Happiness and success through learning
Turn the Ship Around! Giving back control on a nuclear submarine
I’ve been teaching the benefits of giving back control in the workplace for over 10 years most recently with Daniel H. Pink’s internationally acclaimed Drive programme. While many participants nod in general agreement with the ideas the main objections I hear, time and time again, are “it won’t work here”, “our structure won’t allow it”, “it’s just for start-ups”, “workplace politics get in the way”. There seems to be a myth that the culture and context of the organisation have to be right first. This outstanding true story of giving back control in surely one of the most unlikely places challenges all of those assumptions and objections.
Turn the Ship Around is a courageous account of the truth about just how difficult and risky giving back control can be within a traditional command and control style organisation and, in contrast, the rich rewards that await those with the resilience to think differently about leadership. David Marquet takes us on a remarkable journey of transformation aboard the USS Santa Fe, a nuclear powered fast attack submarine, from below average performances based solely on avoiding errors to achieving and embedding long lasting excellence.
For those short on time I've included the short video that captures the main ideas but I'd highly recommend reading the book for a more in depth understanding of how the ideas can be applied.
David details his 3 step model Control, Competence & Clarity to describe how he was able to give back control in a complex environment, hierarchical structure and a system that has to be able to act quickly under pressure. If you know Dan Pink’s Drive: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose model you probably recognise the similarities. Every example of true workplace autonomy I know of, or have had a hand in creating, includes these 3 essential factors, whatever the labels.
The one factor that makes Turn the Ship Around stand out in the autonomy field is David’s description of his personal inner conflict and being pulled back to a command and control style of leadership. Several times he describes how it seemed easier to just go back to giving orders and telling people what to do which, with a crew of 135 would have been possible. I know from my own military and wider public service this pull can be particularly strong when it is the cultural norm within the organisation. David also describes the exhilaration of complete control and being able to give orders and have them carried out without thought or question but he also has the insight to see how debilitating this is for everyone else. Positive psychology would call this condition learned helplessness where we learn to do only what we are told to do and no more. Turn the Ship Around is full of well-founded ideas from psychology including acting ‘as if’ the crew believed they could achieve excellence. The story as a whole is a shining example of applying learned optimism in the workplace.
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What might surprise you is that this all happened between 1998-2001. There is a lot of interest in autonomy today based on a number of high profile US examples such as W L Gore, Zappos, Morning Star and Timpson here in the UK. 17 years ago the use of autonomy was much less common making the achievement even greater in my view.
The question that keeps recurring for me is why we seem to forget and have to rediscover the benefits of giving back control or autonomy so often? It could be, as the evolutionary biologists suggest, that our basic biology and the more ancient brain areas desire to fit in and be part of the pack. This means we seem to like strong leaders for all the positives and negatives that can bring about. Or is it that we turn to autonomy in times of hardship and when command and control no longer work? Previous below average performance on the Santa Fe was certainly part of the reason for the use of this leadership approach.
The fact the safe, high quality, efficient work and success had become the long term behaviour of the crew and continued for 8 years after David had left the Santa Fe demonstrates the resilience of giving back control and embedding the skills within the workforce. The ability to uncouple long term sustained success from the personality of the leader is a rare and valuable outcome worth striving for.
I'll be writing more about other examples of giving back control, creating greater autonomy and the use of positive psychology in the workplace over the next few weeks. If you want to take your leadership and organisation to the next level using the proven ideas of increased self-determination and choice contact me and I'd be happy to discuss further.