Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Building Leaders by Breaking the Rules (David Marquet, 2015)

ship 3.5/4*

I must confess – I didn’t read this in full. I skimmed most chapters, extracting examples I found particularly compelling and coming back to anecdotes and passages I thought were the most valuable. The book was suggested to me by a friend of mine, after I vaguely mentioned wanting to read something on leadership. I also subsequently ended up using a lot of the content for a work presentation (which is fitting, since my job is related to transport), which was received – I thought – pretty well. I generally resist books of this category (self-help/self-development/leadership/business transformation etc. etc.), so was mightily surprised at how much I got out of it, especially considering I didn’t read it in full!

In Turn the Ship Around!, David Marquet, a retired US Navy captain, tells the story of how he managed to completely transform the rankings of nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Santa Fe, by launching a total paradigm shift of the culture on the ship. Naval culture and traditions, I have learnt, are based around very formal, very specific protocols, very much following the traditional leader-follower, command-and-control mode of leadership. When Marquet was suddenly assigned to command USS Santa Fe, after preparing for a year to take control of a different navy ship, USS Olympia (indeed, it takes more than a year to learn all the ins and outs of nuclear submarines!), he was thrust straight into the deep-end (pardon the pun) and, being so unfamiliar with this particular submarine, was forced to re-examine the leadership approaches so common in the Navy. He began making small but very deliberate changes to his behaviour, gradually altering the dynamics between himself and his crew. The USS Santa Fe went from the worst performing ship in the fleet, with the lowest retention and operational standings, to the highest. Even after Marquet’s departure from the ship, the Santa Fe continued to win awards and promoted a disproportionate number of officers and enlisted men to positions of increased responsibility, including ten subsequent submarine captains.

The examples and anecdotes Marquet uses are genuinely fascinating, and do not assume much prior knowledge of navy ships to be appreciated or understood. I was surprised at how useful and practicable I found Marquet’s advice, and how adaptable his main points were. Undoubtedly, that is why he has become such a strong voice in the leadership space, and why the contextual dissimilarities of navy ships from (presumably) most of the target audience’s careers and working lives do not much matter. If anything, it made this all the more engaging to read. I highly doubt that I – and many others – would want to read a manual on leadership in which the author recounts his experiences of corporate life, and so Marquet’s unique story and experiences give the book a particularly distinctive and quirky character. Through his accounts of the various issues and challenges faced on the ship, I also learned a great deal about nuclear submarines, a topic I did not anticipate ever being interested in.

I won’t attempt to break down Marquet’s main tenets of strong leadership here – as that would, no doubt, result in the loss of context and nuance – but I will say that much of the content is not as radical or surprising as one might think. The book’s true achievement, to me, lay in the way that Marquet demonstrated how a real, lasting difference can be made to whatever role it is that one does. The book does not get lost in the minutiae of psychology or management theory. It simply explains, with numerous examples, how to get the most from the people around you, actively empower others (whether junior, or at the same level), and create trust. As Marquet himself says – if this worked on a nuclear submarine, it can probably work within any organisation!

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