Book review: Turn The Ship Around

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Turn the Ship Around

Turn the Ship Around!: How to Create Leadership at Every Level is a leadership book by David Marquet. It’s the story of how he commanded a U.S. nuclear submarine and took it from one of the poor performers to one of the top performers in the fleet. Each chapter includes a story from below deck and also the leadership lesson that non-naval managers can take from this.

“Leadership,” writes Stephen Covey in the Foreword, “is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.”

In the naval academy, Marquet learned that leadership is about controlling people. This is the standard ‘leader-follower’ model. What Marquet realised is that this model relies on the leader to be there all the time, setting the direction unfailingly.

When the leader leaves (or goes to sleep when off-shift), the followers don’t have that direction any more.

“People who are treated as followers have the expectations of followers and act like followers,” he writes. While that doesn’t matter much for many things like sports teams, it does for nuclear submarine. He says that we are taught that empowerment is the answer. “While the message is ’empowerment’, the method – it takes me to empower you –fundamentally disempowers employees.” Fair point.

On a project, leadership is important. You don’t have to be there 24/7 leading your project team, but you should be concerned about what happens when you are on holiday or out of the office. Can they operate the ship without you? Marquet set about to ensure that everyone could operate without him if necessary, and calls this the ‘leader-leader’ model.

It’s also appropriate for keeping a team performing at high levels even after the person at the top is replaced, so it’s a longer term strategy than ‘leader-follower’, and it encourages leaders to be responsible for the performance of their unit long term, even after they have gone.

The book  explains how Marquet got his sub to this level. One of the things I took from this book that is particularly appropriate to project environments is delegating down.

Delegate down

“Don’t move information to authority, move authority to the information,” Marquet writes. He gives the example of getting leave approved on the sub. The old process had multiple steps, with the person at the top of the chain having little understanding of the impact of that person being away.

Instead, Marquet made the department chiefs responsible for signing leave forms. This eliminated multiple steps in the chain of command, but also cemented their responsibility for having them manage the watch schedule and training schedule.

The three name rule

Another example of encouraging behavior change comes in the example of the three name rule. Marquet wanted his staff to be polite and interested when visitors came onboard, as they frequently seemed to do.

“When you’re trying to change employees’ behaviors, you have basically two approaches to choose from: change your own thinking and hope this leads to new behavior or change your behavior and hope this leads to new thinking,” he writes. They chose the latter, through implementing the three name rule.

The idea was that every time a crew member saw a visitor on board they would address the visitor by name, give their name and give the boat name. So it would sound something like this: “Good morning, Commodore Smith. I’m Petty Officer Jones. Welcome aboard the Sante Fe.”

I’m not suggesting that you adopt this by rote for your project, every time someone comes into your project office. But you could do something similar, by ensuring that everyone on the team knows what is expected of them when new team members join, or when subject matter experts are brought on to the team for a short while.

Control, competence and clarity

Control, competence and clarity are the three things Marquet picks out as essential for organizational excellence. Control can be done in a number of ways, and on a project strong governance principles fall in here.

Competence ensures that your team has the skills to effectively carry out their roles. And clarity means they understand why they are doing it and how their part of the project contributes to the whole.

I found this a very enlightening book. It is easy to read with gripping stories that morph into leadership lessons. I really enjoyed it, and found it easy to relate to projects, even though it is not a book about project management. Leadership is something we all need to work at, however good we think we are.

As Stephen Covey says in the Foreword: “Remember, leadership is a choice, not a position.”

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This book review first appeared on during August 2012. Read more project management book reviews here.