What can a US Navy fast attack submarine Captain teach you about leadership?

by  Bill Fox  |  Leadership Development
Los Angeles Class Fast Attack Nuclear Submarine

Los Angeles Class Fast Attack Nuclear Submarine
Source: US Navy

Plenty it turns out. It was just three weeks ago when my attention was drawn to an article in Fast Company magazine called “A Submarine Captain on the Power of Leadership Language.”

I served aboard a US Navy fast attack nuclear submarine for over three years, so I was immediately intrigued by this article about leadership language from an environment few people are familiar with but that was so familiar to me.  I was immediately taken aback and pushed to contemplate what leadership lessons I had learned in the Navy that I had maybe long since forgotten.

A Lesson in the Failure of Top Down Command and Control Leadership 

The article describes an early experience aboard the USS Santa Fe, one of the most modern fast attack nuclear submarines in existence, shortly after Captain Marquet ends up in command.  The Santa Fe was ranked at the bottom of the fleet and the crew was demoralized. Shortly after taking over, the captain is stunned to find that even when he gives his crew a command that is impossible to carry out, no one questions his authority.  He soon realizes the danger of such a situation, and is left perplexed at how inadequate top down command and control leadership can be.

Frankly, the above incident brought back many memories of my own leadership experiences aboard a nuclear submarine. I can remember many instances when authority would not be questioned. I can say the top down command and control style tended to have a demoralizing impact on the crew. However, it was not practiced without abandon at all times by everyone in a leadership position, so a balance kept things in check.  All together, though, it was not a leadership model that empowered the crew to strive for excellence.

How to Create Leadership at Every Level

In Turn the Ship Around, Captain Marquet details how he transformed a submarine from last to first in the fleet by creating leadership at every level in a stunningly short time.  It’s a transformation that caught the attention of Steven Covey who, after visiting with the crew, was moved to say that the crew was the most empowered group he had ever seen. That’s a stunning statement–I hope it’s one that will motivate you to learn more.

I was so moved and impressed from reading this book, I immediately reached out and connected with Captain Marquet to see if he would be willing to let me interview him for 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success.  We have since talked and I’m looking forward to publishing his interview soon. I believe you will find his response to my question, “what is your best process improvement strategy or tactic,” to be an empowering strategy that you will find immediately useful and enabling.

A Review from the Author, Captain David Marquet

While I was writing this blog post, Captain Marquet posted his own review of his book on Amazon, and I thought it captured perfectly the message I got from this book and wanted to convey in this post.  With his permission, I have included his comments below:

“Hi. I’m the author of Turn the Ship Around! I wrote this book to help pioneer a better way of treating each other, a way of treating each other that will allow more of us to freely give of our passion, intellect and creativity. In short, that way means treating others as equals, as co-leaders, and not as followers. It means giving control not taking control.

I believe this unlikely but true story of a leadership revolution on board a nuclear submarine makes the case that this is a better way to interact. Not only did the submarine improve in the moment (something I call ACHIEVEMENT) but it continued operating at a superior level long after I left and an amazing 10 of its officers were selected for their own submarine command. This embedding of the capacity for achievement in people and the practices of the organization I call LEADERSHIP. I think we confuse these two things.

You will share what I learned about the conditions under which empowerment steps are effective and what happens when you give decision making control without the necessary pre-conditions.

You will also know exactly what we did, what mechanisms we implemented and what changes we made to our HR documents. These mechanisms, though they may not be the exact ones your organization needs, will likely provide you with sufficient grist for robust discussions in your workplace.

We have too many problems for them to be solved by some set of experts at the top. The only way is to get everyone involved.”

Look for my upcoming interview with Captain Marquet at 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success.

About The Author

Articles By bill-fox
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What People Are Saying

Ray Wheeler, DMin  |  15 Aug 2012  |  Reply

Thanks for the review Bill, I will get the book – that kind of outcome is exactly what I work toward and encourage. I look forward to new insights.

Bill Fox  |  15 Aug 2012  |  Reply

Ray, thanks for your comment and glad to hear I was able to bring it to your attention. I think you will really enjoy the book given your interest in achieving the same outcomes. Look forward to hearing what you think of the book.


Bill Fox  |  24 Aug 2012  |  Reply

My interview with David Marquet is now available at 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success. In the interview, David said his best improvement strategy was, “We had a very basic rubric, which was to ask the following question when something went wrong, what was the process, and who was the owner?” Check it out here:


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