Year 4 / Book 52: Turn the Ship Around!


52) Turn the Ship Around! by David Marquet

So the last book of 2019 (finally caught up on reviews!) is a book by a submarine captain about how he turned round the worst fleet in the US Navy. Of course, it’s actually a leadership / business / management book which shares those lessons in such a way that any organisation could use them – or at least that is the premise….there were quite a few times during the book that I thought “I’m not sure lending money to a charity is quite the same as firing a torpedo at the enemy in the Arabian Gulf”, but I read to the end nonetheless.

Marquet’s central strand is that we should all aim for ‘leader-leader’ structures, rather than the more traditional ‘leader-follower’ – generally this means divesting control in various ways, but doing so only if competence & clarity are also there. Much of this is familiar to anyone who’s read anything about employee engagement or empowerment change programmes: but what I liked about this book and his approach is that he makes it very concrete and tangible – here are the very practical things (ways of speaking, ways of behaving, ways of codifying, generating agreement) that we did that helped inculcate this change we were looking for. Often leadership books fall into the trap of telling you where you should get to, but a lot less on the how.

There are some useful nuggets for the leader or aspiring leader on how to genuinely devolve power and allow room for debate and solutions from all. I enjoyed one note to “cherish the dissension; if everyone thinks like you, you don’t need them” and another about ensuring the process is in service of the objective, rather than becoming the objective itself. The latter tends to be about avoiding errors, while the former tends to be about achieving excellence.

There was plenty else that resonated with me. Short, early conversations which help guide a piece of work or activity (rather than long, substantive meetings later on to amend or revise) chimed with effective organisations I’ve been part of. Similarly, the idea that authority needs to go towards where the information is held, rather than the information travelling (upwards) to where the authority is seemed to be a neat encapsulation of where such work is trying to get to, but often struggles.

Where I struggled at times, as I mentioned above, was the translatability of all of the tools and techniques. Ultimately a submarine is a tightly enclosed ship with a captive (!) audience of people used to taking orders – even if those orders are to do everything differently to what they’ve done before! Also, I can’t imagine some of the repetitious sentence formations or measures being appropriate anywhere else except such a tightly regulated environment.

That aside, I find that I can judge a business book these days by how much I highlight or how many pages I turn down – and this one had enough highlighted to warrant me coming back to it, and thinking through how elements can apply to what I do. And there’s no doubt that Marquet’s is an inspiring story and one that he tells pretty well – including being fairly open about (some of) what didn’t work, and about his own failure to really give up on leader-follower. For managers & leaders, this is well worth a read.

Score: 7/10

BUY IT NOW:  Turn The Ship Around!: A True Story of Building Leaders by Breaking the Rules

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