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Home » How Great Leaders Serve Others: David Marquet (Transcript)

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.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

If you were a junior listed man, and you submitted for leave, you needed five or six people to sign your leave chit. So we eliminated the requirement for any officer to sign any enlisted person’s leave chit.

We reduced the number of signatures from five to two. We saved a lot of time. We had these elaborate systems of keeping track of what other people owed. We called them ticklers, ironically. 

And we had tickler meetings. I mean, there’s a whole culture set around the tickler.

And that was the same thing. Because again, it was not you doing your jobs, me telling you what to do. So we eliminated the tickler. No, yeah. Secretly, I kept the list for a while, but then eventually I got rid of that and there was a little bit uncomfortable.

But I literally had no list of what anyone on that submarine needed to do other than me. It was awesome. The crew took to it like wildfire.

Now we had some unexpected events. So for example, we’re getting ready to deploy final certification, we had to track the submarine… We’re getting ready to shoot it… Finally the whole hours of nail biting under sea tension and we got ready to shoot.

And I say, ‘Shoot tube 2’. Torpedo leaves the ship. There’s this whoosh…Torpedo running wire good, fire clearance maneuver complete… Torpedo’s merging on the bearing of the target… And he’s going great.

I look over there’s this wire… there’s this, mile-long wire that connects to the torpedo to the ship so we can talk to it. And steering the torpedo is very, very complicated. It for sort of arcane, you know, seven people in the world know how to do it. And I had one of them, is a kid named Smith.

And, I look over for sort of, I’ve been super absorbed… I look over to the weapon control panel and there’s no Smith, some other kid.

The chief standing right there. They changed their, where is Smith? The inspectors are all writing furiously. “Yeah. I put them on leave. You know, doesn’t take your permission.” What?

Trust me, we’ve trained. And it was perfect with us.

The year before we did this, we re-enlisted three sailors. Now these guys are working a lot harder. They have to think ahead. They have to think like a boss. They have to be responsible. There’s no hiding from the responsibility of your job.

How many sailors do you think we re-enlisted six, nine? We re-enlisted 33 sailors that year.

Because people don’t want easy. They want agency. And it’s true, the ship went from worst to first in almost every operational and combat measure. But I don’t really think that’s interesting because I think you could do that in authoritarian way.

What’s interesting is this:

This is Dave Adams. He’s the provincial reconstruction team commander, host province on the border of Pakistan in Afghanistan, provincial reconstruction teams are the civil military teams that have army National Guard, state department, USAID, justice, NGO reps, they’re out there, right? They don’t just sit on some base. They’re out there with the people.

Dave Adams is a submariner. He was a weapons officer on the USS Santa Fe. He’s standing there with children of the Mondo’s eye tribe. This is a celebration because the Mondo’s eye… they’re standing on a 100 meter wide body there.

And the Mondo’s eye don’t have a CAD cam programs, they don’t have concrete, they don’t have re-bar, they don’t have structural engineers, but they do have a desire for human interaction.

And so the villages on other side of this Wadi interact. And they build a bridge every year and the rains come and wash it away. And last year there were two children on the bridge when it got washed away and they were lost.

This is their new bridge. Yeah. This is Caleb Kerr. The one on the right. He’s a PRT of commander for Helmand province on the border of Pakistan. Yes, He’s a submariner. He was the operations officer in the USS Santa Fe.

Why are we sending submariners to the mountains of Afghanistan?

Crazy? No. they got this done by giving control. Dave Adams didn’t provide…One of the problems, building a bridge was the security. He didn’t provide security. Normal, you know, he didn’t take his army guys and say, and “we’re going to do security.”

What he did was he gave that to the two villages. He says, “Hey, you guys want a bridge. You provide security.”

Right now today, Dave Adams and Caleb Kerr are underway on summaries that they are in command of. They are two of the nine officers from that cohort on the USS Santa Fe. They’re currently in command on track to go to command. There’s only 14 officers in the wardroom. 

I did give another order. We were, the submarine was assigned to be in service of a SEAL team. Here, they are coming onto the ship. There, they are going.

And it’s now three and a half days later, it’s in the middle of the night, we’re on the surface. I’ll stop dead in the water. And the SAELs who we haven’t talked to because communications are potentially interceptable are going to come off the beach in these two Zodiacs to a spot in the ocean.

And we better be there, because you don’t want to be in the ocean Zodiac, not much gas, no submarine. 

And I was, I would wander the ship. I had a mic. I’d listen. First, talked to control, control a main deck, man, direction, drill. I just listened to. And everything’s going great. And all sudden yellow sounding. I ran up to the control room. I looked at the navigation display. I saw something like this. There’s this arrow pointing towards the beach.

And I said, I started thinking. By this, the officer deck had already ordered head one-third. I’m looking at that head- one third… I’m looking at that head one-third… say, “no back.” 

And immediately the quartermaster, one of the junior guys in the boardroom says, “No, captain, you’re wrong.”

What does it take to say to captain you’re wrong?

So I was quiet. I looked at the other indications. What I realized was I’d gotten the direction of motion and the head of the submarine confused. We were actually pointing away and head one-third was the perfect command.

And he said ‘stop’, I’ll stop. And moments later, the seal team arrived.

And when, if they had followed my order, we would have gotten out of position. We might’ve missed them. But I could rest easy because now I had a crew who is trained for critical thinking, not compliance. My work was done. 

The question is, what kind of a leader will you be? Will you be a leader who takes control or later who gives control?

And ultimately being a leader in service to others is the triumph of deliberate action over impulsive reaction. And I believe that the most important person to have control is you.

Because it’s that sense of self control that “it’s my leadership”, that will allow you to resist the urge to take control from others and instead give control.

And that will be your biggest challenge and your most enduring and powerful success.

Thank you very much.

Resources for Further Reading:

Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders: Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic (Transcript)

How to Break Bad Management Habits Before They Reach the Next Generation of Leaders: Elizabeth Lyle (Transcript)

Lars Sudmann: Great Leadership Starts With Self-Leadership at TEDxUCLouvain (Transcript)

How Great Leaders Inspire Action by Simon Sinek (Transcript)


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