(by L. David Marquet) PDF Website

"The core of the leader-leader model is giving employees control over what they work on and how they work. It means letting them make meaningful decisions. The two enabling pillars are competence and clarity."




Part I Starting Over

History and prelude to taking command of the Sante Fe.

1: Pain: Author's history aboard the Will Rogers.

Wanted to install leader-leader but met with failure, gave up; did some research. Found three contradictions:

"Essentially, what I had been trying to achieve on Will Rogers was to ran an empowerment program within a leader-follower structure." "One of the things that limits our learning is our belief that we already know something."

Questions to consider:

2: Business as Usual: Author is anticipating taking command of the Olympia.
Took PCO (prospective commanding officer) training; "During one torpedo approach, I devised an elaborate ruse that would flush out the opposing sub and make it a sitting duck for our attack. I predicted to the officers in the control room--in this case, other PCOs--what would happen. The situation developed exactly as I'd forseen, and we were able to get a hit on a quiet and tenacious enemy. In the middle of the attack, however, I'd had to reach over and do the job of one of the PCOs because he had gotten confused. I thought I was brilliant, but Captain Kenny took me aside and upbraided me. ***It didn't matter how smart my plan was if the team couldn't execute it!***"

When author tried to get on board the Olympia to observe, he was refused: "captains are graded on how well their ships perform up to the day they depart; not a day longer. After that it becomes someone else's problem. ... On every submarine and ship, hundreds of captains were making thousands of decisions to optimize the performance of their commands for their tour and their tour alone. If they did anything for the long run it was because of an enlightened sense of duty, not because there was anything in the system that rewarded them for it. We didn't associate an officer's leadership effectiveness with how well his unit performed after he left. We didn't associate an officer's leadership effectiveness with how often his people got promoted two, three, or four years hence. All that mattered was performance in the moment."

Questions to consider:

3: Change of Course: Author has been abruptly reassigned to command Santa Fe; meets with boss (Commodore, Squadron Seven), who had "argued forcefully for me to be assigned the job of turning Santa Fe around". Was offered opportunity to let a few people go, but "'I don't think that will help the crew. I think a better focus would be on working with what you've got.'" ("In the end, I fired no one.") "This was important because it sent the message to each crew member that he wasn't screwed up, the leadership was. My challenge would be to use the same people and support team and by changing the way they interacted and behaved, increase the effectiveness."

"Upon reflection, Commodore Kenny was providing great leadership. He presented me with a specific goal--have Santa Fe ready for deployment in every way--but did not tell me how to do it. The other thing he was telling me was that the people and resources available to the ship would be the same as they were before and the same as they were to any other submarine. Consequently, the only thing we could change was how we acted and interacted. This would be my focus."

Questions to consider:

4: Frustration: Significant differences between Olympia and Santa Fe meant the author didn't have deep technical knowledge/expertise to fall back on, "for the first time, I was truly curious. Walking the ship, I would ask questions about their equipment and what they were working on. They were skeptical about these questions initially, because normally I would have been 'questioning' (asking questions to make sure they knew the equipment), not curious. Now I was asking questions to make sure I knew the equipment. 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. ... I started interviewing the chiefs and officers in their spaces. After having them tell me about their people, I asked them a loosely structured set of questions like:

"If you walk about your organization talking to people, I'd suggest that you be as curious as possible. As with a good dinner table conversationalist, one question should naturally lead to another. The time to be questioning or even critical is after trust has been established."

Questions to consider:

This question of technical competence is critical to software management; there's a lot of important stuff he's talking about here about not needing to be the smartest person on the team/org/train/whatever. The other question about knowing what is going on "at the deck plate" (at the ground floor, at the base of the pyramid, etc) in the org is crucial.

5: Call to Action: Walking around, talking to crew members, getting "the lay of the land" instead of reviewing everything on the ship gives the author a view as to what's really going on.

It's in this chapter that he mentions buying a flashlight. "In order to do inspections properly, I'd ask them to bring me a flashlight. It wasn't supposed to be a test, but the flashlights were pitiful. Broken, dead batteries, dim bulbs--you couldn't see anything. I got myself a super Maglite that took four D-cell batteries. Its light was bright as the sun. I carried that flashlight around with me everywhere." (And he frequently mentions gesturing with it, like a field marshal's baton, in later chapters.) "Soon, others starting carrying flashlights that actually worked as well."

The author observes frustration with the officers, who want to do better; the radio call log is being managed top-down, leaving no room for decisions by the officers or chiefs; during "quarters" (meeting of the men on the pier, standing in a rigid square), he walks around the periphery and can't hear the captain talking, and when asked, other sailors say the same but it "didn't matter, if there was something important, the chief would tell them at divisional quarters, a meeting that followed this meeting."

"The overwhelming sense on the ship was that we needed to avoid problems. ... It was clear to me that whereas the Olympia crew wasn't as good as they thought they were, the Santa Fe crew wasn't as bad as they thought they were. There was a thirst to do better and an eagerness for change."

Questions to consider:

6: "Whatever They Tell Me To Do": Author talks to one of the crew from an infamous photo of the Santa Fe showing slack and lack of focus; "'Hi, what do you do on board?' ... 'Whatever they tell me to do'. He knew he was a follower, and not happy with it, but he also was not taking responsibility. ... That was the attitude all over the ship. ... The problem was that the XO is the one who was being responsible for each department head's work, not the department head himself. Psychological ownership for accomplishing the work rested with the XO, not the department head. ... It is the department head, not the XO, who is responsible for the department head's job. This is leadership at all levels.

"The department heads identified a potential problem with this approach: Who would be responsible and accountable for the work? If you, the captain, allow us to make decisions about the work, aren't you risking your professional reputation and career on how well we do? Isn't that the reason these ideas are so hard to implement? ... I would retain accountability for Santa Fe's operational performance but release control of the actual decisions to the department heads."

"Another thing bothered me as well. Who, exactly, was the 'they' in the statement 'whatever they tell me to do'? Wasn't 'they' us?"

Questions to consider:

7: "I Relieve You": During command-transfer ceremony, author muses about the role of responsibility and the sharp boundaries the USN enforces: "If the ship started to sink right at that moment [before he takes command], I would not be responsible. If it started to sink an hour later, it would be my responsibility, 100 percent. ... While that singular point of accountability is attractive in many ways, there is a downside. The previous commanding officer would not be held accountable. Thus, ... each CO is encouraged to maximize performance for his tour and his tour alone. There is no incentive or reward for developing mechanisms that enable excellence beyond your immeidate tour.

"First, the crew wanted change, even if they didn't know quite how to do it. ... Second, we had an incredibly supportive chain of command. They were outcome-focused. ... Third, my reliance on the crew for the specifics of how the boat operated prevented me from falling into old habits and the trap of leader-follower. I couldn't have operated that way if I wanted to. ... Finally, it seemed clear that the crew was in a self-reinforcing downward spiral where poor practices resulted in mistakes, mistakes resulted in poor morale, and poor morale resulted in avoiding initiative and going into a survival mode of doing only what was absolutely necessary. In order to break this cycle, I'd need to radically change the daily motivation by shifting the focus from avoiding errors to achieving excellence."

Mechanism: Achieve Excellence, Don't Just Avoid Errors (Clarity)

"The best way not to make a mistake is not to do anything or make any decisions. ... focusing on avoiding errors is helpful for understanding the mechanics of procedures and detecting impending major problems before they occur, but it is a debilitating approach when adopted as the objective of an org. You are destined to fail. No matter how good you get at avoiding mistakes, you will always have errors on something as complex as a submarine. ... Focusing on avoiding mistakes takes our focus away from being truly exceptional. Once a ship has achieved success merely in the form of preventing major errors and is operating in a competent way, mission accomplished, there is no need to strive further. I resolved to change this. Our goal would be excellence instead of error reduction. We would focus on exceptional operational effectiveness for the submarine. We would achieve great things. Reducing mistakes would be an important side benefit to attaining our primary goal: achieving excellence."

Questions to ponder:

Part II: Control

8: Change, in a Word

9: "Welcome Aboard Sante Fe"

10: Under Way on Nuclear Power

11: "I Intend To..."

12: Up Scope!

13: Who's Responsible?

14: "A New Ship"

15: "We Have a Problem"

Part III: Competence

16: "Mistakes Just Happen"

17: "We Learn"

18: Under Way for San Diego

19: All Present and Accounted For

20: Final Preparations

Part IV: Clarity

21: Under Way for Deployment

22: A Remembrance of War

23: Leadership at Every Level

24: A Dangerous Passage

25: Looking Ahead

26: Combat Effectiveness

27: Homecoming

28: A New Method of Resupplying

29: Ripples

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Last modified 20 December 2021