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Turn the Ship Around! - A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders: A Summary

It was the year 1998 and the charge of captaining the USS Santa Fe was assigned to U.S. Navy Captain David Marquet. It was a nuclear-powered submarine and the task was to prepare it in every way for deployment. The Santa Fe at that time was a poor performing, low scoring submarine in the Navy. It had a lackluster performance and was high on attrition rate.


This is a great story, one of self-discovery, tension, and the lonely self-doubts of the leader who sets off on an unknown path. Turn the Ship Around! is a stellar testimony wherein Marquet realized his own failures and successes. It’s the story of the ship’s transformation through the various ordeals it went through.

Captain Marquet was a man with a mission. Instead of delegating responsibilities to the chiefs and crew, he steered the crew to develop their competence, proactivity, sense of responsibility, and accountability. He did away with the Leader-Follower model and adopted a Leader-Leader approach.


Today’s leadership paradigm divides the world into two groups of people: leaders and followers. Most of what we practice in terms of leadership today follows this leader-follower structure. This model has been with us for a long time. It is pervasive. But this model was developed during a period when mankind’s primary work was physical. Consequently, it’s optimized for extracting physical work from humans. This is a recognized limitation of the leader-follower model. It doesn’t take into account the cognitive part. In a leader-follower structure, the performance of the organization is closely linked to the ability of the leader. However, the leader-leader structure is fundamentally different from the leader-follower structure. Its core belief is that we can all be leaders and, in fact, it’s best when we all are leaders.


Marquet institutionalized the three legs namely; Control, Competence & Clarity of the Leader-Leader method every day to empower his people and move the decisions to where the information lies. He actually provides new and valuable insights into how to lead. The challenges and potential successes of the Leader-Leader method can still apply to the everyday collective tasks, to organizations on a mission, and the most pressing issues concerning our communities.


The most empowering framework in all of this is the use of ‘I intend to….’ to transform Passive Followers into Active Leaders. Captain Marquet instructed his crew to use active, empowering, and reaffirming phrases such as ‘I intend to…’. This puts the onus of decision-making about the course of action on the crew.


Marquet also believes in ‘certifying’ and not on a top-down ‘brief.’ Usually, before any significant operations on the submarine, the naval chiefs would hold a ‘brief’ meeting with the crew about the procedure. Captain Marquet realized he needed to do away with briefings of this style altogether as no one listens in those briefings. In place of everyone passively “being briefed” by others, Marquet instituted “certifications. Rather than a top-down talk, supervisors asked questions of their team. It became incumbent upon each team to certify to their supervisor that they had the necessary knowledge and preparation for the operation. It immediately places leadership in the hands of those on the frontline. The same can be practiced in any business organization.


The book consists of short chapters, each telling a personal story matched to a lesson on leadership.  Marquet encourages the reader to reflect on their own company throughout each lesson. Each chapter ends with “ Questions to Consider” and the same is pertinent in a business environment as well as other collective community practices.


Visualize your own organization when considering these questions:

  • How can we incentivize long-term thinking?

  • Can we improve overall team interaction differently using the same resources?

  • Are people trying to achieve excellence or do they just tend to avoid making mistakes?

  • How do you shift responsibility for performance from the briefer to the participants?

The leader-leader approach led the crew of Santa Fe in becoming a successful, high-performing team. There was a remarkable turnaround in evaluation scores and crew retention.  One of Marquet’s biggest achievements is that the leader-leader approach and the success that accompanied it continued even after he left Santa Fe.  And it is widely applicable to the corporate world as well. Leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves. Remember, leadership is a choice, not a position.


No matter your hierarchy in your company’s organizational chart, this book applies to a wide array of people. People at the top of the pyramid will learn how they can exhort the passion, intellect, and energy of those below. People on the front lines will also find ways to embrace decision-making and make it easier for bosses to let go of control.

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