization grows. Make them part of your daily work. Make sure they are simple and that everybody knows them and understands them. Embed them into your guiding principles. Then refer to them with related guiding principles when coaching good behaviors. At last, refer to them in evaluations and personnel awards.

Use immediate recognition to reinforce desired behaviors

Don’t let your administrative processes preventing you to immediately acknowledge good behaviors. The faster you highlights these behaviors the more powerful is the impact. In addition, you need to make sure that awards drive collaboration not the success of a person over the other team members. Truly, this destroy collaboration. If promotion slots are by nature limited, awards should not.

Begin with the end in mind

Have your whole organization focus on the objective since the very beginning and structure all your actions as such. In addition, those goals should be specific and measurable.

Encourage a questioning attitude over blind obedience

The last practice can be compared to the last level of the Psychological Safety as described by Timothy Clark in his book “The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety”. This last stage is the challenger safety, where the safety is such that the skilled persons can challenge the status quo, including their management.


What’s next? Learn more about Agile Leadership and discover Coaching

Do you want to learn more about Leader-Leader approach as developed in Turn the ship around? Here are some valuable references

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