Tips on Turning Followers into Leaders

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Turning followers into leaders isn’t easy. An entire culture needs to change and the process requires attention to detail so there are neither gaps nor slippage. Imagine doing so for an organization in which the Command-Follower culture has been ingrained for centuries. Now, imagine doing so in a confined environment, where the risks of even temporary failure can be fatal.

Turn the Ship Around is the story of (Retired) U.S. Navy Captain L David Marquet’s effort to change the command-follower structure within his nuclear submarine, the Santa Fe, into one which creates leader-leader relationships at all levels. Why did he decide that the leadership model needed to be changed? One day, he gave an impossible-to-fulfill order to a Lieutenant, who then relayed it to the helmsman to act upon – who who simply froze. Learning that the order was impossible, he asked why his Lieutenant relayed the order and he responded “because you told me what to do” – in other words, I obey commands.

In a culture where sailors are taught to do “whatever command-leaders tell me to do”, significant change –changing this DNA – requires meaningful, symbolic small changes in communication and interpersonal relations that constantly are reinforced. The book describes steps taken to change the leadership culture – shifting who has control, increasing everyone’s competence, and developing greater clarity in communications. The results: the Santa Fe went from being one of the worst ships in the fleet to one of the best. Moreover, it produced a disproportionately larger number of future captains than other ships.  A few of these changes include:

  • Reducing command control by empowering subordinates to “own” their actions. Instead of a leader telling others on what to do, each crew member was encouraged to stop being a passive follower and become an active participant working with his leader.  This meant changing the language from “disempowered phrases” that passive followers us, like “Request permission to…” or “Do you think I should..” to  “ I intend to..” or “I plan to..” and then receive the leader’s agreement such as, “Very well” or “Good idea.”
  • Create greater competence and accountability through ”deliberate action”. Marquet understood that “mistakes just happen” often describes situations in which people act automatically when attention to detail would have demanded a different action.  In other words, the error isn’t one on knowledge of skill, but rather concentration. For instance, when a person is already thinking of the next step in a process, they may make an error in the current step. The solution was getting people to take deliberate action: get each operator to pause and vocalize before taking the action. This allowed him to confirm his level of competence in the action and allowed adjacent operators to step in and correct mistaken actions before they’re taken – thus reducing the chance of error. The value of this came during an inspection where the Santa Fee received the highest grade ever and the inspector noted that “crew members tried to make the same number of mistakes as everyone else; but the mistakes never happened because deliberate action  led the operator or a teammate to correct the behavior.”
  • Don’t brief, certify. When a leader briefs his people on what they should do, it’s a passive activity in which the expectation is that “because I said it, you should now know it”, but no-one knows.  All too often people walk away without a full understanding.  This can be especially dangerous in a nuclear submarine! Therefore, before an operation could be implemented, crew members attended a certification session where they had to answer key questions to prove they understood. This shifts responsibility to the listener.
  • Recognize the need for a matching set of changes by the leader. To empower the crew members, the leader has to resist the urge to provide solutions or else members won’t have the space to acquire and practice open decision-making.
  • Continually and consistently repeat your messages of empowerment. To change a culture in which people have been often blindly following leaders, you need to reinforce the messages over and over. Indeed one mechanism that reinforces this is to create peer-to-peer systems which the members can use to monitor people’s actions, instead of using traditional top-down evaluation systems.

What mechanisms and processes are you using to empower your people to create more active leader-leader roles rather than passive leader-follower roles? Share with us what works and doesn’t.