Turning Followers Into Leaders

by Rod Collins

 

The most unlikely place where you might expect a radical reinvention of management is the U.S. Navy. After all, command-and-control is synonymous with the military. As in most organizations, rank divides people into unequal strata where those with higher rank are the leaders and those at the bottom of the chain-of-command are the followers. The dynamics of top-down structures are very clear: The leaders give the orders and the followers do what they’re told. In traditional organizations, compliance is the ultimate virtue. One former submarine captain, however, doesn’t agree. He believes there’s a better way to run a ship, and he has the experience to back up the belief.

In his book, Turn the Ship Around!, L. David Marquet tells an engaging story of how he used a radically different management model to transform his crew’s submarine from worst to first. When he took command of the Santa Fe in early 1999, the ship had the unenviable reputation of being the joke of the Navy. No one wanted to be on this ship because it could kill careers, which may explain why the Santa Fe had the worst retention rate and one of the lowest promotion rates in the submarine force.

One advantage to being asked to turnaround a deteriorating situation is that the leader often has a lot of latitude as long as the job gets done. Marquet took advantage of this latitude and used it as an opportunity to consider a radically different way to lead a submarine. He would disregard the ultimate virtue of compliance—the fuel of what he calls the “leader-follower” model—and instead embrace the value of collaboration as the organizing principle for his new assignment. He would turn the ship around by displacing the “leader-follower” model and employing a “leader-leader” model. In other words, on his new ship, everyone would learn how to lead together.

Implementing leader-to-leader meant changing the fundamental dynamics of the ship’s operating system. It meant people needed to take the initiative rather than wait for instructions, focus on what needed to be done over blindly following procedures, communicate frequently when dealing with the unexpected, and—a truly radical idea—questioning the ranking member when he or she was wrong. In short, the crew would need to behave very differently if they were going to leverage the power of collaboration.

In considering the strategy for how he would implement the leader-to-leader model, Marquet knew he had to change both the thinking and the acting of the ship’s crew. His challenge was deciding which to change first. Often, when implementing culture changes, leaders mandate everyone to participate in training programs where people are instructed in new ways of thinking. This theory assumes people are highly rational and that new ways of thinking will inevitably lead to new ways of acting. Unfortunately, people aren’t always rational and often resist mandatory training by being present in body only and leaving the programs with their old thinking firmly intact. Recognizing this, Marquet decided on a different approach. Instead of trying to change the crew’s thinking as a pathway to new action, he would change the operating system and require people to act differently, hoping that the new thinking would follow. Whether or not changed thinking actually resulted was less of a concern to the captain. Marquet understood that, when it comes to culture change, what matters most is that people act differently.

In changing the ship’s operating system, he introduced innovative practices and mechanisms that were designed to improve the ship’s overall state of control by delegating control and decision-making authority to those actually doing the work. One such practice was a discipline Marquet calls “deliberate action,” where the crew would state what they intended to do before they would do it. So, for example, an officer on the bridge might announce, “Captain, I intend to submerge the ship,” to which the captain would usually respond, “Very Well.” However, if a member of the crew noticed something was amiss, he was encouraged to share his observation so the crew could process the information as a team before the action was taken.

To illustrate the power of deliberate action, Marquet relates the story of how, while participating in a drill, he unknowingly became confused about the ship’s direction and instructed the ship to make what would have been an incorrect maneuver. The benefits of the leader-to-leader operating system became apparent when, the ship’s quartermaster simply stated, “No, Captain, you’re wrong.” The captain quickly recognized his error and averted a serious mistake because of the new ways of acting that he put in place. On how many ships is it safe to tell the captain he’s wrong? When collaboration rather than compliance is the guiding principle, the captain’s confusion never becomes a ship error.

Marquet’s experiment in shared leadership was immensely successful because, as the Navy inspectors pointed out after assigning the Santa Fe the highest grade that anyone had seen, “Your guys tried to make the same number of mistakes as everyone else. But the mistakes never happened because of deliberate action. Either they were corrected by the operator himself or by a teammate.” As Marquet astutely observes, “Many people talk about teamwork but don’t develop mechanisms to actually implement it.” Deliberate action is a mechanism that transforms teamwork from wishful thinking to reliable action. It’s a valuable lesson for any organization that takes teamwork seriously.

 

Rod Collins  (@collinsrod) is Director of Innovation at Optimity Advisors and author of Wiki Management: A Revolutionary New Model for a Rapidly Changing and Collaborative World (AMACOM Books, 2014).