Succession Planning By Flipping Leadership on its Head


What succession planning have you undertaken to ensure your team, company or organization thrives after: a) your founder leaves b) leadership changes c) when those one or two rock-star employees gets promoted or leave for new challenges?

Will your ship stay its course? Or will momentum be lost as you seek out new hires or learn new processes?

We recently had Capt. David Marquet, USN (Retired), on the Rethink Marketing Podcast to discuss his book, Turn the Ship Around, which is about intent-based leadership and truly empowering your team into becoming leaders.

Marquet shares his story from when he commanded the USS Santa Fe fast attack submarine. Through necessity, he introduced a bold new approach to leadership on the boat, giving up the traditional command-and-control model and instead inspiring every crew member crew to embrace accountability via intent-based leadership.

The results were impressive with short- and long-term successes. They went from 10 percent re-enlistments to 100 percent re-enlistment rate. The ship’s evaluation scores were the highest in the history of the Navy. And 10 of his officers went on to become submarine captains themselves – an unheard of number.

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This transcript has been edited for length. To get the full measure, listen to the podcast.

Nathan: Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your naval career, and what you do now?

David: I was in the Navy for 28 years. And I came up through the Naval Academy and had the privilege of being a captain of a nuclear-powered submarine. And my experience in leadership was … I kind of went on this journey from what I call the knowing and telling leader, where you knew all the answers and you gave all the orders, and the better you could give orders the better you were as a leader, to what I like to now say the knowing but not telling leader. In other words, you want to know your job, but even when you know the answer or you think you do, resist giving the answer to the team, even though that feels unnatural. Because that’s when you build a very powerful and resilient team around you, which is really what I needed.

So that’s kind of what happened to me. It was all accidental. And it really wasn’t the Navy had planned for me. But that’s what happened.

Intent-Based Leadership

Nathan: You call this intent-based leadership. And can how different this is from the norm?

David: Our picture is the strong competent person who’s making things happen and telling people what to do. Most organizations run in what I call permission-based mode. Either the boss is running around telling people what to do or if we get to the point where we, “empower people,” and we say, ‘OK, I recommend this, I would like to do this,’ but we’re still operating in a permission mode. In other words, the answer is no. Unless I hear definitively yes, the answer is no. In other words, I have to wait for a yes before I can take action.

And we flipped that on its head. And we said, you know what, the default is going to be yes. And unless you hear a no, you have permission to do what you’re recommending. And the way we said it was, we didn’t call it a recommendation, we just say it’s your intent. So, the officers, and the chiefs, and the radio supervisor, would come up to me and say, I intend to clear the broadcast or raise the radio mast or whatever it happens to be, and they would just do it unless I said no. If I just sat there quietly, which I would do a lot of the time, they would just do it. I intend to surface, I intend to start the reactor, I intend to load a torpedo, and then they would do it.

And the benefit of that was huge because it created a team of thinkers and proactive people who took action. Because if they didn’t say what they intended to do, nothing would happen. I wouldn’t step in. I had to resist this. I wouldn’t step in and say, ‘Oh, hey, nothing’s happening guys, why don’t we do this, we need to do that. Let’s start a new marketing plan. Let’s start a new advertising campaign…” And so that was really, really hard for me. I got thrust into it because I ended up taking over a ship as captain, not the ship that I was trained for, and so I didn’t know the ship.

And I gave an order, like the very first order I gave was wrong. It was a thing you couldn’t do. It was basically like shifting into fifth gear, but there were only four gears on this particular submarine. But the officer did it anyway. And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s going on here.’ And he said, ‘Well, you told me to do it, I mean that’s what we do around here in the Navy, we do what we’re told.’ I said, ‘Well stop that. Stop doing what you’re told. Start telling me what needs to happen.’ But the first step in the whole deal was for me to keep my mouth shut. And this was really hard. It felt very unnatural. But we ended up with more submarine captains than any other ship. And we set records for a whole bunch of things.

Push Authority to Information

Nathan: When you came to the Santa Fe, you did a listening session. You went and asked a lot of questions. For people not familiar with the military, when a sailor takes vacation, it’s called leave. And you needed a bunch of people to sign off on you taking vacation. And you kind of gave that power to the chiefs, eliminating a lot of unnecessary signatures and time delays.

David: Right.

Nathan: That then led to them really managing three or four other aspects of their teams. Can you talk about that?

David: The phrase we use is: we push authority to information, not channel information to authority. The traditional approach for most organizations is we know the people on the periphery of the organization, the boundary, this is the people running the machines, or the salesmen who are sitting in the offices of the clients, or the software coders who are in the code, those people know what’s going on. But the decision-making authority rests somewhere above them in this chain of command. The coders know what’s going on, but someone else is deciding what features are going to be added to the software. So, what happens is we have to channel the information up to an authority figure for a decision that comes back down and we execute.

So, what we said was, look, let’s flip that on its head. Let’s push the authority for making decisions out to the people who just natively have the information. And the result is a much faster decision-making loop, rather than wait for this big delay. There’s also a cleaner loop because it always gets distorted as it goes up through the chain. And the benefit of doing that is you get ownership. Because when people get to make decisions, you want ownership, just let ’em make decisions. If you want engagement, just let people make decisions. There’s no fanciness to it. We want to make it sound fancy and complicated because then people will hire consultants, but it’s not. It’s just let your people make decisions. You have to be engaged. If you’re making decisions, you gotta be engaged.

So just say, ‘OK, look chiefs, you guys get to make this decision, this core decision which is when can you people go on leave, vacation. You’re in charge of that.’ Well they said, “Well if I’m in charge of that, I need to know the ship’s schedule and the maintenance plan. And they basically ended up taking ownership of more and more and more parts of work.’ Now some people will say they’re kind of already in charge of that. No, they’re not. We say that, but it’s not really true. We say it, but they don’t – if you’re not the final signature on a form, if there are signatures below yours, you’re not in charge. You’re just a bumper sticker.

And we just took a lot of the forms that the Navy had given us and I just reduced the number of signatures on them. I just deleted one, two, three or more bottom signatures and said, ‘OK, now instead of routing it all the way to the captain, just needs to go to the department head, or the chief, or the leading petty officer, and it’s done.’ We would inform everybody above, but the decision would have been made at the lower level. It’s called push authority to information, not information to authority.

Eliminate “Just Doing My Job” Excuses

Nathan: During your listening sessions, there was a response you would get, and I’ve been in organizations, in many companies, in different industries, where I’ve seen the same thing, where people were saying ‘I just do what I’m told.’ And can you talk about the risks of that, why that’s less than ideal?

David: Yeah, I do what I’m told, right? So, the problem is, what if what you’re told is wrong, but I just do it anyway. Of course, that’s easy because I can always say, ‘Well, it wasn’t my responsibility for the screw-up. I was told to do it.’ That’s the age-old excuse. So, it’s fragile. It’s a very fragile system. And we all know corporate disasters. The Costa Concordia ran aground. The captain ordered the turn, ‘Hey, let’s go close to the island and turn late.’ Everyone else was just doing what they were told. The USS Greenville, the submarine that came up underneath the Ehime Maru and collided, killed nine people. The captain made the decision. Everyone else was doing what they were told.

And when you have these corporations where the top person is giving direction, everyone else is doing what they’re told, that’s great until it’s a bad decision. And then the whole thing goes off the rails. We think the answer is to, “give people the authority to speak up.” But there’s a better solution which is don’t force them to tell me that you’re wrong, just skip that part. You’re never going to have to tell the boss they’re wrong if the boss never gives the order. We always are coming to the boss saying, here’s what we want to do.

Nathan: How do I learn more about you, Turn The Ship Around, and your recently released accompanying Turn The Ship Around Workbook?

David: The workbook, it’s called the Turn The Ship Around Workbook. Just check it out on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or whatever your favorite website is. Our website is And we have resources available there. Our YouTube channel is called Leadership Nudges, like nudge, like push a little bit. You can just Google that. And you can get enrolled in these leadership nudges or subscribe to the YouTube channel and learn more about it.

Nathan: I really appreciate your time today. Thank you very much.

David: Thank you. Thanks to all your listeners for what they do to make the world a better place and to help people at work come and have fun. Thank you.