Turn the Ship Book

Leadership Styles: Leader-Follower vs. Leader-Leader

Useless meetings. Unengaged employees. Weak performance. All of these are hallmarks of a company culture that desperately needs to be rebuilt. The question is, how does one revive a culture and inspire employees to take ownership of and pride in their work? David Marquet’s book, Turn the Ship Around! describes his struggles, setbacks, and ultimate rewards of his efforts to tackle these issues. A Retired US Submarine Captain, Marquet was assigned to one of the worst-performing submarines in naval history, and decided to develop his own approach to conquer the challenges it presented.

Follow to Lead

The traditional style of leadership is “leader-follower”, where orders are given and expected to be obeyed. According to Marquet, the weakness in this model is that people who are treated as followers behave like followers, with expectations of limited authority and no true incentive to give their best. Leader-follower leadership can also induce blind obedience, which results from reports not having to actively engage in their work: since tasks are distributed top-down, accountability just doesn’t happen. Lastly, this style of leadership results in a vicious cycle – people who are treated as followers will treat others as followers when they are elected as leaders.

Marquet decided to reject this leader-follower model, and to implement his own “leader-leader” approach among his submarine crew. He contends that leaders should be at every level of an organization, and strived to change the mindset of sailors trained in the leader-follower style throughout their naval education. Rather than delegate responsibilities, Captain Marquet helped the crew develop their own proactivity and ownership. As a result, his reports embraced playing to their strengths, and became an effective, high performing crew.

Path to Success

Throughout the book, Marquet shares the mechanisms he developed to achieve success with the leader-leader model. One of the most empowering mechanisms is changing how you ask questions. Rather than use passive language, such as “Do you think we should…”, or “Could we…”, Captain Marquet taught his crew to use active, empowered phrases such as “I intend to…”. This puts the decision about the course of action on the crew member, with the captain, simply approving the stated course of action. This is something that I was able to easily incorporate at Fusion, stating intentions to both team members and clients in daily conversations. As a result, conversations are richer – critical thinking is engaged and perspectives are immediately aligned.

A second one of Marquet’s mechanisms that can be easily introduced to a corporate setting is: “Don’t brief, certify”. Before any major operations on the submarine, the naval chiefs would have a meeting to “brief” the rest of the crew about the procedure. After being told by a chief, “no one listens in those briefings”, Captain Marquet realized he needed to do away with “knowledge dumps” altogether. Instead of everyone passively “being briefed” by others, Marquet introduced “certifications”. Rather than talk, supervisors asked questions of their team. It became each team’s job to demonstrate to their supervisor that they had the necessary knowledge and were prepared or certified for the operation. This again places the leadership in the hands of the team members, rather than the supervisor, and can be easily be transitioned to a corporate setting.

Fusion’s Engineering Release Meetings are a perfect example of certifications. Team members don’t show up passively expecting to be briefed, they come prepared to be certified with answers to questions about what is coming, what is expected, and when it can be ready. This direct communication ensures that no detail slips through the cracks and creates headaches later on. In other words, it helps us pursue excellence, not just avoid errors. Next, by using a mechanism like thinking out loud, they are able to identify issues, raise concerns and make suggestions regarding quality early on in the process. By having their input seriously weighed, there is a greater level of investment and commitment to the final product.

Effective Outcomes

While contract manufacturers don’t need to worry about a nuclear reactor malfunctioning, as Marquet did, the challenges and potential successes of the leader-leader method can still apply to a corporate office setting. As one can assume, the leader-leader model turned Marquet’s submarine crew into a successful, high-achieving team, with remarkable improvement in evaluation scores and retention rates. Additionally, these successes continued in the years following his time in command. Applying mechanisms from this model to your company may yield similar results. At Fusion, it’s increased both product quality and employee engagement.