Turn The Ship Around

CREDIT: 12019 via Pixabay (CC/2.0)

Admiral Horatio Nelson, lion of St. Vincent, Copenhagen, and the Nile, looks out over the pigeons and iPhone-wielding tourists of London’s Trafalgar Square. “England expects that every man will do his duty,” he famously signaled as he went to meet his fate, from the lowest sailor to the Admiral responsible to see them home.

We too have duties. Failing a responsibility to our work or our professional reputation carries real costs in time, money, and opportunity. To ensure our responsibilities are met, we own every detail we can. It’s stressful, sure, but a few short nights sweating the little things are usually worth the reward of a job well done.

Things get more complicated once we’re responsible for more than ourselves. When our team’s on the hook, owning the details means micromanaging the people–a reaction that’s as stifling as it is exhausting. Limiting the agency of the people closest to the problem isn’t how most of us see ourselves managing, and it’s not how anyone wants to be managed.

Balancing that knee-jerk reaction means letting go: easy enough for an internal goal or a soft deadline, but exponentially harder as the price of failure increases. Consider Lord Nelson, responsible for defending his country and her staggeringly expensive warships. Small wonder that the archetypal sea-captain is a top-down leader–master and commander, giver of orders and enforcer of rules.

This archetype is both product and requirement of the organization it serves. The hierarchy and rules governing a ship represent a repository of “best practices” handed down from one generation of naval officers to the next. The captain’s orders are carried out without question, as no question is needed. The answers are the rules. And in principle, a sailor always knows what to do.

In practice, however, command and control structure signals a lack of trust. It assumes that the authors of rules and the givers of orders are better-informed than the sailors carrying them out. While this assumption may hold for simple, well-defined tasks, in complex, highly technical environments it disregards any expertise or situational awareness that may be available on the ground.

The effects are as unfortunate as they are predictable. Sailors follow orders rather than thinking for themselves. Restrictive, outdated rules suck the wind from otherwise innovative teams. And if hierarchy breaks down or orders don’t get through, the team’s left rudderless, unaccountable, and unclear on what happens next.

Responsibility, initiative, agency: Turn the Ship Around is about giving it back. While the US Navy may seem an unlikely frame for a story about devolved leadership, the story of David Marquet’s time commanding the USS Santa Fe (SSN-763) offers a candid look at putting it into practice.

The book is structured around the themes of Control, Competence, and Clarity. In the Control, Marquet details tools for rolling out authority to team members that may not be used to it. This means small steps at first—cutting down the steps needed to approve a decision, for instance—but ends with a shipboard guest’s observation that he “never once saw the captain give an order.” Instead of waiting for orders, sailors proposed action and Marquet simply approved it.

“I intend to…” It’s a simple turn of phrase, but it puts the onus on the sailor to initiate a course, consider likely objections, and inform their captain (or manager) what they’re about to do. In return for giving up control over every action, Marquet was able to “move authority to the information”–and fully engage his sailors in both decision-making and execution.

With his shipboard Auftragstaktik in place, Marquet turns to its prerequisites. The first, Competence, reflects the need for sailors (or employees of any sort) to be able to exercise Control successfully, while Clarity helps sailors align their decisions with the ship’s goals.

Airport bookshelves are filled with books hawking their own paths to management Nirvana, but there’s a refreshing honesty in Marquet’s work. Management books are set in sterile conference rooms, not the cramped quarters of a submarine. Heroic executives can do no wrong–a far cry from a crew of sailors whose best intentions don’t always go as planned. But while many books claim that, “we won at MegaCorp and you can, too,” there’s a tendency to forget the prerequisite. Winning is easy–step one, be MegaCorp.

Turn the Ship Around isn’t that. The strategies and tools Marquet offers don’t depend on a conveniently predisposed organization; indeed, his MegaCorp is one of the more avowedly hierarchical institutions on the planet. He isn’t peddling a miracle transformation for your next re-org: just a toolkit for distributing authority in the service of a more engaged, durable organization. With submarines.

The Navy is less ossified bureacracy than it might seem from the shore. From John Paul Jones to Arleigh Burke, its captains have a rich history of challenging precedent, management thinking, and practice. There were no submarines in Lord Nelson’s fleet, yet at Trafalgar, even Nelson intuited some of the lessons Marquet would later put into play. Understanding the need for tactical flexibility once the battle was joined, Nelson left execution up to his captains. Their guiding rule? “No captain can do very wrong,” he signaled, “if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.”

And as the pigeons of Trafalgar Square well know, he was right.