Language and Process for the Modern Workplace

Leadership Is Language book cover

I read Leadership Is Language by L. David Marquet after reading Turn the Ship Around! by the same author. This book is an elaboration of the method he shares in that previous book.

In this newest book, he shows the need for combining both focused work and strategic planning across organizations. In our industrial past, these tasks were separated by role. Blue collar workers got the work done that the white collar workers planned. In our information age world this no longer makes sense.

The author calls focused work redwork and planning work bluework. Then he advocates a cycle of bluework-redwork-bluework where everyone on the team engages in both kinds of work. This matches well how agile software development works, so it really resonated with me.

Throughout the book he gives both good and bad examples of putting this into practice. In addition, it lays out a framework for moving from the old language of the industrial age to this method that works better in a world where we all need to be involved with both planning and executing. I look forward to using this process to help my team both plan and work better.

How to Create Leaders

Turn the Ship Around! book cover

Turn the Ship Around! by L. David Marquet is a leadership memoir that tells of the author’s experience as the commander of a submarine in the United States Navy. He tells of his process moving from a leader-follower model of leadership to one of leader-leader – a process which builds mindful leaders rather than thoughtless followers.

I learned of this book as I read Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. In that book Sinek tells of Marquet’s year-long preparation to command a well-run submarine. At the last minute he learned that he would instead be taking command of an underperforming submarine of an entirely different class. Lacking the time to study this new sub type and her crew, he racked his brain to figure out how he could successfully command this new vessel. He decided to give as few orders and possible,  to empower his knowledgeable and capable crew

The example that Sinek gave is what led me to read this book. Traditionally in the US Navy, one asks the commander for permission – “Request permission to submerge the ship!” Marquet changed this from a request to a statement of intent – “I intend to submerge the ship!” – thus giving agency to his crew. And the book details how he worked with the leaders on his ship to develop a process for turning a crew with one leader and 134 followers who mindlessly take direction into one with 135 leaders actively thinking about what they can proactively do to achieve the ship’s mission.

To dig further into the ideas of intent-based leadership, Marquet published another book in 2020 titled Leadership is Language. He also has a website with a video of him giving a talk on the ideas in Turn the Ship Around!

For anyone searching for how to move from simply managing what happens to being a leader and developing leaders, you can’t go wrong reading Turn the Ship Around!

Proper Business Leadership

book cover

I recently finished reading Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. This book provides the best perspective for how to lead business in a capitalist world. And the author demonstrates that not only is this the right way to do business, but it also the most successful. He uses the experiences of leadership and how it is taught in the US military as well as good and bad examples of leadership in business. And he grounds all of this, surprisingly, in biology.

Throughout the book the author continues to refer back to the foundation of biology and four hormones that he presents in chapter six. He splits these into two groups: selfish chemicals without which he argues we would die (endorphins and dopamine) and social chemicals without which we would be cold-blooded (serotonin and oxytocin). Endorphins make us feel good and give us what is known as the runner’s high. Dopamine gives us an incentive for progress. Both of these are focused on individual biological survival. He calls serotonin the leadership chemical which helps us to survive collectively as a social species. And oxcytocin is the love chemical that drives engagement with others.

All this together is presented in a very engaging and informative format that really resonated with my own experience as a US Army officer and business manager. It was enlightening to have the science and examples from others that confirm that.

Unintended Consequences

View of the US Capitol building from the South

When Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in decades back in the 1990’s, one of their big ideas was that congresspeople spent too much time in Washington. Instead of living in DC, they should live in their districts. This would connect them better with their constituents and their needs instead of isolate them with other politicians in the capital. Only one problem. The same problem that seems to happen with most ideas in politics – unintended consequences.

I was in my twenties when this was happening. I remember that it seemed like a good idea. Politicians should stay close to the people they represent, right? Professional class politicians who live in DC lose touch with those they represent. But as with most things in life, it is a bit more complicated as I learned while reading Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek.

The idea was that because they stayed home in their districts so much more of their time, they would be more connected to the people. They would spend more time with them, hear about their issues more directly. Except that isn’t what happened. Instead at the urging of their parties, both Democrat and Republican, congresspeople spent a much larger part of their time fund raising. And because they didn’t live in Washington, they had much less opportunity to connect with their fellow representatives.

When they lived in DC, their kids went to the same schools, they attended the same school activities, they got together more frequently for lunches and dinners. In short, they got to know their fellow congresspeople as people outside of work and across party lines. This had the affect of making compromise easier to come to. They saw their political rivals as people like them that had goodness in their hearts with whom they disagreed. This gave them the basis to work things out.

Living outside of the capital, they lost this connection. With the greater focus on fundraising from their party, party tribalism became the focus of the day. This led to further polarization of our politics and to much of the mess we currently find ourselves in. Not only have our representatives reduced their focus to their party first, seeing their rivals as existential enemies, the parties themselves have encouraged this same vision for their members. And now particularly partisan people hold this same vision and idea about those who disagree with them, tearing apart friends and families.

I don’t have simple solution to this. I am not sure there is one. In fact, I think this is an object lesson in the dangers of simple solutions. After all, it started the simple idea that living in your home district as a congressperson would be much better for the people you represent and the country as a whole. It didn’t turn out that way. So it may be better to consider the second and third order effects of “simple” solutions before we implement them. We won’t always see the dangers that lurk ahead, but we may be able to avoid some of them. And spare ourselves some pain and difficulty in the process.

True Leadership

Virginia Hall with sheep in her lap in the doorway of a barn in France

The university I graduated from started an online book club earlier this year. I thought it might be enjoyable to read books and discuss them with others and joined. I just finished reading our second book, A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell. It is the story of perhaps the most successful Allied spy of World War II, Virginia Hall. On top of being a woman in the male dominated world of espionage, she was an amputee. She lost her left leg at the knee in a hunting accident. And the work she accomplished is simply incredible.

She grew up always wanting to do something more than marrying well, her mother’s dream for her. She visited France in the 1920s and fell in love with the freedom she felt there as a woman as well as the people. After her time in France, she attempted to find work at the State Department as a diplomat. They never saw her in that role, resigning her to support roles that “fit her better.”

In early 1940 she became an ambulance driver in France for the French army. When France fell to the Nazis, she found herself in London where she sought to join the newly created Special Operations Executive (SOE). They were looking to place spies in Vichy France to build up resistance fighters. They struggled to do so. They were so desperate that they decided they had nothing to lose by giving Virginia a chance, never expecting her to last very long.

She outperformed every man in the SOE (and later the US’s Office of Strategic Services or OSS) over and over again. The things she accomplished were simply incredible: jail breaks, multiple disguises and names, escaping over the Pyrenees (with one leg!). Despite her performance, she was never given a command until near the end of the war. But she never let that stop her. She was always a leader, whether recognized for it or not. People looked to her and relied upon her to get things done. The result: she and her resistance fighters liberated the Loire valley without regular troops following the Normandy invasion, the first resistance group to do this in France.

Unfortunately after the war, the good old boys’ club kicked in again. She served in the CIA until she retired (mandatory) at sixty. Unlike the men, she was never invited back in a consulting role. After she died, the leadership at the CIA finally gave her the recognition she deserved. Interestingly, Virginia herself was never much interested in recognition. She just wanted to be allowed to do her work. When she was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945, she refused a public ceremony as she feared it would compromise her continued work as a spy. She was the only civilian woman in World War II to receive this award.

Virginia’s story is astounding for anyone, man or woman. The fact that she did it as a woman who was often overlooked or looked down on makes it all the more impressive. Add to that the disability of a prosthetic leg and you have the story of one of the most incredible leaders of the twentieth century.