Turn the Ship Around! by L. David Marquet


Turn the Ship Around! is a story of one man’s efforts to change the leadership structure of a massive organization (in this case, the U.S. Navy) from a leader-follower dynamic to a leader-leader dynamic.

Retired Captain of the U.S. Navy L. David Marquet talks about how an organization where everyone is a leader in their work is ultimately more enjoyable, efficient, and flexible than the traditional structure where one person “leads” and the others “follow”. It’s an inspirational story, and its teachings can help you turn your company’s leadership dynamic upside-down (if it hasn’t been already!)


I read this book under a kind recommendation from one of the senior software development managers at Amazon, Govi Bacthavachalu. Govi, like me, loves to read, and he recommended this book as one of his all-time favorite books on leadership.

Interesting Tidbits

“The core of the leader-leader model is giving employees control over what they work on and how they work. It means letting them make meaningful decisions. The two enabling pillars are competence and clarity.

Marquet goes into plenty of detail about control, competence, and clarity.

Leader-Leader vs. Leader-Follower

Here’s a quick comparison between the two paradigms:

  • (Don’t Do This! vs. Do This!)
  • Take control vs. Give control
  • Give orders vs. Avoid giving orders
  • When you give orders, be confident, unambiguous, and resolute vs. When you do give orders, leave room for questioning
  • Brief people vs. Certify people
  • Have meetings vs. Have conversations
  • Have a mentor-mentee program vs. Have a mentor-mentor program
  • Focus on technology vs. Focus on people
  • Think short-term vs. Think long-term
  • Want to be missed after you depart vs. Want not to be missed after you depart
  • Have high-repetition, low-quality training vs. Have low-repetition, high-quality training
  • Limit communications to terse, succinct, formal orders vs. Augment orders with rich, contextual, informal communications
  • Be questioning vs. Be curious
  • Make inefficient processes efficient vs. Eliminate entire steps and processes that don’t add value
  • Increase monitoring and inspection points vs. Reduce monitoring and inspection points
  • Protect information vs. Pass information

Guiding Principles

Marquet provides a set of guiding principles for the ship that he commanded (the USS Santa Fe). Interestingly, in many ways they closely mirror Amazon’s Leadership Principles. Here are the USS Santa Fe guiding principles:

  • Initiative (“Take action without direction from above”)
  • Innovation (“Looking at new ways of doing the same thing”)
  • Intimate Technical Knowledge (“Learn our areas of responsibility”. “Make decisions based on technical reasons”. “Understand the details”. “Diligently study”)
  • Courage (“Do the right thing, even if it may be uncomfortable”. “Admit mistakes, even if ugly”)
  • Commitment (“We are present when we come to work. We give it our best.”)
  • Continuous Improvement (“We continually seek ways to learn from processes and improve them and ourselves”)
  • Integrity (“We tell the truth to each other and to ourselves”)
  • Empowerment (“Encourage those below us to take action and support them if they make mistakes”)
  • Teamwork (“Work as a team, not undercutting each other”)
  • Openness (“Freedom to speak one’s mind”)
  • Timeliness (“We do things on time”)
  • Leadership at every level!


Admittedly, I found myself having trouble relating to every single story that Marquet detailed. However, I think the lessons he imparts are invaluable for any working professional in a company. This book is not just for “managers” or “directors” — it paints a picture about how an organization can think about leadership to make everyone, at all levels, effective in their own work, further enabling a group to do amazing things.

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