L. David Marquet | Crain's Orlando

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

L. David Marquet


"Turn the Ship Around" is a bestselling book about L. David Marquet's time commanding a USS nuclear submarine. The company Turn the Ship Around LLC focuses on building leaders with keynote speeches and workshops.

The Mistake:

My mistake was giving an order that couldn't be performed on a nuclear submarineEssentially, I asked my guys to shift into fifth gear on a car that only has four 

I was selected to be the captain of the USS Olympia and I went to school for 12 months to learn all the details of that ship. At the very last minute the captain from another submarine, the USS Santa Fe, which was the worst performing submarine in the fleetquit and so the Navy told me that I was going onto the Santa Fe instead.  

On the very first day that thsubmarine got underway, I gave an order that we shift into fifth gear – an order that couldn't be done. And the scary thing was the officer ordered it and the junior sailor said, "That doesn't make sense. You can't do that on this ship." And I confronted the officer and said, "Well, why did you order it?" And he said, "You told me to."

I was thrown into this situation and as a leader, I was always the guy giving orders and the orders were always based on the fact that I knew "best." I call that a know-all, tell-all leadership mindset. But, I was in a situation where I didn't know the submarine. The basic laws of nature didn't change but the details were different. 

In the past, my mindset when I gave a bad order was I got to give better orders. But, on this ship, there was no time for me to learn the ship enough to give good orders. So the realization I had was that I needed to stop giving orders.

Leadership is about giving control not taking control.

The Lesson:

The problem wasn't that I gave bad orders. The problem was that I was the one giving orders. So the deal I made with my crew was to shut the f up ... not tell them what to do. To give them what we call direction, but not directions. To give them intent, but not instructions. And for their part, they would give me their intentions back. It was a commitment, a contract between us.  

Rapidly, changes happened. We ended up setting records for performance, morale and retention.

What leaders need to do is shut up and give people the room to come forwardLeadership is about giving control, not taking control. 

This is not a one and done decision. It's like quitting smoking. Every day I would go into the control room, and I had the urge to tell my people what to do. When I was stressed out, tired or hungry, I would fall back into the old ways.

I gave my guys permission to yellow card me.

Follow L. David Marquet on Twitter @ldavidmarquet.

Photo courtesy of L. David Marquet

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