Book Review: Turn the Ship Around! How to Create Leadership at Every Level

I just had the pleasure of reading David Marquet’s book, Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders*, and I have been encouraging everyone I see to also read it. Marquet became the commander of one of the worst submarines in the Navy. By using some rather unorthodox methods of leadership, at least by Navy standards, he was able to lead his men from worst to first in two years. More importantly, his crew continued their success long after he left the ship. He transformed the organization from a leader-follower group to a leader-leader group. Instead of requiring constant direction, the crew became self-starters, and easily handled challenges regardless of nature. This is what you want from an organization.

Turn the Ship Around! has 29 chapters spread across four major sections: Starting Over, Control, Competence, and Clarity. In each chapter, Marquet tells a story about what had transpired on the ship and how they responded to the challenge. More importantly, he also describes the lesson learned, the value of each lesson, and how the crew transformed the lesson into standard operating procedures.  At 250 pages, each chapter is only 8 to 10 pages long, enough to grasp the lesson being presented. At the end of each chapter, Marquet includes questions for you and your organization to ponder. He does not necessarily provide the answers, he encourages you to figure it out.

Part I, Starting Over

In Part I, Starting Over, Marquet talks about the lessons learned prior to taking over command of the USS Santa Fe. The USS Santa Fe was not his first ship and not everything he tried was successful. As he talks about the different lessons learned, he also explains why different techniques did not work at the time.

Walking around and listening was my first step in preparing to command Santa Fe (Marquet, 2012, p. 38).

As Marquet explained, the state of the ship was poor because everyone was waiting to be told what to do, as well as working on not get into trouble. This resulted in nothing getting done.

The overwhelming sense on the ship was that we needed to avoid problems: avoid drunken driving citations, avoid liberty incidents, avoid physical fitness failures, avoid tagout errors, avoid rework, and avoid a reactor problem (Marquet, 2012, p. 43).

While Marquet started to set up the processes necessary to make changes, everyone around him were concerned that he would be leading radically different from how the rest of the Navy worked. In the end, the Navy started applying principles established by Marquet and crew. In order to make the changes needed, Marquet had to get the crew to think differently. Rather than focus on eliminating errors, the crew would focus on understanding errors and striving for excellence.

Part II, Control

Marquet’s goal was to pass on control to the officers and crew. To do this, they embraced eight principles:

  • Find the genetic code for control and rewrite it.
  • Act your way to new thinking.
  • Short early conversations make efficient work.
  • Use “I intend to …” to turn passive followers into active leaders.
  • Resist the urge to provide solutions.
  • Eliminate top-down monitoring systems.
  • Think out loud (both superiors and subordinates).
  • Embrace the inspectors.

Very shortly after taking command, Marquet started requiring decisions to made at the lowest level. This often required rewriting the rules to place the authority in the right place. He included an exercise that you can use in your organization to also help place decision making authority in the right place.

One of the concepts that made a great deal of sense to me was to have continuous discussions during a project rather than wait to the last moment to review and discard a final product.

“A little rudder far from the rocks is a lot better than a lot of rudder close to the rocks.” (Marquet, 2012, p. 80)

Having short conversations periodically during a task can help ensure the right result is being sought after. Naturally, Marquet also had to address the issue of trust. In the book, he explains this well.

Another concept that resonated with me was using the phrase “I intend to…” before carrying out an action.

“I INTEND TO …” was an incredibly powerful mechanism for CONTROL. Although it may seem like a minor trick of language, we found that it profoundly shifted ownership of the plan to the officers (Marquet, 2012, p. 87).

By using this tactic, leaders can help develop future leaders,  understand what is about to transpire in the moment, and prevent mishaps before they occur. If the crew did not provide enough information with their intent statement, the leader could ask questions for clarity.

Marquet discussed eliminating top-down monitoring systems. I am personally puzzling over this as I work to figure out how to implement his ideas as the Rocky Mountain Region Chief of Staff. I am not yet comfortable with eliminating top-down monitoring systems, because I like to know what is happening. These systems help me ask the right questions.

Finally, as Marquet distributed control, he encouraged the crew to use inspectors as resources for success. In the military, inspectors ensure that units adher to standards. It only makes sense that highly qualified individuals serve as inspectors and have solutions available to help teams improve. It is up to the teams to use them. This is an area where I believe Civil Air Patrol can do a better job.

Part III – Competence

When Marquet and his crew focused on competence, they held to these principles:

  • Take deliberate action.
  • We learn (everywhere, all the time).
  • Don’t brief, certify.
  • Continuously and consistently repeat the message.
  • Specify goals, not methods.

When faced with a serious mistake on his ship, Marquet took a different approach than what is normal. Typically, as Marquet  pointed out when a serious mistake occurs, we require additional training, more supervision, or some other requirement.  In this case, Marquet and the crew settled on deliberate action because the crew knew the right procedures and were working on autopilot… they actually needed to slow down so errors could be caught in time.

We decided on “take deliberate action” as our mechanism. This meant that prior to any action, the operator paused and vocalized and gestured toward what he was about to do, and only after taking a deliberate pause would he execute the action. Our intent was to eliminate those “automatic” mistakes. (Marquet, 2012, p. 123-124).

As inspectors reported on his crew, “Your guys made the same mistakes—no, your guys tried to make the same number of mistakes as everyone else. But the mistakes never happened because of deliberate action. Either they were corrected by the operator himself or by a teammate.” (Marquet, 2012, p.127)

Marquet has taken time to discuss his method for continuous improvement in a blog post called, Learning from our Mistakes is key to Continuous Improvement. Here’s a 7 step process.

Perhaps one of the most important chapters of the book, at least for me, was that on continuous learning. In order to have decisions made at a lower level, the crew would have to be more knowledgeable; they would have to have a higher level of technical competence. His crew focused on learning everyday. They learned not only about their technical subject but also about leadership, academic subjects, and life. Marquet has included a useful exercise to decide on needed training topics.

The crew also got rid of briefings that no one listens to… what a great idea. Instead, they certify that the team knows what is going on. This requires the team to be knowledgeable before proceeding.

We decided to do away with briefs. From that point on we would do certifications. A certification is different from a brief in that during a certification, the person in charge of his team asks them questions (Marquet, 2012, p. 140).

Marquet noted that to change a culture, you can not simply brief it once, you have to repeat your message over and over and over… and then some.

Part IV – Clarity

As more decision-making authority is pushed down the chain of command, it becomes increasingly important that everyone throughout the organization understand what the organization is about (Marquet, 2012, p. 161).

To achieve the goal of clarity, Marquet and his crew focused on these principles:

  • Achieve excellence, don’t just avoid errors.
  • Build trust and take care of your people.
  • Use your legacy for inspiration.
  • Use guiding principles for decision criteria.
  • Use immediate recognition to reinforce desired behaviors.
  • Begin with the end in mind.
  • Encourage a questioning attitude over blind obedience.

One of the most important things Marquet did while righting the ship was to look past only the ship but to also examine the goals for the crew. By also helping the crew advance, he ultimately helped his overall goal of having the best ship in the Navy. He put mechanisms in place to help his crew be more competitive for promotion and other goals. He took care of his people.

All in all, this is a great book! I would strongly recommend it to anyone who is a leadership position. His recommendations to leading an organization not only make sense but also make a difference as demonstrated by his example… ten years later.  I think this book is so useful I have purchased a copy for the leaders in my Civil Air patrol unit.  I like his ideas of a leader-leader organization. Let me know what you think.


Marquet, David (2012). Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders. Greenleaf Book Group Press. Kindle Edition.

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