A Submarine Captain On The Power Of Leadership Language

You think your office is a pressure cooker? Try commanding a nuclear-powered warship.

Captain David Marquet was supposed to command another submarine but was vectored to the USS Santa Fe at the last minute. The Santa Fe was in the hurt locker: morale was low, performance was low, retention was at the bottom of the fleet. The subsequent journey caused him to rethink everything about leadership he'd been taught. This excerpt is part of that story.

"Conn, maneuvering, reactor scram!" The reactor had just shut down. The engineer inserted the shutdown deliberately, testing his department's ability to find and repair a simulated fault.

The Officer of the Deck was my senior department head, Lieutenant Commander Bill Greene, and he was doing all the right things. We had shifted propulsion from the main engines to an auxiliary electric motor, the EPM, to turn the propeller. The EPM can only power the ship at low speed and draws down the battery.

The ship was coming shallow in order to use its diesel engine to provide electrical power and keep the battery charged until the reactor was restarted. During the long troubleshooting period while the nuclear electronics technicians were isolating the fault, I started to get bored. I fiddled with my flashlight, turning it on and off. Things were going too smoothly. I couldn't let the crew think their new captain was easy!

I nudged Bill and suggested we increase speed from "ahead 1/3" to "ahead 2/3" on the EPM to give the nuclear-trained enlisted men a sense of urgency. This would significantly increase the rate of battery discharge and put pressure on the troubleshooters to find and correct the fault quickly. At "ahead 2/3," there is a near continuous click-click-click on the battery amp-hour meter. An audible reminder that time is running out.

"Ahead 2/3," he ordered.

Nothing happened.

The helmsman should have reached over and rung up ahead 2/3. Instead, I could see him squirming in his chair. No one said anything and several awkward seconds passed. Noting that the order hadn't been carried out, I asked the helmsman what was going on. He was facing his panel but reported over his shoulder, "Captain, there is no ahead 2/3 on the EPM!"

I had made a mistake. I'd been shifted to command Santa Fe at the last minute and unlike every other submarine I'd been on, there was only a 1/3 on the EPM.

I applauded the helmsman and grabbed Bill, the officer on deck—the OOD. In the corner of the control room, I asked him if he knew there was no ahead 2/3 on the EPM.

"Yes, Captain, I did."

"Well, why did you order it?" I asked, astounded.

"Because you told me to."

He was being perfectly honest. By giving that order, I took the crew right back to the top-down command and control leadership model. That my most senior, experienced OOD would repeat it was a giant wake-up call about the perils of that model for something as complicated as a submarine. What happens when the leader is wrong in a top-down culture? Everyone goes over the cliff. I vowed henceforth never to give an order, any order. Instead, subordinates would say "I intend to…."

Mechanism: Use "I intend to . . ." to turn passive followers into active leaders

Although it may seem like a minor trick of language, we found "I intend to…" profoundly shifted ownership of the plan to the officers.

"I intend to . . ." didn't take long to catch on. The officers and crew loved it.

A year later, I was standing on the bridge of the Santa Fe with Dr. Stephen Covey. He'd heard what we were doing and was interested in riding a submarine. By this point, the crew had fully embraced our initiatives for control, and "I intend to . . ." was prominently visible. Throughout the day the officers approached me with "I intend to."

"Captain, I intend to submerge the ship. We are in water we own, water depth has been checked and is 400 feet, all men are below, the ship is rigged for dive, and I've certified my watch team."

I'd reply "Very well" and off we'd go.

The Power of Words

The key to your team becoming more proactive rests in the language subordinates and superiors use.

Here is a short list of "disempowered phrases" that passive followers use:

  • Request permission to . . .
  • I would like to . . .
  • What should I do about . . .
  • Do you think we should . . .
  • Could we . . .

Here is a short list of "empowered phrases" that active doers use:

  • I intend to . . .
  • I plan on . . .
  • I will . . .
  • We will . . .

Later, I heard from a friend of mine who had taught future submarine commanders how frustrated he was by the inability of too many officers to make decisions at the command level. He said that these officers "came from good ships" but would become paralyzed when it came to tough decision making. I took issue with his categorizing them as "good ships." By using that term, he meant ships that didn't have problems—at least that we knew about. But this had obviously been accomplished using a top-down, leader-follower structure where the captain made the decisions. Had those officers practiced "I intend to…" when they were second-in-command, they would have been practiced in decision making.

This shows the degree to which we reward personality-centered leadership structures and accept the limitations. These may have been good ships, in that they avoided problems, but it certainly was not good leadership.

Questions to Consider

  • What causes us to take control when we should be giving control?
  • Can you recall a recent incident where your subordinate followed your order because he or she thought you had learned secret information "for executives only"?
  • What would be the most challenging obstacle to implementing "I intend to . . ." in your place of business? 

From Turn the Ship Around!: How to Create Leadership at Every Level (Greenleaf 2012) by L. David Marquet, Captain, U.S. Navy (Retired).

[Image: Flickr user UKMOD]

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23 Comments

  • Lyle Emerson George

    That's the Bill Greene I know. Had the pleasure of working with him at PSNS.

  • Louis David Marquet

    Thanks Fast Company readers! The book is now day 8 as the #1 Hot New Release on Amazon's leadership list. 

  • Liz Wiseman

    This is a great message, because Captain Marquet's work to build new leadership models shows that if it can be done on a nuclear submarine, it can be done everywhere.   I read the book and thought it was inspiring.

  • Amber King

    Agree with Beth. Choice of words do have a big impact on people. That is why we have to watch our mouth. As for leaders, we have to be careful on what we say and how we say it. Its impact can be sail or sink a ship.

  • Bill Fox

    David, thanks for sharing this amazing story. Having served on a fast attack nuclear submarine myself, it’s easy for me to see how your approach would have had amazingly transformative impact on the crew. For me, it’s another dramatic demonstration of the power asking the right questions, which is a practice I work to promote at 5minutespisuccess.com. We need to awaken the transformative energy that exists in every person and organization. Just like your crew when you came aboard, too many are idly standing by carrying out orders that often times don’t make sense, add value or make any sense for anyone.

  • Dan Forbes

    David, Are you saying that as the Captain you would say, "I intend to...to your subordinates?"  I understand your subordinates coming to you with that phrase, that makes sense.  Help me understand.

    Loved the post.

  • Louis David Marquet

    No. I would keep my mouth shut. The subordinates would say "I intend to..." to me and I would say "very well." This gave them psychological ownership in a BIG way.

  • Brad Rex

    David--

    I like your premise of empowering those you lead and think it would work well in the business and military worlds.  How about in other areas of leadership, like non-profits?  How do the principles apply broadly?

    P.S. Love your book.  Fascinating stories that bring back memories of my time as a nuclear submariner.

  • Louis David Marquet

    Brad, I think they apply to any organization that wants to give people the maximum opportunity for exercising their natural passion and creativity. There's another book on non-profits I recommend. My book review is here: http://davidmarquet.com/2012/0...

  • Beth Miller

    I couldn't agree more that the choice of words has a huge impact on meaning and the behavior that follows. As an executive coach much of my time is spent on communications and how leaders can be more effective and collaborative with the right choice of statements and asking great probing questions.  On the flip side is listening.  Leaders should be listening more than talking.

    Beth Armknecht Miller

  • Louis David Marquet

    Thanks Beth. you are right about listening.....what I did n't hear you because I was just waiting my turn to talk.

  • Dale R. Wilson

    David Marquet’s message in Turn the Ship Around! inspires the empowerment of engaged people and leadership at all levels.  He encourages leaders to release energy, intellect, and passion in everyone around them.  On the USS Santa Fe, David created a favorable environment in which people were released to grow their knowledge and skills, ultimately gaining the autonomy over their tasks and resources to become leaders.  Turn the Ship Around! challenges the paradigm of the hierarchical organization by revealing the process to tear down pyramids, create a flat organization, and to develop leaders, not followers.

  • Erik

    Having served on nuclear submarines myself, I especially enjoyed reading this blog post. Also noted was the need to foster the decision making abilities of personnel as they rise to leadership positions.  Definitely adding this book to my list of "required reading!"

    Erik von Werlhof

  • David

    There is al ot to be learned from Marquet's book.  His own story of success and leadership makes for an interesting read unto itself, but it also lends a tremendous amount of practical advice that addresses the forward-thinking way today's leaders must work with those around them to achieve success at all levels.   If you are in the market for a leadership book, pick this one up!

  • Louis David Marquet

    David, thanks so much for your kind words. I learned a lot about myself and about leadership that I wanted to share. It didn't end up the book I thought I was writing at the beginning.

  • Sebastian

    It`s already on my list. Any other books you would recommend concerning leadership?

  • Louis David Marquet

    Sebastian, not sure whether you were directing to me (L. David) or David above. But here's my short list:
    -Collins and Porras Built to Last
    -Stephen Covey Seven Habits
    -Deming Out of the Crisis
    -Kohn Punished by Rewards
    -Brafman and Beckstrom - starfish and spider
    -Frankl Man's Search for Meaning

    all my reviews here:
    http://davidmarquet.com/catego... 

  • Madhatter

    First thing I would change is remove the word "hey" from your language you sound very queer.

  • Sebastian

    I see your point, but it depends on your native language (culture) and the way you pronounce it.