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.