[September 28, 2021] In January 1999, U.S. Navy Captain L. David Marquet took command of the nuclear submarine USS Santa Fe (SSN-763). At the time, the sub was known throughout the Navy as its worst-performing vessel and yet had been listed for deployment later that year. The story of Captain Marquet’s success was, at its core, turning followers into leaders and aggressively in pursuit of excellence.
It’s a compelling story about how Captain Marquet took a Navy sub and turned around the performance of its crew. When he took command, he noted that the crew was in a self-reinforcing downward spiral where poor practices resulted in mistakes. These mistakes feed on each other and degraded morale, resulting in the crew having less initiative and only doing the minimum to get by.
Who hasn’t seen this in an organization? The question is, “what do real leaders do about it?” His focus was to change the daily motivation from avoiding errors to achieving excellence. This meant that short-term rewards were sacrificed for longer-term goals. Senior leaders like Marquet know that to achieve excellence means more than just avoiding errors.
However, organizations heavily influenced by bureaucracy will always struggle because the leaders can never get beyond short-term goals and focus on eliminating errors. Reducing mistakes is a byproduct of pursuing excellence, not the other way around.1 The best way to do this is by giving more authority to people in the organization.
Pushing authority, and the motivation, down to those who do the job works because that is where better information on the problem resides. Solutions to practical problems are solved best at the lower levels in any organization.
Many senior leaders are reluctant to do this. Too many have been caught in the trap of their own personality of importance. That is why only the best leaders can effectively distribute their authority; failure is the most likely outcome for those who cannot make this happen. Yet, with authority comes responsibility, accountability, and hard work. And these are the seeds of the most successful organizations.
Leaders can always be successful at pursuing excellence. They do this in many ways, but the most important is recognizing that they must rely on others, avoid micromanagement, and look to long-term goals.
To read more on this story, visit Captain (Retired) Marquet’s website at https://davidmarquet.com/turn-the-ship-around-book/ and read his book (my recommendation link here).
See Simon Sinek’s 2009 book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. Also, see my recommendation here.
Please read my newest book, “Our Longest Year in Iraq,” at Amazon (link here).