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Jacqui McGill AO

Non Executive Director

Turn the Ship Around

Maybe I am getting a little excited about the potential for Defence opportunities in South Australia.  But reading the exciting progress in the news reminded me of a great read – Turn the Ship Around written by a US Submarine commander David Marquet.    I have never been a huge fan of the stereotypical military leadership models – too much command and control,  too much focusing on the importance of leading in crisis and military settings.  So when I first heard about this book from a colleague, I was a little hesitant but once I finished it. The book quickly joined my required reading list.  It was one of the first books I gave the team when I started at OD.  I found it a great how-to guide for leaders who aspire to listen well, empower their teams and to build a coalition of engaged and high performing team members.

The book focuses on Marquet’s journey in a leadership role in US Navy. He was appointed to command a Submarine that he knew nothing about.  US Naval commanders typically study their class of Submarine for 12 months before taking on the leadership role.  He only had 2 weeks to get ready before taking over.  As a result, he had to implement a new style of leadership – one that didn’t need him to know everything.  He had to develop a way of working that empowered his team who had the knowledge to make good decisions and provide leadership.

How do you lead? By being an expert?

This reminded me of a time in my own leadership journey when I was leading two very different teams one group worked in an area of which I had a wealth of technical knowledge, and another where I didn’t.  I asked for both groups for feedback on how they thought things were going.  And when I received it I had this really polarised set of responses. One grouping of respondents said I was great, I empowered them to do their work, asked good questions and verified things were on plan.  The other grouping told a completely different story, they said I micromanaged them, I had an opinion on everything they did, and felt I didn’t trust them.  I remember the dialogue in my head, “well obviously this second group don’t get how great I am”.  And then with the help of a coach we talked through why they would feel this way.   It probably isn’t a surprise to hear that the group who felt micromanaged were the group that worked in the area where I had the wealth of technical knowledge!

Needless to say it was such a valuable lesson for me, I took the feedback on board and worked hard to empower this team.  I shared with that team what I had heard, and how I would like to work differently and asked for their help.  When we met, instead of me “having all the answers” I put my focus on asking good questions, verifying progress and listening more to their perspectives.  I worked hard to build their trust but also to improve their confidence in debating hypotheses in a way that was aimed at improving the quality of the work – rather than who was right.  It really did work and we became a high performing team that delivered great outcomes.

Key takeaway;  As a leader it is easy to fall into the trap of having all the answers.  This can can stifle your team’s performance. 

So how to empower and engage?

I find that leaders often struggle with delegation – they can either take a completely hands-off approach, or they micro-manage.  I have seen teams struggle with being empowered, unsure of the rules of the new order.  I see leaders who don’t prepare their teams, who fail to take them on the journey and then allocate blame when things don’t go to plan. “I tried to delegate but they just couldn’t do it without my rescuing them or managing the detail”.  It is rare that leaders will prepare their team members as well as themselves when they are embarking on a new model of leadership.   So if you want to build capability in yourself and your team in creating an empowered team then you will find this book a great “how to guide” to prepare leaders and your teams on the journey to empowerment.

It also helps that there is a great Innoversity graphic that lays out the why and how to achieve this.  See it here…..Turn the Ship Around Youtube

David Marquet invested the time with his team to teach them how empowerment and delegation would work.  He knew he had to instil the thinking where it mattered.  He couldn’t rely on the command and control model. Instead he invested his energy in building the capability in his team to make great decisions.  He made it safe for them to speak up (great concept this called psychological safety which I will explore in a future blog) but he also coached them on the skills they needed to make good decisions.  He focused on giving them clarity and was diligent in ensuring they were competent.

His book describes the many challenges of the journey, most of the struggles were within himself. Many of us still see leadership through the lens of “all knowing, all powerful leader”.  Great leaders learn that great leadership comes by enabling others to succeed and creating an environment for positive growth and empowerment.  And whilst this is easy to say, it can be tough. Many leaders find control is strongly wired in their DNA – understanding this and being prepared to learn to do it differently is a real challenge but well worth the journey.

It really is well worth a read, so if you have time grab a copy.  If you are short on time the Innoversity clip will give you a good overview.




MBA, BSc (Extractive Metallurgy)

DAdel (Honoris Causa), GAICD

Adelaide, South Australia



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