Friday, August 24, 2012

Empowerment is Not Enough

Guest post by David Marquet:

When I took command of the USS Santa Fe I thought I would be a leader who empowered his subordinates. The nuclear powered submarine was not performing well. People were doing what they were told, initiative was non-existent and fear of making mistakes paralyzed most decision makers into inaction. Plagued with poor morale and operational problems, almost every sailor who could was leaving the navy. Retention was at the bottom of the fleet. Based upon my Naval Academy leadership training, I set about inspiring and empowering my men, upholding high standards of professionalism and exhorting the benefits of teamwork.

Shortly after taking command I did what no captain of a nuclear submarine should ever do – I made a mistake. I suggested to the Officer of the Deck, the watch officer who actually orders the submarine’s speed and depth that he order something that was not possible at the time. The startling thing was that he immediately ordered it. He later told me that he knew it wasn’t executable but ordered it anyway because I “told him to.” I realized that we had a crew that was trained for compliance, not critical thinking.

The officers and I gathered in the wardroom to discuss how we were going to survive the next three years. We decided that we’d flip the typical leadership paradigm. Instead of “taking control, making followers” I would “give control, create leaders.”

We found dozens of examples where the way we did business sent the signal that people were supposed to do what they were told, and absolved them of true responsibility. It turns out that if your leadership is based on the belief that there are leaders and there are followers, empowerment is just a band aid for the fact that I’ve turned you into a follower. Once treated like a follower, people act like followers. It saps their passion and initiative.

For example, the briefings we did where we briefed an event before it happened. A brief is an active event for the briefer but passive for everyone else. They “are briefed.” In other words, show up, we’ll tell you what to do. We eliminated all briefs and replaced them with certifications where the junior officers and sailors reported their anticipated actions to a senior officer. that senior officer weighed the depth of the responses and decided whether or not the team was ready to conduct the event.

Officers were encouraged to “check out” with their boss. Typically these checkouts consisted of asking if there was anything else the boss had for them. We eliminated these as well because this again sends the signal that it’s the boss that is responsible for determining what needs to be done in your job, not you. The same is true with the elaborate tracking and “to-do” systems we had so we eliminated those as well.

These, and dozens of other mechanisms shifted the culture on the boat from “you tell me what to do and I’ll do it” to “I’ll figure out what needs to be done, and get it done.”

We learned a tremendous amount as we gave more and more decision making authority to the crew. (we called this control.) We learned that control by itself is not enough, just as empowering people to make decisions is not enough. Control needed to be coupled with higher levels of technical competence and higher levels of organizational clarity in order to align the decision making of the crew. The full story is in the book, Turn the Ship Around! which contains the stories, lessons, and many mechanisms we used.

Santa Fe performed superbly while I served as its captain. The release of intellectual power, distributed decision making, and passion were overwhelming. We went from worst to first in most operational measures including retention. What was special, however, was that the leadership structure embedded the “goodness” of what we did in the people and practices of the submarine which continued to do well long after my departure. Only 10 years later can we assess the true success of that work—with Santa Fe’s continued operational excellence and the implausibly high promotion rates for its officers and crew. This is the legacy of giving control, creating leaders.

About the Author
David Marquet graduated with distinction from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1981, and led a distinguished 28 year career in the United States Navy's Submarine Force, serving on submarines in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As commander of the nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine USS Santa Fe (SSN 763), stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, David captained a crew that went from being "worst to first." The USS Santa Fe earned numerous awards, including the Arleigh Burke Award for being the most improved ship in the Pacific, as well as the Battle "E" award for most combat effective ship in Submarine Squadron Seven, and for retention excellence. David is also the founder and President of the consulting firm Turn the Ship Around LLC, and creator of the blog Leader - Leader.

8 comments:

Dan Forbes said...

David, I have read your book, "Turn the Ship Around!" and found it fascinating. I couldn't put it down.

Anyone looking for fresh, transformational leadership ideas should read it.

I have shared many of your stories with others as we talked about leadership.

commandperformanceleadership said...

David,

Your words in this post, and in your book, as well as the results you experienced through the empowerment of your crew, reveals a solid, well-proven leadership approach that is desparately needed in today's workplace. It comes down to giving people real responsibility and real authority. When put into action, this approach inspires people and leadership at all levels. On the USS Santa Fe, your leadership structure created a favorable environment in which the crew were released to grow their knowledge and skills, ultimately gaining the autonomy over their tasks and resources to become leaders. At the same time, your approach challenged the paradigm of the hierarchical organization by revealing the process to tear down pyramids, create a flat organization, and to develop leaders, not followers.

I congratulate you on your many accomplishments throughout your Navy career, and especially onboard the USS Santa Fe. You are an impressive and remarkable person, and your book is a must read.

Bill Fox said...

David, many great points here, but I'd like to highlight one in particular: "…we had a crew that was trained for compliance, not critical thinking." Focusing on compliance at the expense of critical thinking is a disease that’s just as deadly as any biological disease known to man. This is the plight at far too many organizations that results in legions of workers toiling away, frustrated and underperforming. Thanks for all the great ideas on how we can effectively put the focus on where it needs to be.

Interestingly, I posted my interview with you at my blog today where you speak to many of these same points. In case anyone is interested, here’s the link: http://5minutespisuccess.com/?p=750

Bill

Jim Taggart said...

David,

Thank you for a very timely post in a time when people are focused on the bottom line and have lost perspective on the important, not the urgent. Your message on empowerment is key: people cannot be empowered; they can only empower themselves. But this means creating conditions and the leaders, which you note.

The other vital message you share concerns compliance, a behavior that I suspect is gaining ground in organizations. Your work over time reflects the leadership trait of enrolling people in a shared vision, as opposed to telling them what to do and demanding compliance.

Joe said...

Great book, Dave. I wish more leaders took your approach, but unfortunately many leaders still cling to old ideas. Some of those folks following the old leader-follower model sometimes claiming: “The old way worked just fine for me. I had a successful organization.” It’s true that the leader-follower model can work; it just requires an infallible leader, or at least one that doesn’t commit any serious errors. Even then, the organization’s success will be limited by the talents and vision of it’s leader. The leader-leader model is a much more effective framework for harnessing and releasing the enthusiasm and creative energy of every member in an organization.

Joe said...

Great book, Dave. I wish more leaders took your approach, but unfortunately many leaders still cling to old ideas. Some of those folks following the old leader-follower model sometimes claiming: “The old way worked just fine for me. I had a successful organization.” It’s true that the leader-follower model can work; it just requires an infallible leader, or at least one that doesn’t commit any serious errors. Even then, the organization’s success will be limited by the talents and vision of it’s leader. The leader-leader model is a much more effective framework for harnessing and releasing the enthusiasm and creative energy of every member in an organization.

Beth Armknecht Miller said...

David, Any leader who has struggled with transforming their organization into one of sustainable leadership needs to read your book. I have recommended it to a number of executive coaching clients of mine and continue to recommend it.

The key concept that I took away is that a leader needs to have the courage and conviction if they want to transform an organization. You had so much persistance during the change process and I have to believe that there is only a small percentage of leaders who would have persisted through the setbacks you encountered.

@kstaxman said...

Well Dave I think that your article pretty well explains how to lead and do so in a successful way.

What so many fail to understand about leadership is that you can lead and lead very effectively (take the leader of the Charge of the Light Brigade) but that doesn't mean that your results are what you want. To charge into the valley and die just because you were ordered too isn’t effective leadership.

A truly effective leader wants to not only have their orders, commands, and wished carried out they want them done so in a way that results in a successful outcome. To have that happen those that follow must have the freedom to point out possible problems or better ways to do something. That’s the empowerment you speak of.

And when you add to that a respect for those you lead you find they come to understand that not only are they given empowerment they are expected to use it and to think on their own as well as follow orders. For if you have to always think of everything and nothing gets done besides what is ordered done only the limited abilities of the leader are tapped. That waists all the abilities and knowledge of those under your command and hurts moral as well.

Plus in such in environment everyone has a feeling of worth and knows that while they are expected to do as ordered they are also expected to help by being responsible for providing feedback and creative responses as well as blindly following orders. A good leader wants followers not zombies.