In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with David Marquet. David served as the commander of the US Navy nuclear submarine, USS Santa Fe. When he took over, he changed the command-and-control leadership style and empowered his crew to turn the lowest-performing sub into the best performer in the fleet. David Marquet shared leadership lessons from this experience, which he also wrote in his bestselling book Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers Into Leaders.
David Marquet also shared leadership insights from his latest book, Leadership Is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say and What You Don't. In it, David Marquet highlights how choosing your words can dramatically improve organizational decision-making and execution.
- David Marquet on becoming the commander of the lowest-performing submarine in the US Navy
- Why it's not the lack of leadership but the wrong kind of leadership that results in poor team performance
- David Marquet on moving beyond the traditional approach to leadership
- How David Marquet shifted his own and his crew's mindset to transition from permission-based decision making to intent-based decision making
- Why leadership in most organizations still operates using outdated mindsets and approaches
- David Marquet on what all leaders can learn from the communications breakdowns on the El Farro
- The importance of language in leading organizations to better decision making and execution in the business
Connect with L. David Marquet:
Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:
More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming David Marquet. David, who served as the captain of the USS Santa Fe, an attack nuclear submarine, took over that submarine when it was the lowest performing submarine in the entire US Navy. He was able to turn that around by changing his own approach to leadership.
And one of the best parts of David's story is the fact that more captains came out of his submarine than any other submarine. So it wasn't only the fact that David led it was the fact that he produced a lot of outstanding leaders. And he told his story in his bestselling book, Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers Into Leaders. And then a follow on book on leadership, which is Leadership Is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say and What You Don't.
So I really enjoyed this conversation with David and learned so much from him with respect to how our change of language and leadership can impact our people, bringing out the best in them and bringing out the best in our entire organization. So I am sure you will enjoy this conversation too.
I also enjoy hearing from you. Keep your comments coming, mahan@mahantavakoli.Com. There's also a microphone icon on partnering leadership.com. Really enjoy getting those voice messages. Don't forget to follow the podcast on your favorite platform. So you get the Tuesday conversations with magnificent change makers from the greater Washington, D C DMV region. And then Thursday conversations with brilliant global thought leaders, such as David Marquet.
Now here's my conversation with David.
David Marquet, welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm thrilled to have you in this conversation with me.
David Marquet: Thanks for having me on your show Mahan.
David your book, Turned the Ship Around was recommended to me by a friend of mine a few years back, and I found it to be outstanding with respect to leadership. And then follow on to that, you wrote Leadership Is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say and What You Don't. So I can't wait to get to discussing some of your leadership experience and leadership thoughts. Before we get to that, would love to know whereabouts you grew up and how your upbringing impacted the kind of person you've become?
I grew up in Massachusetts, outside of Boston. I grew up during the cold war. I grew up in the 70s. I went to high school in the 70s. And it was a grim time for anyone who was there. In my opinion, looking back on it I think. I was sort of an awkward kid so high school was already tough. But in the country, which I loved, we had inflation, we had the Iranian hostage crisis. We had an oil shock in '72, the price of gas went up by four one day. And of course we were in the cold war with the Soviet union. We were doing air raid drills for nuclear attack. And it was kind of grim and dark if you asked me and I really wanted to do something about it. There was no sense of inevitability that we were going to win in my mind. And we needed to make it happen. And the coolest thing that I ever read about was a submarine commander. And I read about all, I read all the stories in world war II about the submarine commanders. And of course in the cold war, they were playing a big role and we only heard a little secret dribs and drabs, but, it was like, that is the coolest thing.
And yeah, I'm laughing because I'm thinking about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Kindergarten Cop. And they're like, well, what are you doing? And he doesn't want to, he's a kindergarten. He says it is a nuclear submarine grid. Anyway, so that's what I wanted to do. And the reason for submarines was because I was introverted. I was on the math team. I was one of those geeky kids. I had a strange immunity to what other people thought about me. I just did my own thing. And you didn't like geeks, I didn't care. You didn't like people on the chess team, I didn't care. If you didn't like the fact that I didn't come to all the parties and drink a lot, I didn't care. And I had this immunity to what other people thought and it ended up being very powerful later in my life.
That is really powerful, whether you want to become an entrepreneur or you want to be a person that changes the way things are done, to do it your own way. And you mentioned you were on the high school math team. You graduated top of the Naval academy. You knew both how to conform, but it sounds like there is a part of you that always found ways to go against the grain.
I loved the structure of the military. And I got in trouble cause I only went to the Naval academy and during plebe summer, which is supposed to, it's like bootcamp. And they're really, they try and break you down and beat you up.
One of the first class, and these are the guys who were beating you up, would ask me near the end, "How was it for you Marquet?" And for some reason, I was picturing we went sailing and we shot pistols and we did PT three times. A lot, like summer camp. Anyway, that was a wrong thing to say, because these guys prided themselves on how brutal they were. Anyway, so they beat up on me, twice as much. But, for me, I really benefited from the structure and the single-mindedness of I'm going to be a submariner. I'm going to be a star Marine captain. And there's so much you can do in this world, but I just was a little bit high blinders on. That really helped me out.
Now, when I went to the Naval academy, they handed me a book and said, here's what leadership is. It says leadership is defined as directing the thoughts, plans and actions of others. And I said, okay, what do I know? I'm 17 years old. And here's the dirty little secret Mahan. I liked that and I was good at it. I could see the answers and I could see what was doing wrong. And I could say, okay, stop, stop, stop. Don't do it this way. Do it that way. Don't stand here, not there. And, no, no, no. We're not turning left, we’re turning right. And I got promoted based on that.
Then there was the other side of me, which when people treated me like that, I was like, well, wait a minute. And I raised my hand and the Admiral would say, he'd say, "So here are your marching orders, any questions?" And I'd raise my hand and the guy next to me pull my hand down. And I was like, well, he said any questions. No, that's a trick. So that's where my immunity got me in trouble, but I sort of put that part of me in a box. I didn't give into it. But I was frustrated when I would say I can do a lot more. I can think a lot more, I can contribute a lot more in the ideas and then the values. And I would try and use the creativity in the zone where I could control things, which was within my own little team. But I was good at making decisions and telling people what to do. So the Navy promoted me and they said, "We're going to make you a submarine commander." And of course that was a wonderful day in my life.
And David, that's partly the way a lot of times people get promotions and succeed in all kinds of organizations, not just the armed forces and in the Navy, in that they are the smartest kids in class. You were one of the smartest in high school and high school math team. Top of their college graduating classes. For you, the Naval academy, many people, it can be Harvard, MIT, my favorite Georgetown. So they've always been the smartest in the school and in the class and have had the answers and therefore are rewarded with promotions because they've had the answers. You had the answers. You were the smartest. You wanted to become a captain. And you got the opportunity to become the captain of one of the newer submarines in the US Navy, Santa Fe. What happened then?
I wasn't supposed to be the captain of the Santa Fe. I'm supposed to go to a different ship. And I went through a whole 12 month training pipeline for this other ship at the very last minute because the Santa Fe was doing so badly, she had the worst morale and the worst performance. And the Navy, we would publish the Navy publicist message every month. It's very public and it has this listing. The Santa Fe has attack submarines, 50 attack submarines, and it would list them from the best retention. In other words, the best job at keeping people in the Navy to the worst. And the Santa Fe would be at the bottom. And for months, the Santa Fe was at the bottom of the list. Anyway, he resigned, which was very unheard of. Basically, you got to get clawed out of that chop, the submarine commander. You got to get fired. And I give him a lot of credit for that.
And so anyway, so now the Navy had a ship with no captain. And I just graduated from school and they said, you're going to go to the Santa Fe. So I had like two weeks and I went and talked to my boss, my boss' boss, and the advisors, people in the staff about the submarine. And I kept hearing the same thing. It's just a lack of leadership. What do you mean exactly? Well, you know, it's a lack of leadership. And I would say, yeah, sure. I know, but I really didn't know.
When it got down on the ship, it wasn't a lack of leadership. It was the wrong kind of leadership. It was a leadership where people were just told what to do. And that was, on other submarines. And that was all throughout the Navy. The problem is if the person at the top head's not in the game and they don't make the right decision as a highly personality dependent organization,if a CEO or the leader is good, everything is good. If a leader, CEO is not good. When I say good, I'm talking about making tactical decisions, investing in A or B. Turn left or right.
And everything's bad. And it's because we have those, do what you're told culture. And we divide the world into two. People who make decisions and do thinking for a living and get to tell other people what to do. And they do the doing for a living. And I think this idea contributes to this overpay of CEOs. You think they're so valuable because we have a structure which puts too much power. Or I think there's an appearance to it, but there's also a reality, which is too much power in the decision-making. Because the organization will follow a leader, good or bad. We see it over and over again. Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, Boeing, whatever you want.
And on the Santa Fe, when I got there and walked around in my head, literally feeling like Alice in Wonderland, because I don't think the equipment looks different. Everyone's still looking at their shoes as I walk around. I take over, we go to sea and we're running an exercise. And when I give a bad order, I give an order which can't be done. It wasn't an order that couldn’t be done, that was bad. It was just an order that could simply not be done with the equipment that we had. I suggested it to the officer, I didn't actually give a bad order. I suggested to the officer who gave the order. And then when the sailor kind of shrugged his shoulders, that all came out, then turned to the officer and said, "Hey, what's going on? Did you know?" He said, "Yeah, I did". I was like, what?
And it hit me that all these things that we do. All listeners are already thinking, well, you know, we tell people to speak up. We say, it's your obligation to say, if it doesn't make sense. We invite people to disagree with me. That's not enough. That's the tip of the iceberg that might get 10% of people to speak up in an organization where people are supposed to do what they're told, which is, oh, by the way, every organization on the planet. The answer isn't to give orders and then harangue people to tell you if they think they're wrong. The answer is to figure out how not to give orders and have the orders emanate from the team. And this required me to do everything the opposite that I'd ever learned about leadership. But I was always about make decisions, give an order, be bold, lean in, make it happen. Put the team under pressure, be a pacesetter, like, go, go, go, we're burning daylight. And all that makes it hard. Every one of those things makes it harder for people to think and speak up. It makes it easier for them to just do what they're told. And secretly, that's what we want. Even when we say we don't, we get frustrated. Why are you asking me all these things? Like, come on, we're going, we're wasting time. Let's go, go, go. And the reason is because we've inherited the industrial age playbook.
I say to my team, “Hey, how about I never give an order?” And they were looking at their shoes. I mean, we all know we're basically doomed here because they got this guy who was trained for a different ship. And they're already the worst ship, but everyone is happy to tell them how bad they are. And they're like, sure, I can't get worse. I guess we can kill ourselves. But you know, die in an accident. But let's try.
So here's the deal. You got to talk to me in a way that doesn't make me give you an order. Now, the way we were trained and conditioned, programmed to speak was, if you're my boss and you're the submarine commander, and I want to submerge the submarine, the book says the captain authorized submerged submarines. So I come to you, “Hey Mahan, I request permission to submerge the submarine. And then you would say, “Submerge the submarine and you'd give the order. And then I would say "Submerge the submarine. Aye, aye, Sir.", And I'd go about doing it. Even when things were my idea, I was still making you order it. And so we replaced that with the word intent where we'd say, hey, just come to me and say, “Here's what you intend to do.”
Now, the first time someone comes to you and says, I intend to submerge a submarine. You have a lot of questions, like, hey, all the hatches shut and there are people below. And if we checked the box, there's a whole checklist for it. They quickly learned if they didn't want to be inundated with all these questions that they would just preempt me with it. They say, "Captain, here's the situation. All the hats are shut. People are below blah, blah, blah, Check the bottom depth. I intend to submerge the ship.". And I would say very well. And I never had to order it because I just acknowledged it. And even if I didn't say anything, they could do it.
So for example, in a business, if we say we write an email. We say next Wednesday, we intend to meet with a client ABC. We intend to offer them the following package. We intend to, even though normally it says I can offer a head of sales at 10% discount, I'm going to give them a 20% because it's a new client, new space, new geography is opening up. I'm doing some thinking. That's what you want. Then the boss never reads the email. It doesn't matter. You do it. You own it. No one's waiting.
The organizations that we have are designed, they're deliberately designed to stop things from happening. They're designed to stop chains in decisions. If you want to run a business, why is a business like Tesla or some entrepreneurial business so much faster at doing things, let's say GM, they're not necessarily smarter. They don't need to ask permission. They don't need to convince everybody. You need to get everyone to say yes, everyone is never going to say yes. There's too many people invested in combustion engines. They're never going to all sign up for it. We think that's a bad model for this. We think these businesses should not make business decisions based on consensus. As you mentioned, Mahan, what we call consent, which is someone has an idea, all I need is for no one to be a blocker. I don't need everyone to be an approver. It sounds minor, but it's a huge shift this psychological ownership squarely on the person who's making these decisions.
Every day when we talk to a new CEO, every single one of them says the same. I wish there was more ownership. I wish there was a bias for action. I wish there was more bold decision-making. I wish there were more cross-functional team interactions, less stovepiping. Everyone wants the same thing.
So I sit in on a meeting, the meetings are not running in ways which encourage any of those things. The meetings are run to solve the problem. The meetings are run to enhance ownership. The primary objective every time you interact with your people is to build ownership, build thinking, because your journey as a leader is a journey toward irrelevance. You're going to be irrelevant one day. It might be soon. It might be midterm then eventually we're all going to die. So eventually we're all gonna be irrelevant. You might as well start your journey now because you don't want it to be a cliff when you get there.
And there are a lot of baby boomers. They've done everything right. They were bold and made decisions, they have fingertips for everywhere in the business, they built a nice company. It's got 200 people. And no one wants to buy it because they're the center of the spider web.
David it takes a lot of humility to be able to do that. And it's a very powerful point. You make both with respect to when you were captain of the ship and what organizations need to do transitioning from either permission-based and or consensus based decision making to intent-based organizations. To be able to do that though it takes a couple of things. And I wonder how you were able to do it. One is it requires a shift and change in mindset of the leader herself or himself to let go of that need for control. And the second part of it is there is a need for a shift in the mindset of the people that person is leading. You were trying to do this, most especially, in the Navy where people have been used to being told what to do even more so than many organizations. How were you able to bring them along? How were you able to shift your own mindset and how were you able to shift the mindset of the team to become more intent-based?
I'll start with me. Cause 90% of the problem was me and 99% of what I know was all about me. I think there were four things that allowed me to do this when previous people hadn't done it.
One was this, going back to this immunity to what other people cared. The phrase I used was I cared don't care. I care deeply and passionately about the people who've been trusted to me and about our mission. I don't care about how I present or what my boss thinks. It wasn't charade what anyone else thought about us.
And my guys were more worried for me because we do things, for example, there was an old rule that when you were in shallow water, you needed the sailor, standing at the fathometer, calling out the depths. How far you were above the bottom every 30 seconds or something. That was written for the submarine when they were originally designed. The fathometer was in the back corner of the control room and the people driving the ship were sitting in the front. But on the Santa Fe, we had a mod where we, the depth below the bottom was displayed in front there, this was unnecessary, but still in the rules. So I said, well, we're not doing that because it's one extra person who could be sleeping, studying, doing something else and as any noise in the control room. I asked him, why are we doing this? “It's in a rule book.” I said, well, we're not doing it. And then they were worried for me, so, if we're aground, they're going to be an investigation. They're going to find we broke the rules. We're going to get fired.
It’s that, A, if we were aground, I'm probably getting fired anyway. B, does this help prevent us running aground? No. Okay. And C, don't run aground, let's just not run aground. Everyone knows the immunity. Number two was I had a probably naive and misplaced belief that I can control our futures. I could control how the ship was going to operate. So it was worth investing time in changing how we interacted. I also had an irreverence and this may be spills into the care don't care part, but I had a reverence for what came before. The people say, "Well, we've always done it that way. And I don't care. It's stupid." I get that over and over and over again and I saw things. That just made no sense.
For example, every day we'd get a very important piece of paper called the fuel oil and water report, which would list how many gallons of everything you had on the submarine. We had different. We have multiple kinds of oils. Some oils we use are different oils. Each of these oils, you have to have an inventory and how much diesel fuel you had in case your E reactor shut down and how much fresh water. And it was a piece of paper which had all these numbers on it. Just numbers. And everyday numbers. Everyday I look at and say, is this good? Is it bad? Are we headed for oblivion here? Scratch that, I think this is useless. What I want is to chart days till empty. We have 2000 gallons and we're leaking half a gallon of oil every day. That's not a problem. I don't care. If we're leaking 10 gallons that's a big problem. For us and the environment. To make it a chart. we would change things like that. And like this, every ship, every day, 300 ships in the Navy. 300 community officers. 365 days a year, 10,000 times. You know, since world war two, 5 million times this piece of paper has gone and sat in front of some commanding officer, no one ever changed it.
David, that is the truth of how a lot of organizations operate. So one of the things I want to underline is my primary experience both internationally was and integrated Washington DC region is working with organizations. And it's incredible how some of those same patterns exist. So it's pretty easy to be dismissive of how things operate, whether it's in the armed forces, in this instance, in the Navy. As you were a captain of a submarine, it's the way things operate in organizations on an ongoing basis where no one has asked, "Why are we still doing this? Is this meeting a purpose or not?"
It's easy for me to say this and people may or may not believe it, but, two things.
First of all, on the worst day, the nuclear powered submarine, Santa Fe ran better than most of the companies we interact with. I mean, you want it to be. We're running a nuclear powered submarine. So when I say it was kind of the worst performing crew, the scale is very high in terms of performance and performance expectations.
This is not unique to the experience of the Navy. And I like the fact that you mentioned this is a high functioning team and in most instances, way higher functioning than most of the organizations that I see operating.
Yeah. And including my own company right now, we're nearly as good. We don't need debate. What we're doing is critical. What I've learned in the last 10 years, traveling the world, doing hundreds of events with thousands of companies, is it's more the same than people think. And whether your water bottling company in France or an appliance manufacturer in Shenzhen or a green energy company in the UK or a jet engine manufacturer in the U S, the common things, it's so the same.
I would love to briefly touch on a couple of elements that you highlight in your book Leadership is Language, David. You talk about the importance of language, and use the example of El Faro, which is a container ship that sank back in 2015. I find it to be very relevant ,most especially right now, organizations are facing even greater levels of uncertainty.
When you are in calm waters, it's easier to operate. With the old mindset that works well, in the industrial age. In uncertain times, it's not. What are the lessons that you got out from studying the El Faro and the experience leaders need to take as they use language in leading their organizations?
Were there structural markers in the language that teams use that separated teams who are making bad decisions from teams that were making? Who were able to adapt to situations, agile, resilient, adaptive teams?
So we looked at a whole bunch of transcripts. As many transcripts as we could find. And we're looking for patterns. A lot of these ended up being Blackbox transcripts from airplanes and ships, or maybe a transcript from a court testimony, but it's still not strictly transparent. There's like people from a member that they say, which isn't quite what they said. We were really interested in what people actually say.
And so the El Faro left for Jacksonville, Florida, was heading south to Puerto Rico. They knew there was a hurricane, hurricane Joaquin was coming in. It ended up being the most powerful hurricane to hit The Bahamas in a hundred years. They knew it. They knew it was coming and it was getting closer. Captain got a text from someone on his sister ship. The day before they left, they had radio, they had all the modern things, not knowing about the hurricane was not the problem. And then you hear these people on the bridge discussing whether they should turn. Because of the bathymetry and the shoal water through The Bahamas. Once you decide to take the direct route, which is on the seaward side of The Bahamas, you really only have one shot to turn, but they had that shot. They sank after that they missed the turn or they chose not to take the turn. The sort of day and a half in advance decision that got sunk. It was just a couple of hours. They missed their turn at midnight, or they had a chance to turn at midnight and at six they sank.
You read the words of the captain and the officers and the crewman as they're making these decisions. It's gut wrenching because you know, that they're not going to make the right decisions and they're going to die. We were looking for patterns. One pattern that really stood out clearly is that the number of words people say, the proportion of words that people say went into groups matches their relative salary. And on the El Faro, this was exactly the case. Every single time. There were no exceptions to this rule. Every time the captain and officer and a crewman were together on the bridge. For some period of time, the captain always said the most number of words. The officer always said the next most number, the crewman police, by a long margin. Not only did it match their salary by the sequence, but it matched it by the approximate amount of money they make because the officer makes money. That is exactly how the word counts. But that is a fragile structure. It's this indication that the team is on perilous footing when it comes to making decisions.
It ends up happening in a lot of organizations, David. I coach senior teams and in most instances the same thing happens in those organizations with the senior teams. You can see if someone didn't know who is the CEO, who is the CFO moving on the line. You could plot it based on the amount of time they spend speaking.
There are a lot of leadership insights in Turn the Ship Around. I love the perspectives most specifically, it's really hard to become an intent-based organization rather than permission. Same thing in Leadership is Language. It is very powerful. From my perspective, one of the things that speaks so highly about your content, David, is the fact that your crew produced more ship captains after you left. You say your achievement scorecard runs while you're at an organization. Leadership scorecard starts when you leave. When you look at the Jack Welch's of the world who were on the cover of magazine after magazine, and their organization's collapsed after they left. That's the sign of weak leadership while yours is a sign of great leadership, which is why I really have appreciated your content and your book. Where can the audience find out more about content, what you continually share, in addition to your books that they can find online retailers and their corner book stores?
First of all, connect with me on LinkedIn. I'm L. David Marquet, books are Turn The Ship Around and Leadership is Language. Our program is called Intent-based Leadership. So we have a LinkedIn page and a website. IBLI, Intent-based leadership international. But I think the, probably the funnest and most useful is our YouTube channel called Leadership Nudges. And these are just little things you can do to remind yourself about being a better leader. We try to make them very practical because we think leadership is a practice. It's not a theory. But when we try and teach it like a theory, it's wrong. It's more like learning a language. You just gotta take it and practice and practice and practice.
The YouTube channels, Leadership Nudges, I keep them to a minute and 90 seconds. There are a few that are longer, but I really try and keep it short. Just a quick story and a lesson. So try this, don't say this. Say that kind of thing if you want to stop doing something.
You share a lot of great thoughts and perspectives, whether for individual development and most specifically leaders. As I mentioned, one of the things I've appreciated about your content is that you continue with humility to show what leadership is all about rather than just talking about it.
I really appreciate everything that you've done to advance the conversation on leadership. Not just with respect to what we say, although that language is important, but with respect to how we lead. Thank you so much, David Marquet.
Thanks. Cheers to all listeners.