Photo retrieved from USS Santa Fe SSN-763.
Captain David Marquet had just taken over as the new captain of the USS Santa Fe, a nuclear-powered submarine. He and the crew were in the midst of a troubleshooting drill that simulated a shutdown of the nuclear reactor. In such a scenario a diesel engine charges batteries for an electric motor, the “EPM,” which turns the propeller, although at a much slower speed, “ahead 1/3.” The problem with this arrangement is that there is a limited supply of diesel fuel to charge the batteries. As the troubleshooting work continued, the captain was getting bored and suggested to his Officer on Deck (OOD) that they increase the urgency of the situation by increasing speed to “ahead 2/3,” which consumes battery power and fuel much faster.1
The OOD, Lieutenant Commander Bill Greene, agreed and called out the order, “Ahead 2/3!” However, the helmsman did nothing. He squirmed a bit and was quite nervous as all eyes were on him. Captain Marquet asked why the order had not been carried out. The helmsman responded, “Captain, there is no ahead 2/3 on the EPM!” The captain realized he had made a mistake but a quick mental inventory of all the other submarines he had been on revealed that they all had ahead 2/3 on the EPM. The Santa Fe was the only one in his experience that did not.
While the Santa Fe was a new command for Captain Marquet, the OOD was not new to the vessel. The captain asked him if he had known there was only ahead 1/3 on the EPM.
“Yes, Captain, I did.”
“Well, why did you order it?”
“Because you told me to.”
Reflecting upon this event and dialogue, Captain Marquet recognized it as a failure of top-down, authoritarian culture. This event was merely a training exercise. The failure in communication and thinking would become, unintentionally, part of the training. Had it been a wartime or crisis situation that kind of thinking could result in the loss of many, many lives! So Captain Marquet began to make a subtle change in his vocabulary that would chip away at the problem.
Captain Marquet began to preface his communication with “I intend to …” or “I plan to …” and he encouraged all of his officers to do likewise. “I intend to …” communicates an active thought process and ownership of the plan, but it also invites critical thinking and dialogue. The phrasing encourages others to evaluate the intention and engage the speaker with additional insights and knowledge. Had Captain Marquet said, “I intend to increase the urgency of this training exercise by increasing speed on the EPM to ‘ahead 2/3’,” his OOD might have responded, “Yes, Captain, that would increase the urgency, but our EPM goes no faster than ‘ahead 1/3’.”
Senior leaders have a responsibility to communicate in a manner that invites critical thinking and dialogue. They need to be clear and strategic in that communication, and not so forceful that they squelch the thinking and communication of others—especially those that might have more accurate information. Leaders need to leverage the vast array of experience and talent of their teams and a top-down, authoritarian culture does not accomplish this. Instead, there must be an environment in which it is safe to ask questions, even so-called “dumb questions.” The legitimate challenge of an idea or plan should be welcomed and encouraged. Even if the question is inappropriate, or naïve, this creates a teaching and learning opportunity for leader and subordinate.
Likewise, mid-level leaders and managers (probably the most difficult positions in any organization), must have the courage to ask tough questions and boldly, but respectfully, offer insights from their experience and unique perspective. If your leader did not invite your input with “I intend to …” start the process on your own: “Is it your intention to …?” This is an example of leading up—being a leader to your leader.
For more about Captain Marquet’s story and his strategies to fight top-down culture, see “A Submarine Captain On The Power Of Leadership Language”, which is an excerpt from his book, “Turn the Ship Around!: How to Create Leadership at Every Level” (Greenleaf, 2012).
Is your organizational culture safe for asking tough questions? (You say, “Yes.” Are you sure? How do you know?) Or, is your word the “law”? What can you do to encourage critical thinking and dialogue?
1: This blog article is based on a book excerpt posted at “A Submarine Captain On The Power Of Leadership Language”.