Highlights for Turn the Ship Around

Our world’s bright future will be built by people who have discovered that leadership is the enabling art. It is the art of releasing human talent and potential.

Leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.

“You know, sure, maybe over time things would have improved, but who wants to gamble their career—no, their life energy—on the hope of a sea change at an established, ‘successful’ company. I went on to pursue my dreams, and I’ve done so.”

The leader-leader structure is fundamentally different from the leader-follower structure. At its core is the belief that we can all be leaders and, in fact, it’s best when we all are leaders.

Rather than telling everyone what we needed to do, I would ask questions about how they thought we should approach a problem. Rather than being the central hub coordinating maintenance between two divisions, I told the division chiefs to talk to each other directly.

The twelve chiefs are the senior enlisted men. They are middle management. At our submarine schools, the instructors tell us that officers make sure we do the right things and chiefs make sure we do things right.

My unfamiliarity with the sub’s technical details was having an interesting side effect: since I couldn’t get involved with the specifics of the gear, I opened up space to focus on the people and their interactions instead, and to rely on the crew more than I normally would have.

What are the things you are hoping I don’t change?

What are the things you secretly hope I do change?

What are the good things about Santa Fe we should build on?

If you were me what would you do first?

Why isn’t the ship doing better?

What are your personal goals for your tour here on Santa Fe?

What impediments do you have to doing your job?

What will be our biggest challenge to getting Santa Fe ready for deployment?

What are your biggest frustrations about how Santa Fe is currently run?

What is the best thing I can do for you?


Although I cursed my lack of technical knowledge, it prevented me from falling back on bad habits. In the past when I would interview a crew member about how something worked, I only acted curious because, in reality, I knew how it worked. Now, when I talked to the men on the ship, I actually was curious.

You can’t “direct” empowerment programs. Directed empowerment programs are flawed because they are predicated on this assumption: I have the authority and ability to empower you (and you don’t). Fundamentally, that’s disempowering.

We discovered that distributing control by itself wasn’t enough. As that happened, it put requirements on the new decision makers to have a higher level of technical knowledge and clearer sense of organizational purpose than ever before.

The crew was still focusing too much on complying with regulations rather than working to make our submarine the most operationally capable warship possible. It was the same problem as focusing on avoiding mistakes instead of trying to achieve something great.

SHORT, EARLY CONVERSATIONS is a mechanism for CONTROL. It is a mechanism for control because the conversations did not consist of me telling them what to do. They were opportunities for the crew to get early feedback on how they were tackling problems. This allowed them to retain control of the solution. These early, quick discussions also provided clarity to the crew about what we wanted to accomplish. Many lasted only thirty seconds, but they saved hours of time.

Inefficiencies in my time were highly visible, especially to me. Less visible, however, were the inefficiencies of all the people throughout the organization.

What happens in a top-down culture when the leader is wrong? Everyone goes over the cliff.

In effect, by articulating their intentions, the officers and crew were acting their way into the next higher level of command. We had no need of leadership development programs; the way we ran the ship was the leadership development program.

You want more, you give more orders, and you become more controlling. It has a seductive pull on the leaders, but it is debilitating and energy sapping for the followers.

There were no shortcuts. As the level of control is divested, it becomes more and more important that the team be aligned with the goal of the organization.

This had a big effect on me. It showed me how efforts to improve the process made the organization more efficient, while efforts to monitor the process made the organization less efficient.

We worked hard on this issue of communication. It was for everyone. I would think out loud when I’d say, in general, here’s where we need to be, and here’s why. They would think out loud with worries, concerns, and thoughts. It’s not what we picture when we think of the movie image of the charismatic and confident leader, but it creates a much more resilient system.

Thinking out loud is essential for making the leap from leader-follower to leader-leader.

We had been taking actions that pushed authority down the chain of command, that empowered the officers, chiefs, and crew, but the insight that came to me was that as authority is delegated, technical knowledge at all levels takes on a greater importance. There is an extra burden for technical competence.

The personal liberty, well-being, and economic prosperity we enjoy in the United States are unique throughout the history of mankind.

The result of increased technical competence is the ability to delegate increased decision making to the employees.

The change from passive briefs to active certification changed the crew’s behavior. We found that when people know they will be asked questions they study their responsibilities ahead of time.

They hear and think they know what you mean, but they don’t. They’ve never had a picture of what you are talking about. They can’t see in their imagination how it works. They are not being intentionally deceitful; they just are not picturing what you are picturing.


Have you seen evidence of “gamification” in your workplace? Perhaps it’s worth reading one of Gabe Zichermann’s blog posts and discussing it with your management team.

Since we were in a combat zone, the bonuses we awarded sailors when they reenlisted were tax-free.

I continued to see benefits of deliberate action. DELIBERATE first of all reduced errors by operators and was also a mechanism for TEAMWORK. Finally, it was a mechanism for SIGNALING INTENT.

This is the power of the leader-leader structure. Only with this model can you achieve top performance and enduring excellence and development of additional leaders.

Leave a Reply