A Navy Captain On Why the Best Leaders Don’t Have All the Answers

“The job of the leader is to decide how the team interacts, not what the team does.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • What parents know about leadership that we often forget at the office
  • How David Marquet changed his leadership style when he became the captain of a nuclear submarine
  • Why the job of the leader is to decide how the team interacts, not what the team does

As the captain of a submarine in the U.S. Navy, David Marquet created intent-based leadership. He is a nationally recognized speaker, and authored the bestselling business book Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders. He recently sat down with Ryan Hawk on the Learning Leader Show to discuss how to lead with intention, and why it’s important to not have all the answers.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to David and Ryan’s full conversation, click here.

Ryan: Thinking about people who sustain excellence over an extended period of time—what are the commonalities those people seem to have?

David: It’s an ability to decouple the performance of the organization from personal feelings. If your organization depends upon you making good decisions day in, day out, then that’s a fragile place. One day you’re going to be in a bad mood. One day you didn’t sleep right. One day you didn’t eat what you were supposed to. One day something in your personal life is going to be weighing on your mind, and you’re not going to be focused. You’re not going to make a good decision. So good leaders create a resilient network, where everyone participates in decision-making.

Ryan: You view leadership how most people should view being a parent; you’re trying to raise your kids to be self-sustaining, productive members of society, without the need for their parents anymore. That’s hard, right? We love our kids, and we always want them to want us to be in their lives. But really, our job is to prepare them to do great things without you. It feels like that is your strategy not only with parenting, but also when it comes to leadership in general.

David: Leaders should strive to create independent decision-makers. The other thing parents all know that I think we forget as leaders is that the environment really affects behavior. Parents know this. On Tuesday, Johnny played with a bunch of nice kids, and Johnny was nice. On Wednesday, he played with a bunch of mean kids and Johnny was mean. We know Johnny didn’t change between Tuesday and Wednesday—his DNA didn’t change, his personality didn’t change. The environment was what really triggered the different behavior.

When we become leaders and we see someone who’s not behaving in a helpful way, rather than take a look at the culture that we’ve created, we say, “Oh you need to go to empathy training class.”

“The other thing parents all know that I think we forget as leaders is that the environment really affects behavior.”

Ryan: When you were in the U.S. Naval Academy, you received a leadership book with this quote: “Leadership can be defined as directing the thoughts, plans, and actions of others so as to obtain their command and obedience, their confidence, their respect, and their cooperation.” When you saw that definition of leadership, what were you thinking?

David: When I saw that, I said, “That’s it—that’s what I need to do.” I was this introverted kid who wanted to be a submarine officer, and a very serious student. So I, along with the generation of leaders that I grew up with, took that definition very seriously—leadership was about stamping your personality on others, and telling them what to do. But we know now that this is a fragile leadership approach, because we know of many situations where the leader made a bad decision, but the subordinates didn’t correct it. The answer is to figure out how to stop giving orders, and create a team that doesn’t need to be told what to do.

Ryan: How long did it take you to realize that?

David: I was going merrily along, getting promoted, telling people what to do, having them do it. 17 years later, they said, “Well, congratulations, you’re going be a submarine commander.” Of course, I was very excited about that—you go to school for a year to learn your particular ship. At the last minute, my ship changed to the Santa Fe, which was then the worst-performing ship in the Navy. It had the worst morale—only three sailors re-enlisted in the Navy from the Santa Fe in the previous 12 months.

The Santa Fe was one of the newest ships in the fleet, so it was different from the one I had been prepping for over the last 12 months. So we go to sea, and one of the very first orders I give, the response was, “You can’t do on this ship.” It was basically like saying, “Shift into fifth gear,” but the car only has four gears. But the really shocking thing was that the officer who I passed this order to actually repeated it to the sailors below him, knowing they couldn’t do it. My head literally blew apart.

There were two things that needed to change here. First, I needed to learn the complexity of the ship and get better orders. Second, the crew needed to let go of the cultural stigmas against telling the captain that he or she is wrong.

“We made this deal where I was not going to tell them orders, and they would not wait to be told what to do.”

So, we talked. I said, “I’ll never put you in a position where you tell me I’m wrong, because I’m never going to give an order.” We made this deal where I was not going to tell them orders, and they would not wait to be told what to do. We called it “intent-based leadership”—and it was amazing how well it worked. When the team has to come to you and say, “Here’s what I plan on doing, and here’s what I intend to do,” it’s really a provocation to think and be curious.

Ryan: The reason I think this doesn’t happen more often is because people are insecure as leaders; they feel as though they have to continue to remind people why they’re valuable to the organization. What’s your advice to them to engage with intent-based leadership?

David: If you’re in charge of a team, you’ve got two choices: Either you can be the answer man all the time, or you can create a structure for your team to have a bias for action, and optimize the thinking of everyone on the team as opposed to just you. That’s the decision you’ve got to make.

When you become a leader and you’ve been in the organization a little bit longer, you will probably see the problems first. You might see the solutions first. But you need to remind yourself to create an environment where the team can do these things on its own.

Ryan: How do you define intent-based leadership, or an intent-based environment?

David: Intent-based leadership is creating an environment where people don’t need to be told what to do. We do it in very small, gradual, safe steps. You don’t lean in—you lean back, and that creates space for the team to lean forward into you. This makes “yes” the default, and creates a bias toward action. Most organizations are permission-based organizations where the default is “no,” or waiting for approval. Initially it sounds really scary, but because people know they own their ideas, they become their responsibility. The ideas will be better, and that will change their behaviors.

“The job of the leader is to decide how the team interacts, not what the team does.”

Ryan: One of the things the Navy has in common with the corporate space, or maybe any space, is that you don’t always get to choose your team. How were you able to manage so well with the existing team?

David: All you do is focus your energy on what you can control—how you interact with your team. Do we welcome each other? Do we greet each other? When someone says, “Hey, I saw the new Star Wars movie,” even though I don’t give two hoots about Star Wars, do I take 30 seconds to engage? It’s an invitation to connect. Do I connect with the person, even though maybe it’s not really the thing I want to talk about? Absolutely. Leadership lives and dies right there in that moment.

Ryan: If you get promoted to manager, it’s not your place to start complaining and say, “Well my team’s not any good. It’s not my fault.” You are in control at that point, and it’s your duty to then create a culture of connecting, of caring, of talking to each other. I think that’s our duty as leaders.

One of the questions I ask in my leadership Facebook group is, “What was the training you received when you made the leap from individual contributor to manager?” The overwhelming majority of the people who responded said “nothing.” I’m curious from your perspective, what’s the best piece of advice you would give to them?

David: Talk last; don’t give any answer, even if you think you know what it is. We have two phrases: Number one, “Push authority to information, not information to authority.” In other words, let the people closest to the problem have the authority to make decisions. Number two is, “You want to be a knowing, not a telling leader.” Because then you create a team that wins in the long run—you build and develop your talent.

Ryan: How do you show confidence and competence, if you don’t say anything?

David: You are saying things—you’re directing how the team interacts, how we do work. If someone comes up to you and says, “What do you want me to do?” you stand firm. You say, “I’m not going to tell you. Go talk to three other people, and come back and tell me what you would do if I weren’t here.” The job of the leader is to decide how the team interacts, not what the team does.

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