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Expert advice: could you turn your ship around?

Written by Nigel Scott on .

Nigel ScottNigel ScottWhen David Marquet took over command of a nuclear submarine in 1999, that particular ship was the worst performing of all the Pacific submarine fleet in the US Navy.

When he left the ship three years later his ship was the best performer. He has shared what he learned about making such a dramatic transition is his excellent book Turn the Ship Around!

So what has a running a submarine got to do with running a business?

The lessons are all about leadership, managing people and building teams. Many leadership books are about how great leaders behave and there is always a risk that when the leader steps away, the results fall away as well.

Interestingly in Marquet's case, his ship continued to perform extremely well for many years after his departure - suggesting that he'd been able to create a leadership culture that could be sustained by others.

Marquet had learned earlier in his career about the pressure created by being a leader who takes responsibility personally for every decision and every action.

Long hours, sleepless nights and constant interruptions created a stressful life in his quest to ensure that everything was done right. He believed it was all up to him.

It's a familiar story for many people in business and very often it's a consequence of how leaders lead. There is an alternative, and that's what the book is about.

What needed improving?

The problems he identified as captain are summed up by a culture of 'Leader-Follower'; we see this in many businesses as well. The team are perfectly prepared to do what they are told - and so the performance of the team is defined by the ability of the leader to make all the right decisions, at the right time.

And then issue good (unambiguous) instructions. Sounds exhausting, right - the bigger and busier the business becomes, then the busier the leader must become?

Unsurprisingly, leaders who behave like this create teams of followers and a culture of dependence which, because it depends on the individual, cannot be sustained when the leader is not there.

The best teams have a different model; Marquet calls it 'Leader-Leader'. Leader-leader is about creating leaders at all levels, about delegating responsibility and creating a culture of deliberate thoughtfulness at every level.

Some of the themes of 'leader-leader':

  • Control - think about where control really rests for what happens - and where do you want it to rest? When control has been delegated, RESIST the urge to provide solutions!
  • Competence - for control to be delegated requires real competence within those who take it on. Competence can and should be defined, trained and certified.
  • Take deliberate action - encourage everyone to pause, think and verbalise what they are going to do, rather than taking immediate action on 'autopilot' or doing nothing.
  • 'I intend to' - leaders at all levels use this phrase showing that:
  1. They've thought about what to do, and
  2. They've made a decision about what to do, and
  3. They're communicating what they've decided, so that
  4. Other people (specifically you!) can verify, agree and if necessary challenge their decision.

Nigel Scott offers business and executive coaching in Wiltshire and Swindon. Contact him on 01672 512001 or via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.