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News Stories · Leadership

“Leadership is believing that everybody else has a superhero inside of them”

David Marquet speaks at IMD’s High Performance Leadership (HPL) and Advanced HPL’s 100th program alumni event
September 2019

The Santa Fe was consistently rated as one of the worst submarine crews in the United States Navy. Submarine commander David Marquet was on the rise and had just received an appointment to lead one of the top ships – until the Santa Fe lost its Commander.

As chance would have it Marquet was pulled in at the last minute to take the helm of the Santa Fe, a move that would change the way he saw leadership forever. Since then he’s been spreading his ideas far and wide through teaching, consulting, writing, speaking and more.

Leading for high performance

Last week at the 100th program celebration of IMD’s High Performance Leadership and Advanced HPL, Marquet shared his insights with 175 alumni from all over the world and who took the program as long as 18 years ago.

The submarine Commander grew up thinking that leaders were superheroes. But he learned through his experience that leading is about making superheroes out of others.

On the Santa Fe Marquet quickly realized that blindly carrying out orders could kill him and the entire crew. Having worked on a vastly different model of submarine, he ordered a speed change which his subordinates passed on even though they knew it wasn’t possible.

If that is how they acted in a low stakes’ situation, would they follow orders that they knew would sink the ship?

“The first part of leadership is admitting you don’t know,” said Marquet. “All my training was about telling people what to do. But that’s not what we needed. It was about thinking.”

There was no Eureka moment for Marquet. After conversations with his crew, he decided to try empowering them based on intent. Instead of subordinates waiting for orders, Marquet told the crew to tell him proactively what they intended to do.

“In an intent based organization, things happen. You are no longer the bottle neck. The way we lead today has to be different. We have to give up control.”

Creating a safe environment

But first leaders must create an environment where people feel safe enough to be able to speak up. It’s also about making sure they have what they need.

“Our job as leaders is to find out what the speed bumps are and remove them.”

At the end of Marquet’s stint at the Santa Fe, the submarine was consistently ranked at the top and many of those who worked for him went on to spread his principles of leadership to other branches of the Navy.

For Marquet it was about focusing first and foremost on what he had influence over.

“I couldn’t change my team. I couldn’t change my personnel. I couldn’t change the resources. I couldn’t change the operational schedule and the deadlines. I could only change the way we talked to each other.”

“The only person you can control on the planet is yourself. If someone is not behaving the way you want them to, look at your own behavior.”

The true measurement of a leader is their legacy, Marquet told the HPL alumni in closing.

“Your leadership score starts the day you leave. It’s about the accomplishments of your team when you’re no longer there.”

David Marquet is author of Turn The Ship Around! A True Story of Building Leaders by Breaking the Rules