Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders, David Marquet

Marquet, L. David. Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders. New York: Portfolio, 2013. Print.

Reviewed by Cori Wilhelm

In late 1998, U.S. Navy Captain David Marquet was assigned the mission of captaining the USS Santa Fe (SSN-763), a nuclear-powered submarine, and preparing it in every way for deployment.  At the time, the Santa Fe was one of the poorest performing, lowest-scoring submarines in the Navy, with lackluster performance evaluations and a high attrition rate among its crew.  Marquet decided to reject the leader-follower model that permeates the U.S. Navy, and to carry out his own “leader-leader” approach.  He argues that leaders should be at every level of an organization, not just the top, and strived to change the mindset of sailors trained in the leader-follower style throughout their naval education.  

Rather than delegate responsibilities to the chiefs and crew, Captain Marquet helped the crew to develop their own proactivity, sense of responsibility, and accountability.  Not written in the self-help-style of many books on leadership, Turn the Ship Around! tells the story of the ship’s transformation through personal accounts and moments in which Marquet realized his own failures and successes.

While librarians don’t need to worry about a nuclear reactor malfunctioning, or the security of Tomahawk cruise missiles (Marquet had both on his ship), the challenges and potential successes of the leader-leader method can still apply to the academic library setting.

Throughout the book, Marquet incorporates mechanisms to achieve success with the leader-leader model.  Perhaps the most directly empowering mechanism is: “Use ‘I intend to…’ to Turn Passive Followers into Active Leaders” (Marquet 81).  Rather than use passive language, such as “Do you think we should…”, or “Could we…”, Captain Marquet taught his crew to use active, empowered phrases such as “I intend to…”.  This can easily be incorporated into an academic library, with the head of each department apprising the director of their intentions for their department.  This puts the decision about the course of action on the crew (or library staff) member, with the captain (or director), simply approving the stated course of action.

Another of Marquet’s mechanisms that can be easily introduced to academic libraries is: “Don’t brief, certify” (138).  Prior to any significant operations on the submarine, the naval chiefs would have a meeting to “brief” the rest of the crew about the procedure.  After being told by a chief, “no one listens in those briefings”, Captain Marquet realized he needed to do away with briefings of this style altogether (139).  Instead of everyone passively “being briefed” by others, Marquet instituted “certifications”.  Rather than talk, supervisors asked questions of their team.  It became each team’s job to certify to their supervisor that they had the necessary knowledge and preparation for the operation.  This again places the leadership in the hands of the team members, rather than the supervisor, and can be practiced in any organization, including academic libraries.

The book is divided into short chapters, each including a personal story matched to a lesson on leadership.  Marquet encourages the reader to consider their own company throughout each lesson.  Each chapter concludes with “Questions to Consider”, and while some are better suited to a more corporate-styled business environment, many can be practically applied to academic libraries.  Visualize your own institution when considering these questions:

  • What can we do to incentivize long-term thinking? (Marquet 16)
  • How can you get your project teams interacting differently but still use the same resources? (Marquet 21)
  • Are your people trying to achieve excellence or just to avoid making mistakes? (Marquet 46)
  • How do you shift responsibility for performance from the briefer to the participants? (Marquet 141)

As one can assume, the leader-leader approach led the crew of the Santa Fe to become a successful, high-achieving team, with a remarkable turnaround in evaluation scores and crew retention.  One of Marquet’s biggest achievements is that the leader-leader approach and the success that accompanied it continued after he left the Santa Fe.  Marquet’s book is recommended to anyone in a middle-management or supervisory position, or to anyone who is looking to learn about an unconventional and successful leadership model.

Cori Wilhelm serves as Access Services Librarian and Assistant Director of Library Services at SUNY Canton’s Southworth Library Learning Commons.