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E107 | Taking Charge By Letting Go with L. David Marquet

“The journey of leadership is a journey to irrelevance. It has to be. Otherwise you’re just a do-er, you’re an individual contributor like everybody else.”

The problem with military command is that when you say ‘jump’, your subordinates are supposed to say ‘how high?’, regardless of the danger or the stupidity of the order. 

L. David Marquet realised there was something fundamentally wrong with this form of blind leadership when he took command of the USS Santa Fe, the US Navy’s submarine with the worst morale out of all its ships. 

David didn’t know his way around this submarine, he wasn’t trained on it, but he was still expected to command it. He realised that the only way to take control and quite literally turn the ship around, was to adopt a radical approach to leadership. 

He decided to empower his subordinates as they knew far more about their day to day roles than he did – he told them to take ownership of their decisions. He needed the ship to manage itself. 

His revolutionary approach to leadership went against everything he’d been taught, but it worked. In the three years under David’s command, the Santa Fe rose from the bottom of the ranks to being the number one ship in the US navy. 

In this latest episode, David shares his story, how he had to park his ego in order to succeed and how he relinquished control in order to take command. This is a truly fascinating conversation with actionable insights. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did. 

“I used to be a control freak. Well actually, I’m still wired to be a control freak. But I’m trying to get over it.”

On today’s podcast:

  • Get out of the decision making business
  • From permission to proactivity 
  • You can’t change characteristics, only behaviour
  • The psychological safety net
  • The power of ‘I don’t know’  
  • How to play the feedback game


L. David Marquet took command of the Santa Fe despite not being trained on it. Early in his command he made an embarrassing blunder and issued a wrong order. The order was subsequently carried out and he was deeply humiliated. 

But he realised that he hadn’t in fact given the precise order, he’d told another officer to issue the order, an officer who knew the submarine and who knew that the order couldn’t be carried out. But because it was the captain’s order, he passed it along anyway. Because that was how the chain of command in the military worked. 

“When you think your job as a leader is to make decisions, and you make a bad decision, then you think that the solution is to make better decisions. This is not the solution. The solution is to get out of the decision making business.”

Stop making all the decisions

David knew there and then that things aboard the Santa Fe had to change. He couldn’t tell the crew what to do because he himself didn’t know how to do it. He needed the crew to take ownership of their jobs, he needed the ship to run on its own without needing him at the helm. 

“What you want is the team to make decisions and you to evaluate them. And you want to separate the decision-maker from the decision evaluator.”

What value is there in empowering subordinates?

Well, says David, “if you’re not the one who makes the decision, you can more dispassionately look at the decision. As soon as you make a decision, you’ve attached some portion of your ego to that decision.”

And when you’re passionate about your decision, regardless of whether it’s a good one or not, you’ll defend it. 

“It’s very hard for someone who made the decision to then walk away from the decision, but it’s easy if it’s somebody else’s.”

The decision-making factory

David set about creating a structure aboard the Santa Fe to build a decision-making factory. 

“I just told my officers, ‘Look, guys, we’re in a bad way. I’m trying to tell you what to do. You’re trying to do it. I don’t know the ship, you do, we’re gonna die. How about I never give an order?’”

He knew the crew would make consistently quality decisions and that they would own them because they knew their jobs inside out. They would make a decision and use the phrase ‘I intend to…’ and then if they didn’t expressly get permission or refusal to carry out their decision, they would go ahead and do it, because by expressing intent they would carry out the action. 

David reckons most organisations are permission-based, and that is what holds them back. 

“I would like permission to change the marketing plan. I’d like permission to add this feature, I’d like permission to give this kind of discount. And then if the boss is too busy, what happens? Nothing. Nothing is the default state. When I go to intent, action is the default state.”

As David says, ‘you say I intend to launch a torpedo, if nobody says no, you carry on and launch the torpedo.”

How to implement a change in leadership

You start at the top of the organisation and you let it filter down. You have everyone saying out loud what they’re about to do, not just the leaders, but the team members too. When you tell someone to just go and do it, the communication dries up. In permission-based organisations, people are conditioned to communicate to get permission. 

The easiest way to change the leadership structure in an organisation from permission-based to intent is to thrive on feedback. You want people to go around saying ‘I’m thinking about doing this, what do you guys think?’

There will always be people who don’t get on with this way of leadership, there are always people who like to be told what to do. And that’s OK, it just means that your organisation isn’t the place for them. 

“You can’t change their innate characteristics, but you can change their behaviours. By creating an environment for the behaviours you want, is easier for them to do. That’s the key, that’s what leaders do.”

The power of ‘I don’t know’

If you want people to get on board with your plan, you have to change your language. As the leader, you have to accept that you don’t have all the answers, that there is uncertainty and ambiguity, and you have to be able to say ‘I don’t know, but let’s go and find out the answer’. 

It gives your team a psychological safety net that allows them to take risks without fear of repercussion if they know that the boss doesn’t have all the answers. If you can’t say you don’t know, your team will never say they don’t know and if they don’t say it, none of you will ever learn anything.

“You have to model that vulnerability first. If you can’t do it, they’re not gonna do it.”

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