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Hosted by Chris Dyer, the CEO of PeopleG2 – Talent Talk Radio features engaging conversation with CEOs, thought leaders and HR executives.  Talent Talk connects professionals who care about talent-related issues, and leadership empowerment.   

Today’s guest is David Marquet, author of “Turn the Ship Around!” In military leadership, teaching others to think, and not do, is true leadership. To hear the entire show, click here.

DAVID MARQUET leadership

Following graduation from the Naval Academy, Marquet became a submarine Commander assigned to the USS Olympian. Before he could take charge, however, he was moved to another ship, the Santa Fe – a new ship suffering from low morale and poor performance. Admittedly, he was nervous to take over the Santa Fe on account of its newer equipment. In fact, Marquet recalls: “Very early on, I gave an order that couldn’t be performed on this particular ship unbeknownst to me. My crew actually tried to follow it until one of the young guys said, ‘You can’t do this on this submarine.’ It was like saying to shift into sixth gear but only having five gears on a car.” 

Despite this, his crew still tried to follow his orders, which led Marquet to question what he was doing. “I realized everything I knew about leadership was wrong, or at least, irrelevant. It was about getting people to do things, getting people to be compliant, controlling people.  And what I needed was people to think. We had to go from getting people to do to getting people to think.”

The Impact of Language on Leadership

From this one experience, Marquet immediately realized it was the language used in leading others that needed to change. The general feeling about why the crew on the Santa Fe wasn’t performing as well as possible was that there was a lack of leadership. Conversely, what Marquet discovered was a problem of too much leadership. “The problem was telling people what to do; therefore, people stood around waiting to be told what to do, and everyone was focused on avoiding mistakes. Well, the best way to avoid a mistake is not do anything.”  Even though the ship was out to sea, they made the decision to change the way the officers were approaching their jobs by adjusting the leadership strategy.

Immediately, Marquet gave his officers a new kind of order. “I told them to stop asking permission and just say ‘I intend to…’ We focused on changing the words used in subtle, yet really profound ways. The impact lasted for over a decade,” shares Marquet. The crew of the Santa Fe had taken psychological ownership of their jobs for the first time.

A Purpose for the Present

Purpose is central to an employee’s sense of ownership. While the military has a basic statement for what their purpose is, Marquet contends that it isn’t helpful on a daily basis when boiled down to daily tasks. He believes you have to think in the present: “What are we going to do today? What are the decisions you need to make today?” He continues, “The most important thing in military and in civilian jobs is thinking. You can never order somebody to think, or what to think, or to be creative or innovative. The epiphany I had is if you want people to think, [the key] is to give control.” 

Being on a submarine poses a unique set of opportunities and challenges alike. The environment is such that the entire crew is on the ship together, night and day for months on end.  “One advantage I had was hundreds of opportunities everyday…There was tremendous opportunity to reinforce behaviors that I wanted. [That said] I couldn’t hire or fire anybody, which meant it’s a great constraint. You spend all your energy creating an environment where the people you have can be the best they can be.”

Is Your Bus Broken?

Marquet in fact takes issue with a popular talent management philosophy. “I hear about people spending time on talent management.  ‘I’ve got to get the right people on the bus and put them in the right seats’. I worry about that because it sends a message that if there’s a problem, then it’s you (the passenger). You’re in the wrong seat. You’re on the wrong bus. What about the responsibility of the leader to make a bus that is actually functional, that actually works, moving us in a direction that we want to go? What I see is a lot of guys driving broken buses, and they’re blaming the people sitting in the seats.”

Perhaps above all, Marquet asserts that it is important to remember that if you want people to think, they need to feel safe. There is a habit of putting pressure on a team to get them to perform better. That’s the right thing to do if doing is what we want. If you want a team to think better or be more creative, when you’re under pressure or fear-based, your creativity is turned off. 

Turn Your Ship Around

Marquet wrote a follow-up workbook to his first book, “Turn Your Ship Around!”  The workbook provides exercises to help anyone become a better leader. Marquet says, “I’m big on activities that train your brain. In general, most people don’t need more training, they need more practice.” He gives the example of employees telling their boss some bad news. The boss needs to practice not getting upset while the employees need to practice delivering bad news. Role-playing is a great way to do this, and it’s a simple exercise rarely done in most workplaces. Marquet also believes in exercises in giving up control, forcing people to trust others with tasks. You can start with small tasks and work your way up to larger, more complicated duties.

Agree to Disagree

According to Marquet and to research on how people think, it’s to your benefit to practice dissent. “It only takes one person to disagree with the group to make it safe for everybody to disagree, and that’s what you want. Most of the conventional thinking is backwards. Conventional thinking is to drive towards a consensus. I wanted to expose disparate opinions and then make a decision,” explains Marquet. Telling people it’s safe to disagree with the boss is not always successful, however, which is why Marquet created cards to go along with the book that can dictate who will disagree, freeing teammates up to participate. 

What are You Reading?

Marquet is reading Leaders Eat Lastby Steven Sinek. “The job of the leader is to create a circle of safety. So many people feel like they need to provoke people to work. In the right environment, you’re ordering your people to go home. They have this burning sense of purpose and they’re not worried about failing.”

Marquet also recommends, “Start With Whyby Steven Sinek and “Care to Dare by George Kohlrieser.

How Can People Connect with You?


Remember, do what you love….and show the world how talented you can be, today.

Date:  January 6, 2015