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Fast Company

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]