Moving Followers to Leaders emergency management network podcast

Before I get into the meat of the topic, I need to pause and wish all of my fellow veterans a happy veterans day, And I cannot forget my Marine Corps Brothers and Sisters and wish them a very happy birthday. It has been a wonderful 247 years since the founding of the Marine Corps in Philadelphia’s Tun Tavern in 1775.

Today we are talking about moving followers to leaders. With National Holiday Veterans Day two days away as I write this, I found it fitting to revisit a past interview I conducted with Capt. L. David Marquet from the United States Submarine Force

Since I first interviewed David about his book Turn The Ship Around,  hundreds of thousands of readers have been inspired by former Navy captain David Marquet’s true story. Many have applied his insights to their organizations, creating workplaces where everyone takes responsibility for their actions, where followers grow to become leaders, and where happier teams drive dramatically better results.

Like many officers, David was a Naval Academy graduate. He took pride in his accomplishments, and as an experienced officer, when selected for the highly competitive position of submarine command, he was thrilled. David was trained to give orders in the traditional Master and Commander leadership model. When he was allowed to be the skipper of a brand nuclear-powered submarine, he took the opportunity to learn everything about it. However, David faced a new wrinkle when he was shifted to the Santa Fe, an underperforming boat that was dead last in the pacific fleet. Facing the high-stress environment of a sub where there’s little margin for error, he was determined to reverse the trends he found on the Santa Fe: poor morale, poor performance, and the worst retention rate in the fleet. 

Marquet ran into trouble when he unknowingly gave an impossible order, and his crew tried to follow it anyway. He said it was like telling someone driving a 4-speed to the car to shift it into 5th. When he asked why the answer was: “Because you told me to.” David realized that while he had been trained for a different submarine, his crew had been trained to do what they were told – a deadly combination.

That’s when Marquet flipped the leadership model and pushed for leadership at every level. Turn the Ship Around! Reveals how the Santa Fe skyrocketed from worst to first in the fleet by challenging the US Navy’s traditional leader-follower approach. Struggling against his instincts to take control, he achieved the vastly more powerful model of giving power to his subordinates and creating leaders.

Before long, each member of Marquet’s crew became a leader and assumed responsibility for everything he did, from clerical tasks to crucial combat decisions. The team became wholly engaged, contributing their total intellectual capacity every day. Santa Fe set records for performance, morale, and retention. And over the next decade, a highly disproportionate number of the officers of the Santa Fe were selected to become submarine commanders.

“Organizations should reward risk-takers, even if they fall short once in a while. Let them know that promotions and glory go to innovators and pioneers, not to stand-patters who fear controversy and avoid trying to improve anything.”

As he recounts, in Turn, the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders the opportunity wasn’t without its irony.

I took away from this interview how David moved an entire boat from a “can I” to a “May I” mentality. This may not seem like a massive difference to you; however, it is enormous in the traditional Navy and the high-stakes world of the submarine service. 

Today, young men and women are preparing to fight the next war, and Our military has spent much time and money preparing for tomorrow’s battles with antiquated methods. We continue to invest in the latest technologies and systems, but, as we all know, technology is nothing but a facilitator. The people operating the equipment give us the fighting edge, and we have lost our way to helping them grow.

And I see the parallel between how emergency management uses decade-old methods to train current and future emergency managers and military training to fight the last battle. There are technologies that we need to embrace by looking at thought leaders like Sean Griffin from Disaster Tech, whose innovations in training and AI are making strides in how we train for the next disaster. 

However, we also need a pathway for the next generation of emergency management leaders. That is what this series is truly about. 

Socrates said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” That is the key to leadership. It understands yourself first, seeking to improve and then using that knowledge to shape the organization.

Leaders must free their subordinates to fulfill their talents to the utmost. However, most obstacles that limit people’s potential are set in motion by the leader and are rooted in their fears, ego needs, and unproductive habits. A transformation can take shape when leaders explore deep within their thoughts and feelings to understand themselves.

That understanding shifts the leader’s perspective on all life interactions, and they approach leadership differently. As a result, the leader’s choices differ from those they made when blinded by fear, ego, and habit. 

More importantly, others perceive the person as more authentic, reinforcing the new behavior. This can vastly improve how people respond to their leaders and makes their loyalty to the source of gratification more likely:

This loyalty transforms the organization from just a place to work to a sense of ownership, a team, and a culture that gives their lives meaning and purpose.

Leaders must be willing to put the organization’s performance ahead of their egos.

The command-and-control approach is far from the most efficient way to tap people’s intelligence and skills.

In any organization where employees take ownership, you have one with core values of leaders putting their team or “followers” first.

In a world that is constantly moving, staying still is near-certain death.

Organizations should reward risk-takers, even if they fall short once in a while. It is scary for para-military organizations to allow that to happen. We have all seen the rewards go to the bureaucrat, which does not challenge the status quo. Kelly McKinney once said that you are not doing your job if you don’t get fired for doing what is right. Let that sink in for a second. 

We must let our team members know that promotions and glory go to innovators and pioneers, not to stand-patters who fear controversy and avoid trying to improve anything. That’s the key to keeping an organization vital, growing, and successful. Stasis is death to any organization. Evolve or die: It’s the law of life. Rules that made sense when they were written may well be obsolete. Make them extinct, too.

The primary reasons people leave an organization have nothing to do with money.

However the economy is doing, a challenge for leaders in the twenty-first century is attracting and retaining not just employees but the best employees— and, more importantly, how to motivate them so that they work with passion, energy, and enthusiasm. But very few people with brains, skills, and initiative appear. The timeless challenge in the real world is to help less-talented people transcend their limitations.

Most systems reward micromanagement which only disempowers subordinates and removes ownership and accountability.

managers are told to delegate authority and empower subordinates, but they are expected never to utter the words “I don’t know.” So they are on constant alert, riding herd on every detail. In short, the system rewards micromanagement by superiors— at the cost of disempowering those below.

Organizations commanded by a micromanager create a sub-culture of micromanagement. Individual initiative is the exception, not the norm and the people who exhibit it get beaten down quickly and either quit or become cynical.

No one is capable of making every decision.

While there are infinite ways to make decisions, most organizations create an ineffective system of rules and policies that attempt to prepare for every possible contingency.

The thing about rules and policies is that they become very hard to fix once they are put in place. Both the people who put them in place and those whose job it is to exercise them become highly motivated advocates of the policies. Even if the policies initially made sense, they became hard to change. When you try to change something but can’t, you start becoming a tenant and stop being an owner.

Ownership dramatically increases the odds of success.

They will handle the details if you can find the right people, set the direction, and give them autonomy. In fact, not only will they take the details, but they will insist on it because they are owners.

Think about it, when was the last time you cared about something profoundly and outsourced the details? Never.

I saw this quote and needed to use it at some point. Shane Parish published this on his website. 

One way to tell if you’re working with owners and renters is whether they insist upon a sufficient level of autonomy. Renters never want it. Owners can’t live without it. Autonomy comes from influence, power, and direction. You must be kept up with bureaucracy and management.

Instead of rules, great organizations use principles and allow for exceptions and judgment. They train people to think and make judgments on their own. If you need to know when it makes sense to opt-out of a rule or policy, you shouldn’t be in charge of executing it.


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