What is Leadership?
Leadership n.: Embedding the capacity for greatness in the people and practices of an organization, and decoupling it from the personality of the leader. — David Marquet
What do you think of when you think of a great leader? The lone genius, like Bill Gates? A military general commanding his troops? Or, do you think of someone who inspires and encourages greatness in the people around them?
David Marquet is that kind of leader. As a Captain in the US Navy, he was assigned to command the Navy’s worst-rated nuclear submarine. Marquet had no working knowledge of this type of submarine. Within one year he was able to turn the ship around and receive the highest rating of any nuclear submarine in the history of the Navy. He accomplished this through one simple shift — he stopped giving orders and started asking his officers to tell him what they intended to do in a given situation.
He stopped giving orders and started asking his officers to tell him what they intended to do in a given situation.
The idea at the center of David Marquet’s illuminating book Turn the Ship Around is that an organization’s success depends on redistributing power and authority within the organization. Rather than have power and authority consolidated by the central figure, it should be extended to everyone in the organization. This can be accomplished by a few simple but significant shifts in thinking:
- Switch from giving instructions to giving intent
- Give control
- Move authority to where the information is
Instructions v. Intent
In his video What is Leadership?, David Marquet advises, “If you want your people to think, don’t give instructions, give intent.”
If you want your people to think, don’t give instructions, give intent.
What does this mean? It means that rather than requiring your team members to ask you, the leader, for instructions or permission to take a certain course of action, consider allowing your team members to tell you what they intend to do. This may seem like a subtle shift in language, but the resulting psychological shift can be enormous.
When team members give intent, the psychological ownership of those actions shifts to them. They become the originators of thought and direction as opposed to passive followers. Marquet emphasizes in his talk that this will feel wrong at first. We are culturally programmed to “take control and attract followers.” However, a truly great leader gives control and creates leaders. And, as Marquet points out, it is this act of giving control that creates an organization made up of individuals who are thinking, active, passionate, creative, proactive, and taking initiative.
The two pillars that support giving control to team members are technical competence and organizational clarity.
These are not prerequisites for giving control, but rather the supports that underpin an intent-based organization. Technical competence can be defined as the skills necessary to complete a given task. Organizational clarity means that everyone, both team leaders and team members, have a clear understanding of the goals of the organization.
Giving control is an exercise in trust for both team leaders and team members. In other words, leaders must trust that team members have the competence and clarity to accomplish tasks without overly burdensome restrictions on the way in which they carry them out. Likewise, team members must trust that they themselves have the competence and clarity to accomplish those tasks without seeking burdensome guidance from the team leader.
As an example, say a new product has been developed by your company. The team leader could ask her team to write three 300-word blog posts detailing, in turn, the usefulness, innovativeness, and cost-effectiveness of the product. Alternatively, she could simply ask her team to develop some publicity for the product.
In the first instance, the leader is doling out orders to be followed and setting very specific parameters regarding what publicity should look like. In the second, she is trusting the competence and clarity of her team members to produce effective publicity, giving them the freedom to exercise creativity in producing that publicity. Both of these teams will produce publicity, but one team has a shared sense of ownership of the end product, and one does not.
Move Authority to Where the Information Is
Finally, shifting from a giving instructions leadership model to one of giving intent moves authority to where the information is. In other words, team members who have expertise get to use their knowledge to contribute even more. They may be the authority on a particular topic—and they will also have authority to execute ideas.
Shifting from a giving instructions leadership model to one of giving intent moves authority to where the information is.
The redistribution of authority not only increases the speed with which team members can execute an idea, but the quality of that execution as well. A distributed sense of leadership and ownership creates an environment in which employees are making decisions as if the CEO were standing beside them, supporting them. It makes for a more agile organization by eliminating the bottleneck effect of having every decision about where to go and what to do go through one central leader.
Finally, it also allows those who are in the best position to make a decision the freedom to do so.
The fundamental shift in this leadership model is away from the type of organization where the leader makes all the decisions and toward an organization where decisions are made by the team members working together. This does not mean you are an absent leader. You continue to inspire, while also serving as a backstop and course corrector for your team. You create an environment that values creative thinking, empowering those around you to make decisions.
You will achieve greatness because the people around you, and the organization as a whole, achieve greatness. More than that, the greatness stays with the organization even after you’re gone because you’ve created a culture of greatness within the organization. This is a solid foundation upon which short and long term success can be built.