What Managers can learn from Captain David Marquet – Based on a true story

The following thoughts are based on the real life story of Capt David Marquet on his assignment for Santa Fe. The principles are apt for managing IT  knowledge workers ; try them in real life and see the difference! Fine print: Don’t expect the change to occur during overnight.

One school of thought is that leaders are born having natural leadership qualities that have been passed on by their forefathers from generation to generation while the other equally compelling idea is that any individual, if given the opportunity, the right training, gains noteworthy life-changing experiences and possess the right attitude can be molded to become a great leader.


Fast forward to Capt. David Marquet a former submarine commander.  He has been studying for a year to command S/S Olympia but after a last minute shift in assignments, he found himself assigned to S/S Santa Fe which had the reputation of being the worst ship in the U. S. Naval fleet and he has to get it ready for inspection in six months.


Mr. Marquet gave us radical ways of leading people, breaking away from the myth that a good leader should bear all the responsibilities and make all the decisions that can make or break any organization. His ideas were contrary to our age-old stereotypes of leaders who essay that a group’s performance deteriorates when a “good” leader leaves; conversely, Mr. Marquet believes that the group deteriorated because he did not effectively train his people to become leaders themselves and now they are lost without his authoritarian type of leadership.


Today, Capt. Marquet is enjoying the respect and admiration for his innovative but highly successful leadership style.  Evidently, even Capt. Marquet will reject this preposterous idea because he admits that he was just like those controlling and highly-stressed stereotype managers.  If he was to follow the leadership instincts he thought worked for him in the past, then he will just be barking orders to his people to do this and that,  expect to hear no more than their crisp “Aye, aye, Captain,” and accomplish very little.   Of course, this sad nuclear submarine environment could well be another badly managed workplace – with bad-performing employees having very low self-esteem, high attrition, in a highly charged and highly-stressful environment.


Even for a well-trained trained and experienced captain, being dumped with a new assignment with very little time to prepare is just too much to handle especially if there will just be one thinking brain and a whole bunch of nothing but compliant sailors.  Then it hit him with clarity – “I have to turn these guys into thinking men, capable of making informed decisions within their turf. “


  1. Leadership requires open mindedness and exploring new ideas, so if you are ready for some radical leadership education, there are a lot of brave and challenging ideas we can learn from Capt. David Marquet: Never give an order, but give them intent, the objective for any action they will take. Then they will start to think what the best solution is to a problem, and then they will give their intent to you.  What happens is the psychological ownership of the task is shifted to the proponent of the solution. For instance, Toyota deems that employees should take ownership in the company by spotting quality defects and finding the solution to increase efficiency.  This philosophy has made Toyota the third world’s largest vehicle producer.
  2. Rather than striving to be solely in control, give your people control.   However, the following need to be in place before you can do this.  They should have the technical competence which can be acquired from rigorous training and experience; and they should know, without a doubt, that it will be the right thing to do based on the mission statement.   People can learn leadership from business schools but for the most part, they learn by being on the job and sometimes by making mistakes.  Once a young IBM executive committed a mistake that cost IBM US$30,000 and he was ready to get fired.  But Thomas Watson, IBM’s founder asked “Why will I fire you, we just spent $30,000 educating you.”  Sometimes leadership exercise can be expensive but the rewards can be invaluable.
  3. Giving control change people.  How?  They become more impassioned and involved with what they do, they engage themselves and become committed participants.  They assume responsibility for their decisions because they know that they can make a difference.  At the Santa Fe, a few days after Capt. Marquet decided never to give another order (except for launching a torpedo or any weapon that would involve loss of lives) and to let the crew find the answers to their problems. All members of Capt. Marquet’s crew took responsibility for their job from the simplest clerical work to the most crucial battle decisions. The benefits were obviously extended to their overall wellbeing, as they become happier, healthier and higher self-esteem.  On the other hand, taking control away from people turn them into frustrated, robotic individuals bereft of enthusiasm, happiness and good health, a big dose of apathy.Create a thinking environment where everybody is allowed to think, take the initiative, become creative and proactive, and make informed decisions.  The premise is they have access to the right and relevant information, they got the answer and these can be the basis for a sound decision.  How will this benefit the organization?  Critical decisions can be made faster with no unnecessary delay caused by red tape and too much debate.
  4. Employees should be trained for critical thinking rather than being compliant.  Being in authority does not make you always right.  We are not lacking in many real-life corporate stories which a lot of people can relate to, where those in authority can be so incompetent.  As Capt. Marquet refers to a real-life experience, a crew trained for compliance and a captain trained for the wrong ship can be a deadly combination; Here the captain can issue a wrong or uninformed decision and if the crew just follows there could be deadly consequences.   A case in point is the incident that that occurred at S/S Santa Fe.  On one of the drills, Capt. Marquet ordered something that was not possible for the Santa Fe.  Yet the Navigator, a Sr. Department Manager ordered the helm despite knowing fully well that the order cannot be executed.  When Capt.  Marquet asked him why he proceeded to order it even he knows it is not executable, his answer was, “Because you told me to.”
  5. Implementing these brave ideas is not hard.   But the real challenge will be within you.  Having been deeply immersed in years of being in sole control, it might just be too hard, almost impossible to let go of control and more so share them with your subordinates. If you can prevail upon yourself to get out of this age-old practice, then you will be developing a breed of leaders that you can consult with in a leader to leader rather than leader to follower approach.  Mr. Marquet challenges us to learn to resist the desire to take control from others because this is the only way we can turn our ship around and by doing so achieve the most lasting and greatest success.

Never doubt that Mr. Marquet can talk the talk and walk the walk because as soon as he implemented this leader-leader framework and as all his crew developed into leaders and started to assume responsibility for their own decisions, the Santa Fe become the most awarded vessel of the U. S. Navy.  A great achievement for the captain and the crew of a vessel that started off as the worst vessel among the lot, don’t you think?

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