Leadership Tips From A Nuclear Submarine Commander

Image Credit: pixabay/tpsdave

Can a simple, three-word phrase change your leadership style?

David Marquet served in the US Submarine Force for 28 years. He was assigned command of the nuclear submarine, USS Santa Fe, which at the time, was suffering from low morale, low performance, and low crew retention. By rejecting the classic leader/follower model, our guest transformed the performance of the Santa Fe from the worst in the fleet to the best. Marquet shares the story in his book, Turn the Ship Around.

I recently interviewed David to get his advice on leadership and getting your people engaged. (The transcript below has been edited lightly for space and clarity.)

Kevin Kruse: Tell us about a time when you failed as a leader. What did you learn from it?

David Marquet: I thought I was a good leader when I got selected to be a submarine captain. It was likely to be the pinnacle of my Navy career, and I thought leadership was all about telling people what to do and getting them to do it. I was all prepped up to go to one submarine, and very last minute, I got shifted to a different one, one I hadn't trained up for. I step aboard, the competent, good looking submarine captain and I start telling my guys what to do. Almost immediately I gave them an order, which unbeknownst to me, couldn't be done on the submarine. You know the shocking thing? They actually tried to do it. Basically, it was like saying, “Shift into 5th gear,” for a car that had four gears.

I realized that all my training about leadership was about getting people to do what they were told, and that was not what I needed in this situation. What I needed was for people to think. I needed to figure out how to get people thinking.

Finally, I thought, “Well actually, I can only control myself, and what can I do?” The thing that I can do is stop telling them what to do. As I leaned back and gave them the space, they can lean forward. We came up with a phrase, and the phrase is very simple:

It's, “I intend to.”

We said, “Look, don't, don't ask questions. Don't come to me with a problem without a solution. Come to me, you can describe problems, but then say at the end, ‘And here's what I intend to do. I intend to submerge the ship, start up the reactor, lower the torpedo.'” This was unbelievably successful.

Kruse: In your model of intent-based leadership, what’s the role of the leader?

Marquet: I think the leader does a couple really important things. First of all, if there's dissent on the purpose of the intent, the leader has to set the intent. They say, “Look, let's be clear. Here's what we're trying to do here, and we're not trying to do everything. This is the most important thing.”

Number two, the leader creates structure. The leader creates an environment so that it's easy for the people to participate. The idea is not to solve the problem. The idea is to create an environment where everybody's views and perspectives come out on the table, because that will result in the best problem solving by the team.

Because the mindset is normally, “I'm right. Let me coach you to the correct answer,” as opposed to, “I'm gonna learn along with you.” When someone comes to you, like a guy would come to me and say, “Yeah. The machine's starting to vibrate a lot…So we're just gonna keep running it until it breaks.” In my head, I'm thinking, “No. That's a boneheaded idea.” But instead of voicing that, I encourage leaders to say, “Yeah, tell me more,” in a very sort of non-judgmental way. Because you'll learn something. Even if what you learned is that your person doesn't have any idea about how machines work.

Hopefully that's not it, but these people are closer to the action. They're the ones standing on the deck, feeling the vibration in their shoes, looking into the client's eyes. Whatever it happens to be, they're closer to the problem. They know something you don't know, and your job at that point is to make it easy for them to tell you what that is. Whether they end up shutting down the machine or not, at the end of the day, they feel like you listened to them. Then, they're going to be more likely to share their thoughts, beliefs, and feelings in the future.

Kruse:    When something goes wrong in an organization, what do you think has gone wrong with leadership?

Marquet: I think if you want a resilient system where errors don't get propagated through the system, you really need to create an environment where it's okay for people to tell you you're wrong.

We all know what happened with Volkswagen. Volkswagen's a very hierarchical, do-what-you're-told corporate culture. The excuse is always, “Well, I was just doing what I was told.” It absolves people of the responsibility.

It all goes back to our instinct, which is to give people a lecture. “Oh, you know, you need to speak up. It's okay here for people to express dissenting opinions.” Make that pronouncement. If you don't practice it, and you don't actually shut your mouth first and say, “Well what do you guys, before you guys hear what I think, I want to hear what y'all think,” and do things like that, it's just empty words, and it doesn't work.

Kruse: I like to challenge our readers to get 1% better every single day. What’s something you’d like us to try?

Marquet: I want you to practice giving up control in some small, small way. It doesn't need to be at work.

Here's an example: Next time you go out to eat, tell the waiter, “You pick my meal. I'm allergic to peanuts, but you pick my meal.” I want you to practice giving up control, whether it's driving the car, whether it's going to eat, whether it's the next time the project team leader comes in and talks to you about something. I want you to practice in one small way, every day, just give up a little bit of control.

See how that feels, because when you feel that feeling, the tinge of anxiety, you're on the right track to becoming a great leader.

Click here to listen to the full interview with David Marquet.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at https://leadx.org/preview.