Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers Into Leaders by Navy Captain (R) L. David Marquet is a personal account of Captain Marquet’s experiences while commanding the USS Santa Fe nuclear submarine. Captain Marquet walks you through his leadership process by emphasizing a “leader-leader” approach to an organization.
All told, I loved this book. It captures the imagination of a nuclear submarine with a clear-cut vision of what Captain Marquet wanted to say. I’ll start with a summary of the book, what I liked, and what I didn’t like.
Turn the Ship Around begins with Captain Marquet studying to take command of the USS Colombia, the best submarine of the United States Navy. He studied everything from the crew, maintenance records, accident records, training awards, and deployment documents. Captain Marquet poured over these documents for over a year and felt like he knew the USS Colombia. However, two weeks before he was supposed to take command, he got a call. Instead, he was reassigned to the worst ship in the US submarine fleet: The USS Santa Fe.
When Captain Marquet took command, he began making changes with the middle management: the chiefs. If they’re on board with Captain Marquet, then the ship can perform well. Morale on the USS Santa Fe was low. Captain Marquet realized that he was part of a “leader-follower” organization and that he needed to start delegating as much as he could to the people who had the right information. Thus, he coined this a “leader-leader” model. Each person was a leader on the ship.
Further, the USS Santa Fe turned around. The book begins six months before their deployment and works its way through the end of the deployment. Captain Marquet talks about issues they encountered, how he solved them, where he went wrong, and what the crew did correctly. As Captain Marquet began delegating more authority, he found the crew acting more proficiently with proper training.
Now, here are some things I liked about the book.
I liked the way Captain Marquet writes his book because he goes into just enough detail without boring the reader. He’ll often give small accounts and apply them to each chapter. His stories usually amounted to a lesson learned from an experience he had. He’ll ask questions at the end of each chapter to help the reader apply it to their life. It was a nice personal touch from a successful commander to his audience.
His book was a timeline from the beginning of command until deployment, and then afterward. Also, he split his book into three sections to guide the reader on his journey aboard the USS Santa Fe. The format helped keep the book alive in my mind. He even incorporated some of his previous experiences on the USS Roy Rogers and how he learned to apply those lessons to his command of the USS Santa Fe.
Each chapter brought out a leadership concept he implemented or a lesson learned. Then, at the end of the sections, he gave a series of questions to help the reader digest how to apply it to their work/life situation. It’s a novel idea, and he implemented it well.
Leadership concepts applied to life
As I said, he’ll ask questions at the end of each chapter. I find myself asking these same questions in the workplace too. It made the book applicable to my professional life, and it could help yours as well. I’ll give a brief example of a concept he discussed:
When Captain Marquet first came to the Santa Fe, he decided to provide minimum orders while in command. He believed that while he was competent, his junior officers and petty officers needed to run their sections. He emphasized the “leader-leader” model of leadership while discussing the disadvantages that came with it as well. With those problems he encountered while using the “leader-leader” model, he found ways to correct those problems and make the USS Santa Fe more effective.
I thought this was empowering. We often overuse “empowering our subordinates,” but what does that mean? Captain Marquet embodied that principle in this book. He resisted giving direct orders that would go over his crew. He took a mentorship approach to his command, which was something I liked.
It’s not information-overload
Each chapter provides a new lesson-learned. Theoretically, I could tear a section out of the book and teach a whole class on it. Some leadership books cram a lot of studies, anecdotes, and personal experiences into each chapter, but not Captain Marquet.
The story-like flow helps not to get overwhelmed with the concepts he’s teaching. For example, he talked about a docking violation his crew committed while on land. He explained it so well that I didn’t have to go back and reread why the Santa Fe crew was in violation.
What I didn’t like
I listened to the audiobook that he narrated himself. I know he’s not a professional audiobook reader, but the performance sounded more nostalgic than instructional. I recommend getting the book and reading it yourself so that you can do your narration.
Although I praised his simplistic writing style, I felt like the book was written more like a zero to hero novel that overshadowed the leadership concepts Captain Marquet wanted to portray. The way he phrased things made it seem like “oh no! Something was wrong, and I fixed it!” It distracted me from his real message of creating a “leader-leader” environment.
Despite this critique, his intentions for the book were genuine. I felt like he did an excellent job of explaining what he wanted. Captain Marquet was an excellent example of an effective leader.
As I said, I loved this book! I would recommend it to any leader. Captain Marquet wrote the book well. My issues with it were small compared to the lessons I learned. I hope to apply his leadership philosophy to my career. You can buy it here.
I give Turn the Ship Around! a 9/10.