How Great Leaders Serve Others: David Marquet (Transcript)

David Marquet at TEDxScottAFB

Full text of leadership expert David Marquet’s talk: How Great Leaders Serve Others at TEDxScottAFB conference.

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David Marquet Founder, Turn This Ship Around

I have a confession to make.

I have control issues. I like to take control. I like to give orders. I like it when people follow them.

And you know, every day as I strive to be a leader in service to others, I struggle against that instinct, because this is what I learned.

To be a leader in service to others, we need to give control, not take control. And we need to create leaders, not followers.

The idea of the leader as someone who takes control stems from these days when what we were interested from people is simply their physical output. All we cared about were their hands or backs.

Take a look at the lady in row Number two, position five, looking at the camera. What is she thinking?

We don’t care. All we want are her hands.

And although sometimes it may feel like you work in a place like this. What we want now from people is thinking, like these coders, their hands aren’t enough.

Or these airmen running this ops center, or the operators of this aircraft.

We know what happens when we give people control. We know what happens.

This happens: People gain agency, they become passionate, involved, engaged, committed, participants. It works in a country. It works in a company. 

Mohammad Saif voted in last week’s elections in Cairo. And he was quoted in the New York Times as saying:

“It was like honey to my heart. For the first time I felt I had a role to play. My vote could actually make a difference.”

And you know what? It was honey to his heart because people with control are healthier. They have fewer sick days. They weigh less. They have less instances of heart disease. They live longer.

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So when you take control, not only are you taking vitality, engagement and enthusiasm, but you’re stealing their health as well. 

I was well prepared to take command of the USS Olympia – nuclear powered fast attack submarine in 1999. For a year, all I’d done was studied the piping, the procedures, the people, and every problem the ship had ever had.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take command of the USS Olympia. I took command of the Santa Fe, because at the last minute there was a shift.

And I found myself on a much newer and unfamiliar vessel. Never mind, I would just bluff my way through it.

And the day came to get underway and I went and I found the engineer and I said in a very loud and confident authoritative voice, “Engineer, start off the reactor.”

He went off to start up the reactor and a couple of hours later, I found the XO, “XO, make all preparations to get underway.”

I went up on the bridge at the right time. Get underway cast off on the pier. Clear the bridge. We went below; submerge the ship; we dove under the ocean.

A head flank. The officer deck ordered a head flank, come head flank, aye, and back in maneuvering the problems, weighing, open the throttles and the steam from the steam generators went into the main engines and the ship torqued over, because of… heeled over because of the torque.

We searched through the depths of the Pacific. It was awesome. I felt good.

Well, the next day, the very next day, we’re going to run a drill. We’re going to shut down the reactor due to an imaginary fall, and my technicians are going to have to fix it.

And we shut down the reactor. You shift to a backup motor, the EPM, which runs off the battery.

So I’m standing in the back of the control room and everything seems to be going fine. And I’m kind of getting bored.

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And I started thinking, which is anyway, I started thinking and I say, thinking to myself: you know what, I can’t let these guys think they’re new captains are softie.

So I’m thinking if we speed up on the EPM is going to draw more current. It’s going to drain the battery faster. It’s going to create, what I like to think of as a sense of urgency in the restoration of the reactor. Because there’s no, you know, extension cord. 

So, I grabbed the officer deck, who’s the navigator. I’ve been on the ship the least, he has been in the ship the longest. He’s been on the ship for over two years, senior department.

And I say, Hey, nav, let’s give those nukes something to think about ahead two-thirds on the EPM, he orders it, helm ahead two thirds, nothing happens.

Very astutely, I recognize nothing’s happening. And I can’t really see the helmsmen because number two, Periscopes in the way.

So I leaned to the right and I look, and I can see, he’s kind of… I can see his shoulders are tight. He’s almost squirming. And I say, “Helm, what’s happening.”

He says, he’s facing away. He says, “Captain, there is no two thirds on the EPM”. I had made a mistake. I’m like every other ship I’d ever been on, there’s no two thirds on this ship. So of course I pull the plug, “good job”, like, I pretended it, “You pass the test.”

So, what I do next. I grabbed the nav, “Hey Nav, did you know there was no two thirds on the EPM?”

(Nav replied) “Yes sir. I did.”

So my arms are flailing at this point like “Why did you order it?”

“Because you told me to.”

Because you told me, and it was a moment of clarity unmatched in my life. Because at that moment I realized we had a crew that was trained for compliance and a captain that was trained for the wrong ship.

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And that was a deadly combination. We were going to die if we didn’t fix it.

As soon as a drill was over, I gathered all the officers. We went down to the wardroom. I said, “Hey, here’s the problem.” They already knew the problem. So I was just talking for myself. 

And I said, “We’re going to turn everything around.” Instead of me take, I’m going to give control. So I stopped giving orders. I said, I’m going to not… The only order I would give is the final order to launch ordinance because I felt the responsibility for killing other human beings was not one that I can pass off.

Every other word I stopped giving. I refused to give the orders. We replaced it instead with the officer saying I intend to, and eventually the crew, and then everyone is saying, I intend to blank.

And we were very proud of these briefs, right? Gather around the chart table. The enemy’s here. We’re going to go here. You’re going to do this. You’re going to do this. Any questions? Never any questions, but that’s me telling you what your job is.

So we got rid of all briefs and we replaced it instead with the subordinates telling the superiors in the chain of command, what they were going to do, what they thought might happen.

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