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Leadership upside down: A review of “Turn The Ship Around”

7 min read


Empowerment is bunk. Most people who’re serious about leadership know this, but it’s not because empowerment is a bad idea. It’s because most leaders don’t have the skill and courage to do it correctly. At its best, when we empower followers, we give them authoritative space to figure out for themselves that true leadership power comes from the inside, through a transformative and entirely personal process.

We provide guidance and allow them to take true responsibility and total ownership. We tolerate deviations from our style in pursuit of solutions we never dreamed were possible. We believe they can do it so they believe they can do it. This requires a lot of wisdom, discipline, patience and courage by the “leader” who creates this special space, within which the EMpowered follower transforms into an INpowered leader.

Empowering leadership is more art than science. By definition, we’re sending our troops inside their soul, where we have no control. The essence of empowerment is that you hand over control and see what they can do with it. When it works, they boost performance with creativity, drive and innovation. But of course, they sometimes don’t.

Leading this way is impossible for control freaks and nerve-wracking for everyone else, because we may end up presiding over a performance nosedive, lost profit or angry customers. True empowerment, that which leads to inpowered success, is not bunk, but it is a risk.

Can you imagine doing this in your company?

Now, imagine doing this on a nuclear submarine, where such a failed experiment could send hundreds of millions (billions?) of dollars of U.S. Navy property and priceless human lives to the bottom of the ocean. Would you take an empowerment risk if you were in charge of that ship? Capt. L. David Marquet did, and, 10 years later, when it became clear that his approach had lasting positive impacts, he wrote a book about it.

Marquet, a Navy-trained command-and-control leader, had this experiment practically thrust upon him when he was assigned to a ship he hadn’t expected to command, the USS Santa Fe, after training for 12 months to run the USS Olympia. Oops. Upon arrival, he was wise enough to realize that empowering the knowledgeable crew was the only way to go. It was an experiment that could have gone wrong, but because Marquet did the hard work to figure out how to implement empowerment correctly, his ship and crew transformed from the worst-rated sub into the first-rated sub — in a year.

The Hunt for Red October” meets Harvard Business School

I’m not going to tell you more of Marquet’s story because I really want you to buy the book, “Turn The Ship Around” and read it. It’s a fast and powerful read you’ll want to explore more than once. Stephen Covey wrote the forward, and one of the reviewers describes it as, “the ‘Hunt for Red October’ meets Harvard Business School,” and he’s right.

You’ll enjoy the book, but here’s why it’s not just another book about leadership and empowerment. Marquet applies a military practitioner’s attention to detail and actually begins to decode the genome for the art of empowering leadership. He gives those brave leaders pursuing true empowerment some blueprints for helping empowered leaders discover their inner power to lead.

For example, many leadership gurus talk about how important it is for empowered employees to be given visionary direction. Marquet calls this effort “Clarity” and breaks it down into seven principles, including some we’ve heard before — striving for excellence, building trust and beginning with the end in mind. But he goes deeper and also identifies subtle but powerful distinctions between questioning and curiosity; he demonstrates what it looks like to use guiding principles in decision-making instead of slapping a vision on the wall and hoping people will figure it out.

A new chapter in the leadership guru book on empowerment

Despite these great insights, however, I believe that Marquet has added a new chapter to the guru book on empowering leadership by identifying a key reason so many empowerment efforts fail. Marquet exposes, through principle and anecdote, the critical dependency between giving up leadership control and investing in giving your newly empowered leaders control mechanisms and technical competence.

During an inspection where the Santa Fe received high marks, an inspector noted that the crew “tried to make as many mistakes” as other crews, but the control mechanisms they used to catch themselves and each other caught the foul-ups before they occurred. Similarly, through trial and error, Marquet discovered that giving people control without also giving them the necessary technical knowledge was a recipe for disaster. By dissecting the Sante Fe’s experience, he breaks out eight principles of empowering “Control” and five principles of “Competence.”

He also illuminates employees’ inherent desire to contribute to a successful organization when their own gifts and abilities are honored and trusted. My favorite anecdote from the book is the way that he outlawed the chasing down and reporting of crew members who made noises (e.g., dropping a wrench) that could expose the Santa Fe to enemy sonar. Instead, he asked crew members to self-report when they made noises; before he knew it, more noises were being reported than sonar could detect and the overall number of noise incidents decreased.

This might not have happened on another ship, but Marquet and the officers who conspired to revolutionize the command-and-control leadership model of the U.S. Navy did one very important thing; they did not reprimand noise-makers for self-reporting.

Remove the fear factor, reward responsibility and people will begin to see the benefits in accepting true ownership of their work.

The lesson here, which I believe is so important and which “Turn the Ship Around” makes clear, is that empowering leadership doesn’t work if you’re not willing to invest in your people and believe they can achieve greatness. Giving up control doesn’t mean giving up standards of excellence. In fact, the opposite is true. Standards of excellence become your primary control mechanism, and belief in your teams’ ability to accomplish them becomes your primary leadership power.

If your people don’t have the knowledge and belief in themselves necessary to achieve excellence, the experiment’s not going to work, and you can easily talk yourself back into the “Do I have to do everything around here?” mentality that limits so many organizations.

Join the movement?

Marquet has coined the term “leader-leader” to describe this approach to empowering leadership that helps develop and grow inpowered leaders. I was able to meet with him and see that he believes that any approach except leader-leader will fail to achieve excellence in our increasingly complex world. He also knows that it’s going to take a movement to keep practicing, exploring and propagating these principles. He’s started the movement to apply these principles in business, and I’m on board. How about you?

Dana Theus is president and CEO of InPower Consulting, creating business cultures by design, and a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership. Follow her on Twitter at @DanaTheus and on LinkedIn.