Change Top-Down Leadership with “I Intend to…”
In Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, site of one of America’s greatest military setbacks, the nuclear submarine USS Santa Fe sat in wait. Within the tight confines of the ship toiled a crew plagued by low morale and poor performance. In a remarkable turn of events they soon would lead the fleet in most measures of combat effectiveness and create more future leaders than any other submarine.
Luckily for the Navy and the crew of the USS Santa Fe, their new commander, David Marquet broke traditional stereotypes. Using a unique combination of irreverence, courage, empathy, and technical acumen, he crafted a new leadership model.
Where others had given up, Marquet saw the opportunity for a major turnaround. Rather than engage in the typical “top-down” management approach used by the military, Marquet created a new approach, one that empowered and engaged the crew—giving them the tools to think and act like leaders themselves. Rather than one leader and 134 followers, Marquet created 135 leaders—as each member of his crew became a leader and assumed responsibility for everything they did, from clerical tasks to crucial combat decisions. Santa Fe would go on to win multiple awards, including the Arleigh Burke Award for being the most improved ship in the Pacific, and produce nine subsequent submarine commanders.
Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 11 of Marquet’s book, “Turn the Ship Around! How to Create Leadership at Every Level.”
By David Marquet
How proactive are senior managers and employees in your organization? Rewording our speech can dramatically change our level of proactivity.
21 January 1999, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (159 days to deployment)
“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, it’s physically unnerving!
“Ahead 2/3,” he ordered.
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. Astutely 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 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.
Dr. Covey was keenly interested and incorporated this concept into his subsequent book, “The 8th Habit.”
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” 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” 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?
Excerpt from Chapter 11 of “Turn the Ship Around! How to Create Leadership at Every Level” by David Marquet (Greenleaf Publishing Group, August 2012).
David Marquet graduated with distinction from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1981, and led a distinguished 28-year career in the United States Navy’s Submarine Force, serving on submarines in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As commander of the nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine USS Santa Fe (SSN 763), stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Marquet captained a crew that went from being “worst to first.” The USS Santa Fe earned numerous awards, including the Arleigh Burke Award for being the most improved ship in the Pacific, as well as the Battle “E” award for most combat effective ship in Submarine Squadron Seven, and for retention excellence. Marquet is also the founder
and president of consulting firm Turn the Ship Around LLC; creator of blog Leader – Leader; and author of “Turn the Ship Around! How to Create Leadership at Every Level.” For more information about the book, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.