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!
“It’s not personal. It’s just business.” In my experience this is a common phrase used when a business person needs to do something that might be perceived as harsh or unkind. Personally, I have never subscribed to the message behind this statement. It suggests that our work and personal lives are separate and that we can make decisions in one area of our lives separate from the other. In short, it implies that we are two people – one at work and another at home. I don’t buy it. To me, it’s all personal.
As an employee, when someone makes a decision that adversely affects me, that’s personal. It affects my life in a profound way. Brushing it off by saying, “It’s just business” is disingenuous at best and self-delusional at worst. Every decision a boss or manager makes affects others personally. To pretend otherwise is simply bad business.
Nonetheless, business people have to make difficult decisions every day. And many, if not most, of these will make a direct and substantial difference in the lives of their employees and clients. How can those involved do this while maintaining their own humanity and respecting that of their employees and clients? I think the answer is simple, yet challenging. Treat them the way you would want to be treated if you were on the receiving end of the bad news you are delivering. Here is an example.
Times are tough. Your company just lost its biggest client. You have reduced all other expenses as much as you can. Now you have to start letting some of your employees go. This is hard for you. You have built a cohesive team that feels closer to family than employees. How can you let some of them go? “It’s not personal. It’s just business.” is simply not an option. Be frank with the employees you need to let go. Explain as much of the situation as you can. Offer to provide excellent references. Provide or pay for assistance to them in finding another job, if you are able. This not only makes it easier for them to come back should things turn around, it also means that they leave with a more positive feeling about you and your company. This is leaves doors open rather than dismissively (and perhaps unintentionally) shutting them in their face. In short, it is good business.
Admittedly, this is a simple example. There can be, and often are, many other factors that make such decisions hard to carry out. No matter the situation, the best business decision is to always acknowledge and respect the humanity in others. Business is nothing more than people dealing with each other in a market of some kind. There really is no separation between business and the personal. Bringing your humanity to work is good business, because it’s all personal.