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Leadership at every level

Turn the Ship Around is a book written by former U.S. Navy Submarine Commander David Marquet who gave a keynote address at the 2016 National Association for Principals & Deputys annual conference in Galway, Ireland. Many had wondered what the command structure of a nuclear attack submarine and school leadership could have in common. I suppose the easiest comparison to make is that both have traditionally set operating procedures which centre on a top down leadership model or as David Marquet would describe it a “Leader-Follower model”.

cover Turn the ship around!

This book is his truly powerful story of learning what leadership means and is a practical example of how the theoretical study of leadership can be put effectively into practice. The author had a deep interest in leadership from an early age and had studied it extensively. He was very much taken by the work of Stephen Covey and the seven steps of leadership which Covey proposed. The basic premise in this leadership story is one of creating a Leader-Leader approach to replace the Leader-Follower system.

Commander Marquet outlines in this book the struggle he had in putting this new model of leadership into place on an attack submarine in the US navy, the USS Santa Fe. He was up against tradition and the leadership for Naval Officer’s as outlined in the Operational Leadership Manual. As David himself outlined at the conference, he was trained for the command of one type of submarine and was deployed to command another type leaving him very little time for preparing to take over the worst performing nuclear sub in the US Naval fleet.

Commander Marquet proposes that Leadership should be defined as: “Embedding the capacity for greatness in the people and practices of an organisation, and decoupling it from the personality of the leader”. The basic premise of this theory is that traditional leadership creates unthinking followership, and that less top-down leadership creates more engaged leadership at every level of an organisation. In a school situation this this can be easily described as leadership at every level or distributed leadership to use another term. In order for this system to work we must be prepared to pass control of many school operations to others in our schools.

The book is written in easily digestible chapters with thought provoking leadership tips at the end of each chapter. There are many gems of wisdom contained within its pages and I have picked out the ones which resonated with me. One of the changes which he made was in giving the authority to grant shore leave for subordinate submariners to the petty officers removing a seven-step hierarchical process which was detracting from the work of many of his officers and allowing for a speedy decision to be made. This had the effect of empowering the petty officers to make speedy decisions and in turn raised morale.

In a school there are many operations which we rubberstamp as school leaders which could be easily done by teachers or staff members who are better informed than us because of their proximity and familiarity with particular tasks. In the book this is framed as, ‘move decision making to where the information is’. With the volume of work for school leaders continually expanding the above process would have a twofold benefit for both the school leader and those who become empowered by such a change.

I also liked where he requested all crew members to have a positive statement prepared for any visitors who came on-board his vessel. The crew welcomed visitors by greeting them with the name of the visitor, their own name and a welcome aboard the ‘[name of the ship]’. This positive promotion by the crew of the boat created a positive perception both with the visitors and with the crew. My interpretation of this being applied in a school setting is that by actively encouraging staff to be positive when welcoming visitors to the school and in speaking about their school this will filter to all stakeholders in our school communities.

Also, as part of the change which happened on board the Santa Fe, the crew came to embrace inspection and as a result the inspection results continually improved. In schools we should also do the same and treat inspections as a chance to “show off” the good work being done in the school and also embrace recommendations as advice on how to make what is good even better.

In summary I believe that there is a huge amount to be learned from this book which is a practical resource for leaders in all organisations. It is written in a manner which makes it easy to read and analyse where it can be applied in our own organisation. In this book the intention is to allow an organisation to;

  • Move from Leader-Follower to a Leader-Leader system.
  • Give control instead of always taking control.
  • Think long term instead of short term.
  • Instead of meetings have meaningful conversations.
  • Remove any steps in processes which don’t add value to it.
  • Constantly promote effective communication.
  • When you ask for something to be done encourage questioning.
  • Encourage those with ideas to speak up.
  • Have courage to implement change.
  • Provide high quality continuing professional development (CPD) to improve competency.

Turn the Ship Around is a book which I would recommend that all leaders whether in education or any other field should have in their library as a go to reference. If a nuclear submarine commander such as Commander David Marquet can pass control to those under his command and achieve such a phenomenal improvement maybe some of us can adopt his approach and reap the benefits of the Leader-Leader model in our schools. If a nuclear sub commander can give control to those under him and achieve amazing results, so can you. But be careful – it’s not a prescription and your organisation will be different from others. So, tune it for your particular circumstance.

Paul Byrne
ESHA board member
Deputy Director NAPD

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