Turn the Ship Around! (review)

Can a hierarchical military organization tell a story about empowerment? Navy commander David Marquet does it better than any other book I know. He got assigned to one of the worst nuclear submarines and turned it around to one of the best. Others agree:

The book tells the story of David Marquet, newly-elevated commander of the worst-performing nuclear submarine in the US Navy. It was considered a basket case, and he was given it at the last moment, meaning his previous year’s meticulous preparation (for another ship) was for nought. He was under-prepared, and the odds were against him.

Within a year he’d turned it round to be the best-performing, with the staff going on to bigger and better things, and the ship sustaining its newly-acquired status. –The First Non-Bullshit Book About Culture I’ve Read

That review put the book on my reading list. If you work on cultural change in your organization and empowerment is one of the buzzwords thrown around, read this book.

The core message is that you have to divest control and the two pillars to enable that are competence and clarity.

Divest Control

Managers intuitively delegate responsibility down the hierarchy. The challenge is to also provide subordinates the authority to achieve the goal. This idea is not new at all, not even in the military. For example, General Groves used a similar doctrine in the Manhattan project during WW2.

Run it on a military basis with tight vertical lines of authority, delegating responsibility to those you know and trust. Do not get swamped in detail; let only the largest and most important issues rise to the top to resolve. All lesser decisions should be taken care of down below. –Racing for the Bomb

The experience of many leaders is that they tried and then got disappointed. In the short-term, the inverse, a top-down culture, is effective and appreciated. When the heroic top-down leader leaves, people miss him. Unfortunately, performance tanks after the hero leaves because it is not sustainable.

Supervisors frequently bemoan the "lack of ownership" in their employees. When I observe what they do and what practices they have in their organization, I can see how they defeat any attempt to build ownership.

The long-term advantage of divested control is that the organization becomes more agile: Decisions are made quicker because they don't need to travel up the hierarchy so much. The more uncertain your environment and the more hierarchy levels you have, the more important this becomes. (In my organization people love to say "VUCA world" though I'm not convinced that this is a modern phenomenon.)

Where is your organization at empowerment? Consider the language the people use around you when they address a superior. Do sentences start like "I would like to...", "Could we...", or "What should I do about..."? For contrast, empowered phrases are "I intend to...", "I plan to...", or "I will..." In my workplace, I certainly hear the former phrases more often. Marquet envisions an ideal culture where a leader does not give orders but only acknowledges intentions from below. At one occasion, he gave an order which made no sense and his subordinate complied by relaying the order without question. Later Marquet asked, if he knew the order made no sense.

"Yes, Captain, I did."

"Well, why did you order it?" I asked, astounded.

"Because you told me to."


"I thought you'd learned something secret at PCO school that they only tell the COs about."

He was being perfectly honest. [...] What happens in a top-down culture when the leader is wrong? Everyone goes over the cliff. I vowed henceforth never to give an order, any order.

Now that you know the advantages of divested control and know that your organization is not there yet, you want to get there. Where to start? Marquet suggests the borders of your organization:

First, identify where excellence is created in your company. There may be some internal processes that generate excellence and there may be some interface processes that generate excellence. Generally I find that interfaces with the customer and with the physical world are two key interfaces. Then figure out what decisions the people responsible for the interfaces need to make in order to achieve excellence. Finally, understand what it would take to get those employees to be able to make those decisions. This typically requires an intersection of the right technical knowledge, a thorough understanding of your organization's goals, authority to make the decision, and responsibility for the consequences of the decisions made.

Now we return to the two pillars: Are people able to take responsibility and authority (competence)? Do people know the goals (clarity)?


Lack of leadership competence is probably the most mentioned problem of failed empowerment initiatives. If people are empowered with responsibility and authority, they need to lead themselves better than before. In many cases it happens too quickly, so people are overwhelmed.

Of course, training people for their job is one of the core responsibilities of management. For example, the venerable Dr. Deming explicitly highlights it.

Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement. –Dr. Deming’s 14 Points for Management

Unfortunately, most trainings only focus on getting administrative process done and to minimize errors that hurt the organization before. Marquet defines their training goals differently:

I began to look at our training program in a new light. It wasn't an administrative program, and it wasn't a program to minimize errors. Instead, it was a key enabler that allowed us to pass decision-making authority to lower and lower levels on [the submarine].

  • The purpose of training is to increase technical competence.
  • The result of increased technical competence is the ability to delegate increased decision making to the employees.
  • Increased decision making among your employers will naturally result in greater engagement, motivation, and initiative.

How do you train leadership? Marquet says "on the job" and refers to the language aspect mentioned above, for example. What comes after "I intend to..."? An activity plus context information. Learning to communicate this well is leadership training.

Initially, they would provide some information, but not all. Most of the time, however, the officers outlined their complete thought processes and rationale for what they were about to do.

The benefit from this simple extension was that it caused them to think at the next higher level. The OODs needed to think like the captain, and so on down the chain of command. In effect, by articulating their intentions, the officers and crew were acting their way into the next higher level of command. We had no need of leadership development programs; the way we ran the ship was the leadership development program.

One interesting approach from Marquets ship is that they abolished briefings. Nobody really listens there. Instead they "certify". That means instead of the boss standing in the front explaining how and operation is intended to go, that boss asks questions. The subordinates must prepare in advance. If the questions are answered good enough, the boss certifies that his team is ready. If team cannot show adequate knowledge, the operation should be postponed. That puts a higher burden on the boss because they need to ensure that the team has understood it. Previously, they could blame people for not listening well enough in the briefing.

An unsurprising message is to avoid micromanagement. While it makes sense during onboarding, in general you should tell people the goal instead of the way to achieve it. That gives them the freedom to improve the details on their own. For an example, Marquet tells how the goal of a fire exercise is not to certify compliance to processes.

Specifying goals, not methods is a mechanism for competence. In our case, this was because the crew was motivated to devise the best approach to putting out the fire. Once they were freed from following a prescribed way of doing things they came up with many ingenious ways to shave seconds off our response time.


If people are competent enough to achieve the goals but still miss, there must be confusion what the goals were. Managers usually underestimate how well known the strategy is in their organization. What Marquet terms "goals", I would rather describe as values instead. Goals in the measurable sense do come up in the book but only shortly. The clarity part is about values like excellence.

Reducing mistakes would be an important side benefit of attaining our primary goal, achieving excellence. Excellence was going to be more than philosophy statement pasted to the bulkhead; it was going to be how we lived, ate, and slept.

Larger companies try to communicate their values. Employees ridicule it. Marquet also used "guiding principles" but acknowledges that they are hard to get right. His meta guiding principle is this:

I wanted to make the guiding principles real, not something that just hung on the wall somewhere. When thinking about the principles and their utility, I used this question: If I were a crew member and faced with deciding between two different courses of action, would these principles provide me with the right criteria against which to select the appropriate course of action?

The guiding principles needed to do just that: provide guidance on decisions.

Marquet had regular mentoring sessions with each of his direct reports. This is where concrete and measurable goals came up.

I asked each of them to write their end-of-tour awards. Since these supervisors are assigned to the submarine for three years, this particular exercise made them look that far into the future. [...] Two years later, when Dave transferred off Santa Fe, his department had accomplished almost everything he'd written down, and the actual citation sounded just like our vision.


As mentioned above top-down management stops working once the hero leader disappears. Marquet also tells how his changes lingered on. His ship promoted a record number of people who further spread his ideas. The ship won further awards after he had left. The language (I intend to...) has spread to other ships as well. Marquet changed processes and that hardened into culture.

At the end, Marquet warns that you shouldn't follow the book too closely.

In my work as consultant after leaving the U.S. Navy, I have discovered that each organization is different and unique. [...] Your mechanisms will be structurally similar, but the specifics will be different.

Commander Marquet was in a unique position to change things: Captain of a submarine is a relatively autonomous leadership position and subordinates are trained to follow. His superior gave him a lot of freedom because the ship was one of the worst anyways and Marquet broke quite a few rules. That turned out fine because he was successful. If your position makes change harder, Switch or The Heart of Change are good followup books.

The Culture Code is about effective teams in general. The evidence it references is more diverse than a single story.

The best book about empowerment. Turns a submarine from worst to best.