Let the doers be the deciders with David Marquet

Steve Rush: David, welcome to the show. 

David Marquet: Thank you, Steve, for having me on your show. 

Steve Rush: It is absolutely my pleasure. I have been a fan of your work for some time, so I appreciate you taking some time out in your busy schedule to be with us, too. So, David, I know that he spent 28 years in the U.S. Navy and that’s obviously where you developed your leadership theories and you your thinking. But a started much younger for you, didn’t it, when you were spending some time with your grandparents back in Pittsburgh?

David Marquet: Well, I was sort of this library kid. I was an introvert and my parents shipped me off to my grandparents in the summer. And Pittsburgh, which was this industrial town. It was a steel making town, and it really was not a lot of fun. They lived in sort of this urban area, but there was a library nearby, so I would kind of scoot out and go hide in the library and do all this reading.

I like history books. I would read all these history books. I read about submarines and the role that they play World War 2 and at the same time, the country was going through…this was the 70s. So the country was going through this sort of malaise and depression of…It doesn’t seem like things are going right. Inflation was bad, oil shocks were there, Iranians taken Americans hostage. You could not get it back, blah, blah, blah. We are in the Cold War and all these things kind of gelled together for me, and even though I was probably an unlikely candidate to join, the military. I was born in Berkeley, California, a hotbed of radicalisms.

I called my parents. That is what I was going to do and of course, they tried to hide their… well, they were worried for me, I think a little bit, because I was kind of a sensitive, introverted.

But submarine force worked out well because you hide from people there, so it’s a natural fit for introverts. 

Steve Rush:  So how do you go from being introverted to then being a US captain of a nuclear submarine?

David Marquet: Oh, you got me an introvert on base. In fact, I think it is a benefit because some of the extroverts I knew they sort of got away with just the sort of grand personality and I was forced to really be thoughtful about what I said. I did not like to speak, so I would say as few words as possible, but I felt there were quality words and the idea is, but my burden was I thought I was really smart, because everyone was telling me that at every step.

I was on the math team when I was in high school, and so there was this sense that I knew the answer and it fed this structure of leadership where a leader as decision maker and it got me promoted, and it probably is the right place to be when I was starting out. But a submarine commander, the complexity of the ship foiled that aspect of what I wanted to be. It is psychologically very seductive. You make decisions, people line up outside your door all day long. It feels good, but it is really depleting. It is very short term is a short-term win. It is like eating cotton candy. It is a high and then it just feels bad after that.

And that was the change I had to go through. 

Steve Rush:  And would you say that your introversion was almost a propeller to start giving control to other leaders to slow?

David Marquet: It was an enabler, but it was not the catalyst. The catalyst was I screwed up. I gave an order that could not be done on my ship. The story is I was trained for 12 months to go to one submarine at the very last minute. I should have said, no, you got to go to this other one Santa Fe because it was the worst performing ship in the fleet. The captain has quit and so we need someone over there in two weeks. It is you and I was just unbelievably despondent over this news because the Santa Fe was had this reputation of being the clown ship. It was terrible and it was a different kind of submarine. That was the kicker.

The patterns. Captains give orders, crew follow them is what we fell into, but immediately broke apart. It fell apart because you cannot orders, you don’t know the details of the ship. It did not work, but I tried. Kind of candle light and sort of this very stark event, and where I embarrass myself by giving an order that could be done and I got the team together. 

Two things, number one is in the past. I said, you know, I have to get better orders. But now it’s like, no. I got to stop giving orders. It is me giving orders is the problem. Not the fact it was bad. Then the second thing was. I wanted to tell the team. Oh, you guy’s be proactive. You guy’s take initiative, but it’s really you. You can only change your own behaviour.

Steve Rush:  And what was the other moment for you when you realized you needed to change that behaviour?

David Marquet: When I gave this order and I suggested to the officer, hey, let’s go and speed up on them back up…we were running on backup because we had shut down a reactor for an exercise on ourselves. And I said, let’s speed up and he orders at second gear, and the sailor just kind of turns around in his chair and he looks at this quizzical eye, You guys are idiots look and I said, what?

On the Santa Fe, It is a one-speed motor, no second gear, I look at the officer, and it said, did you notice that? Yes, sir. And he give me this, like, really annoying smile and I’m like, why did you? But we all know it’s because we do what we are told. That is how it is. Yeah, we did the same thing everyone else does, which I called sprinkling the fairy dust of empowerment. But we don’t really mean it because structurally embedded in the organization, I’m going to tell you what you do, but fairy dust…speak up if you think it’s wrong. This makes it hard to speak up.

Steve Rush: What do you think it causes people not to speak up in that environment, given your experiences?

David Marquet: Why?

Steve Rush: Yeah.

David Marquet: Because you corrected speed barriers. Sometimes very subtle. So, for example.

Let’s say you raise your hand and I say, what is it? It sends a signal. You are really annoying us for slowing the thing down.

We also have inherited from the industrial age this idea of a bang the clock and continuing the production line as long as possible. In that environment, anyone who stops the production line is a problem; they are creating waves because then you have idle time. There are huge cultural barriers and the team does not have the tools. We actually don’t have language in many teams for what to say to stop the clock. We are in a meeting and we say, oh, well, everybody has a chance to speak up, we don’t practice.

Okay, if you don’t agree with this. How do you voice that? And then even better, the way we run the meeting is don’t talk about it and then vote, vote and then talk about it, because as soon as you start talking about it, you’re narrowing variability and diversity of thought. The structures, then the language are designed to reduce variability and run away from uncertainty as quickly as possible, even though it is premature in many cases. 

Steve Rush:  And it is indicative isn’t it of that kind whole leader follower philosophy that you might have experienced it in your early career in the Navy.

David Marquet: So we have words. The industrial age organization design was this. One group of people will make decisions and one group of people will execute the decisions made by the first group of people. And we have labels because they all look like humans, but we need to know which tribe you’re in and we call them leaders and followers or thinkers and doers or management and workers, and we pay people by salary or by hourly. White collar, blue collar. We wear different uniforms but there is this whole cultural industry. With artefacts and rituals to put us in one of these, two groups, and this is one of the things that is suddenly embedded in our language and in minor organization design, which is totally unhelpful.

Steve Rush: Yeah, and you talk about this in your new book. Leadership is Language. 

David Marquet: Yeah. 

Steve Rush: And you give the type to behave as colour, don’t you? Just tell us a little bit more about that. 

David Marquet: Yeah. As an author, you have to create a new term. No one gets credit for there is a bunch of great ideas. Aristotle said everything let me reiterate them. I call them red work and blue work. So the doing work is what we call red work. Red being typically the colour of focus and action and blue work the colour of creativity, and the difference is when red work. I want to narrow my perspective, but in blue work, I want to broaden my perspective so I am using my brain in two fundamentally different ways and industrial organizations solve the problem by not asking people to change. The thinkers were just do thinking and the doers just did doing. And we didn’t need the thinkers to do doing and the doers to do thinking. Now we say let the doers be the deciders. So what we’re going to do is say this group to the organization at the bottom who used to just do what they’re told. We are now going to pause and give them the chance to think and actually make decisions, but that requires them to use their brain in different way. That requires us if we are in the leading group, to talk in a different way.

Steve Rush: And as leaders, it is our responsibility, isn’t it? I guess through our language will influence and either help new ideas and creativity or we will stifle them.

David Marquet: You can only control yourself. So when you say, oh, well, this person does not speak up, it the really frustrating working with them. The unhelpful behaviours is to go give them a lecture. How can I give you some feedback i.e. can I permission to be a jerk? You really need to speak up more. Well, how about this? How you look inside yourself and you figure out. You know what, the way we are running the meeting, the way I am asking the questions, if someone comes to me and says, well, I am not sure about this decision, and I said, why would you say that? 

Again. Subtle, but it sends a signal you are wrong. Justify yourself, not, oh, tell me about that. I am really interested in that. We really need to know before we go ahead, launch this product.

If you think, we are off track. 

Steve Rush: And one I guess create coaching culture as well, doesn’t it? So the more questions you ask. The more evidence and inside you have from people to develop thinking and ideas. Right?

David Marquet: Yeah, so it is dicey because I do think that. Teaching is not telling and we can take moments to teach people. I think what happens is leaders don’t do the hard work of building a decision-making factory. Putting structures in the team so that when a team has to make a decision or a person who owns a decision that the decision is going to consistently come out of quality decision, i.e. is going to help the organization do something and learn something. And, so if you don’t do that, then what happens is I’m getting sucked into being the decision maker all the time, then evaluate and approve all these decisions. So what I think you want to do if you want to be a leader. Is to build decision-making factory.

Steve Rush:  I love that. If you can imagine what this decision, making factory would look like. Just describe them for our listeners.

David Marquet: Well, best thing is what the book is about because. So the question is when do teams and people make bad decisions? And so we look at some industrial accidents and what are the conditions? And it turns out the basis the overall pattern is we’re adapting its industrial age playbook where we’re trying to narrow variability. The problem is we use it we do spare variability language. To embrace variability game, so one of the stories in the book is there is a ship in 2015 sails into Hurricane. Sank, all 33 people die. This is a ship that is seven hundred ninety feet long.

How did that happen? Well, fortunately, we were able to recover the black box, and so we have a 500-page transcript. It is the way teams talk for real. Not how we wish they talk or one or some fantasy world how they talk, but it is the actual language. Now, what you see is. All the behaviours that I saw in the Navy and to go back later and say, well, they are just bad people, they are oh, so they have been mariners for 30 years, most of the senior people were in the 50s. And they were promoted over the last 30 years based on a set of behaviours that they exhibited, those behaviours they exhibited over the last 30 years are exactly the behaviours they are exhibiting on this tape. So it is not them it’s, its good people, but with the wrong playbook and it’s a playbook that excludes variabilities, so there’s a moment when two officers separated by two hours, they’re coming up to a point where they can turn away from the storm and go behind the Bahamas. And it’s this very halting, stilted, painful anguish language. 

Steve Rush: Right. 

David Marquet: And blaming them is wrong. Because the question is, why is the language like that? And if you go back earlier, we can see the playbook of continue at all costs. Don’t stop because they deviating will take longer and burn more fuel.

Steve Rush: In my experience of coaching leaders as well. Is that being brave to try new things, to testing things, really we get to learn about ourselves. I mean, in your kind of experience of working with others and other leaders as well as working in the Navy, what would you say would be the one thing you have learned the most about being brave and trying new things?

David Marquet: Being brave and trying new things comes first and foremost from a place of security and safety. If you don’t feel secure and say… at the extreme, if you have a lion running at you, you can run in a different direction, maybe but if you don’t feel secure and safe. Then you are always in a constant. I’m proving myself mode, and that gets in the way of running experiments and being a little bit playful and trying some different things. If you are on a rugby team and you feel we have to win every game, then you are not going to be able to try different things and try different combinations of players then when you get to the final tournament, you’ll have just done what you did versus another team, which maybe took some more.

They will know better. There may be a better way of setting up your players, but you will never know it. But it might be worse, so if you try it and then you lose one game, how do you respond to that? Oh my gosh, everyone kill themselves, so dreadful, like no.

Steve Rush: So cross your new playbook. You got six plays that you refer to… 

David Marquet: Yeah. 

Steve Rush: And there is some really interesting things in there. You have a principle in there call complete not to continue, so tell us a bit about that.

David Marquet: So when the industrial age, Imagine you are on an assembly line making cars. So there’s a cost to tooling the assembly line. Once the deciders just figured out the quote, optimal way or an optimal way. We don’t want downtime, just keep going and so every day feels like the next and there’s never a moment to pause and celebrate, and there was never a moment to reflect on our work. Is making cars the right thing is making…. so, like, why did Elon Musk have to come from left field? To build the viable electric car.

Yeah, I know there were some electric cars in the traditional auto industry, but they really never did anything, and it’s because we just continue…we make cars with four wheels and internal combustion engines. And so there’s just not pause and reflect. If there is no complete. There is no pause and reflect. So what we want to do…let say you want to treat strategy like a hypothesis. Hey, here is what we are going to do and do it for five years. We know the world’s going to change. I mean, 200 years from now. Who knows?

Steve Rush: So isn’t a habit, though. Good for discipline and creating that routine and consistency.

David Marquet: Yeah. So when you do your thing, get into the habit. So, for example, let’s say I start a yoga program. I like to do 20-minute yoga program in the morning, and so I don’t know how I’m going to feel about it. Just thinking about it is not going to answer the question. I have to actually do it; I can’t just do it twice.

Okay, so let’s do it. I am going to do it for 100 days in a row. Then I can ask my wife. Do I seem calmer? Do I feel more in control of my life? How do I feel about this? Is it worth the extra 20 minutes that happens in the morning, which is a busy time for most people?

Two mistakes I see. One is obviously twice, and then when I evaluate it, the other mistake is, yeah, I am going to start doing yoga and you don’t put an end point and then it’s just forever and then it feels heavy and burdensome.

Steve Rush: So the other one of the six plays, it really intrigued me. And it’s also something I experience a lot, too, in my world, is that people seem to shy away from emotion, but its emotion what really drives behaviour, right?

David Marquet: For people to make decisions, all decisions are emotional. We can do all the rational work we want, but at the end of the day, it going to passed a little emotional circuitry in our brain. And you know this, who am I marrying? Where am I living? Which house am I going to rent? The spreadsheet says this, but I can see us living here.

Steve Rush: Yeah. People want more sure than not sure, don’t they? In their world too. 

David Marquet: Well they want certainty, but I think there is an emotional component to decision. Well we know it. I don’t think it, we know it from science. So, hell, if you want.

So in the past, I didn’t care about your emotions because you were just a doer and I don’t need you to be self-reflective, so if you had a screwed up emotional life, it didn’t cost me anything. First of all, it’s immoral, but the second thing is. If you let the doers be the deciders, which is going to be better for you, the company and the people who are doing the work.

Then we have to have healthy emotions and healthy emotions only come from being feeling like a human being, so that’s why the last play is connect and it kind of underpins everything. That this idea that until you feel a sense of connection. The connection is not trivial. Hey, would you do this weekend? And it’s not. I agree with everything that you say. I don’t want everyone from one party in one company. That would definitely not work, it violate the diversity thing. Connection is I actually give a shit about you in a deep…

Steve Rush: Meaningful level.

David Marquet: I want you to be successful in your life, because once you have that. If I need to go to you and say. You kind of showed up like a jerk in that meeting, it does not sting. Deep in my heart, I believe and I feel that you really love me. You want me to succeed and I want the same for you, so it comes across as an embrace, not a stick in the eye. 

Steve Rush: Really powerful, isn’t it? Really emotional, too. When you make that connection. 

David Marquet: Yeah, listen to me. I am a submarine commander. That is the last place you find emotion. 

Steve Rush: Does that changed too. When you were on-board, the Santa Fe?

David Marquet: Yeah, I think we did. If you asked me on my last day, I would say. Oh, yeah, we did really, really well. We made such a big change. I think now we made a change and we did well, but I think there is so much more we could do.

Steve Rush: And talking about emotional connections whilst on board the Santa Fe. Not many of our listeners might know this, but Stephen Covey, the famous author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, spent some time with you on board the ship, right?

David Marquet: Yeah, and that was a magic day. His book had a huge impact on me, and my life. He helped me understand what we were actually doing by putting it into words, and I was very sad when he passed away a couple of years ago.

Steve Rush: Sure, and he cited, you actually as being partly responsible for his eight habit. I just wondered how that felt when you heard that words from somebody with such a broad experience at that time.

David Marquet: Well, I was amazing and when he was on a ship, he said, this is amazing. It is the most empowering place I have ever seen. I want to write about you in my next book. And I’m like, sure, sure. Right. Then, sure enough, you know a couple of years later, this big box of books and I am like, no way.

Steve Rush: Did that inspire you somewhat to put pen to paper yourself?

David Marquet: Yeah, Plus my wife told me I needed to do it. After I left the Navy, I really wanted to tell the story. Not like here we were, how great we were, how great was I? But by doing this, we ended up creating so many more leaders. They have gone out and had much better lives. 

Steve Rush: That is great. It is awesome stuff. And Dave just to finish it off. Could you just give us a few top leadership hacks?

David Marquet: Steve, my top leadership Hack. Start your question with how. How sure are you? Not are you sure. When you are running a meeting, a decision meeting. Vote first, then discuss.

Steve Rush: David thanks ever so much for spending time with me, really grateful. Good luck with leadership is language.

David Marquet: Thanks, Steve, for coming into town and doing this in person.

Steve Rush: You are very welcome.

And if you’d like to learn a little bit more about David head over to davidmarquet.com and Intent Based Institute.

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