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The listening leader

Former Nuclear submarine captain David Marquet talks to Leesman about why leaders need to stop talking and start listening.

“I spent a lot of my career taking orders and I hated it. I remember having breakfast on my last day in the Navy; the sun was already up and I could feel all the stress leaving my body. I looked to my wife and I said: “You know, I just don’t really like being told what to do.” She replied: “No duh, I can’t believe you lasted that long.”

As a former nuclear submarine captain, David Marquet’s approach to leadership and communication is somewhat unconventional for the United States Navy. He is acutely aware of how important communication is – poor communication in his workplace could have resulted in catastrophe – a sunken ship and loss of life.

Yet in Marquet’s first book, the bestselling Turn the Ship Around!, he tells the story of how he turned the worst-performing ship in the fleet into the best-performing ship by turning followers into leaders, largely through a shift in his communication style.

His latest book, Leadership is Language, goes even further, offering a radical playbook for leaders to empower their teams, whether remotely or in-person.

Marquet spoke to Leesman about leading in times of uncertainty, how to get your team to make better decisions and why our brains feel a bit fuzzy after a day spent on Zoom.

Q – Leadership is Language, came out in February last year, right before much of the world went into lockdown. In many ways it was perfect timing as many leaders feel like they are leading in the dark, and communication has been difficult with so many unknown quantities. You’re an expert at leading with little information; in your first book, Turn the Ship Around, you detail how you successfully captained a nuclear submarine you knew nothing about. What would you tell leaders who feel like they are leading blind?
Leading in the dark creates a scary visual image. But here’s the thing: you’re not really in the dark. We place too much emphasis on our own personal perceptions. You may feel like you’re in the dark, but you actually have ten people around you who can see perfectly well.

I had an acute experience of this when I unexpectedly had to take over as the captain of the USS Santa Fe nuclear submarine instead of the USS Olympia, which I was trained for. I knew every minute detail of the USS Olympia and next to nothing about the USS Santa Fe. I felt like my credibility and my knowledge as a leader were suddenly ripped away from me.

In my case, lives literally depended on me not making the decisions. The few times I did try to make a decision, the crew would follow it even if it was wrong, which was disheartening. Most leaders believe that if one of their team sees an obvious problem with a decision they will speak up and correct it, but in practice this rarely happens.

One classic, tragic example is an aviation accident that happened during World War Two. The General, who also happened to be a pilot, was flying. He had a new co-pilot who was in awe of him and wanted to follow his instructions perfectly. At one point, the General started humming a tune to himself and made an innocuous movement with his head, which his co-pilot interpreted as an order to bring up the landing gear. But the plane was still going down the runway and hadn’t reached speed. As he brought up the landing gear the plane went down; a propeller blade severed the General’s back and he became paralyzed.

When the co-pilot was interviewed afterwards he was asked why he had brought up the landing gears when that was so clearly the wrong action. He responded that he thought the general was indicating for him to do it. Even though he knew it wasn’t the right thing to do and he knew the plane wasn’t going fast enough, his own logic was squashed by his admiration for the General.

A team that’s afraid to ask questions or get it wrong is going to fail. Especially with so many people home working during this pandemic, it is essential to understand what challenges and problems your people are dealing with.

We so often undervalue the idea of description. We say: “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” It’s essentially putting a tax on people bringing us their problems. Guess what happens when a leader implements the ‘only come to me with solutions’ policy? They get fewer problems. Except that the same number of problems are still out there, they are just hearing about them less.

A better way to bring clarity to your organisation is to ask people to come to you with a description of their problems. A leader can’t help to solve problems if they don’t know what they are. Having people simply tell you about their situation, explain their problem, and describe how they see it from their side is the first step to any kind of an empowerment programme.

Q – And would still encourage that person to solve the problem themselves?
Yes. Ultimately I still want them to solve the problem, but it always starts with description.

The reason you start with description rather than assessment is that describing feels safer than deciding. This is because description is not processed through the part of our brain that’s connected to emotions, but decisions are. All decisions are emotional.

Of course, people have to feel safe to express emotions (and ultimately make a decision), and the way to make them feel safe is by saying: “Tell me about the problem.” This is especially important when working with distributed teams, because you don’t see everything your team sees and you don’t know what they know. The ideal scenario is that teams will operate and make decisions based on what everybody sees and knows; then the right decision will be made. But what often happens is that decisions are made based only on what the leader sees and knows, even though they can only see a tiny portion of the whole picture.

On the submarine, we have a periscope. We see the outside world through this tiny lens. I’m only looking at 16 degrees on the horizon. It’s a perfect metaphor for how we typically operate in the world. If I were to only look through the periscope I’d be in real danger, which is why I need someone looking behind me and to the left and right, to give me a full picture of what’s going on.

Q – Distributed working has made it harder to know what our teams are seeing and struggling with. In your book you talk about the importance of share-of-voice, the idea that everyone in a meeting should be sharing equally. Meeting over video has made this dynamic even more difficult. Why is share-of-voice so important and how can we do it well?
Black box recordings offer a unique insight into share-of-voice as we get to hear how critical decisions were made in real time.

In Leadership is Language we profiled a ship called the El Faro that tragically sailed into a hurricane and sank in 2015, and tragically all 33 people lost their lives. It had all the modern navigation equipment, so it was a mystery as to how it could have happened. Thankfully, the dialogue on the black box held the key.

On the recording you can hear the two people navigating on the bridge: the person steering and person giving directions. Sometimes the Captain is also on the bridge, so it’s a three-person situation: Captain, officer, crewman. My team and I went through the transcript and counted the number of words that everybody said. We found that the Captain said more than 50% of the words. The officer said almost everything else and the crewman said less than 5%. And if you match the percentage they spoke with their salaries it is almost an exact match. We seem to have this instinctive programming that you get to say the number of words proportionate to the salary that you have. And as a result, we default to accepting the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (HiPPO).

There are two reasons why you don’t want to go with the highest paid person’s opinion. Firstly, it could be wrong. Secondly, once the highest paid person makes a decision, their ego is attached to that decision. This is the same for everybody, regardless of rank. Once you make a decision, you’re less likely to see that decision dispassionately and you’re less likely to walk away from it. If evidence grows that the decision was actually a bad one, you’re unlikely to go back and change it.

Here’s the takeaway: if you’re the leader, you’re probably talking too much. You need to suppress your own share-of-voice. Other people will speak more when you speak less.

This was hard for me because I’d be silent and people would look at me – they would want me to say something. I would just wait in that awkward silence until finally someone started speaking up and then I would reward that with acknowledgment. This can feel even more awkward on a digital call, but the end result of having your team more communicative and engaged is worth a minute or two’s awkwardness.

Q – Leaders often have their mind made up at the beginning of the meeting. How do you keep an open mind to everyone’s ideas? And if people offer ideas you don’t like, how do you respond without it seeming like you’re just taking charge?
Your team’s ideas might not be as good as yours, but the only way to know that is to have the conversation and decide based on the full knowledge of what everybody knows.

As a leader, it’s not an easy practice. As soon as I hear a problem, my brain is shouting: “I know the answer, I’ve seen this before, I know what to do!” I have to suppress that so that I can have a conversation with my team and get their input. You can’t stop your brain doing that. But what you can affect is what comes out of your mouth next.

To stop yourself from just blurting out your solution, I suggest using a ’tell me time-box’. Here’s how it works: for thirty seconds or so, consciously choose to just be curious and ask questions about your team’s position. It’s time-limited, it won’t last forever and at the end, you – the leader – make the decision. It doesn’t need to align with what your team said. Just because you listen to everyone’s ideas, it doesn’t mean that they will be better than yours – but they might! You want to make your decision after you know what they know.

As human beings we’re wired to believe what most people believe is true. If nine out of ten people on a team have one opinion and there’s one outlier, our brains are wired to believe the nine. Leaders need to fight against this bias, which is why it’s essential that everyone is given an opportunity to speak up. But how that scenario often plays out is that nine people say one thing and the tenth just stays silent, depriving the group of their knowledge.

Interestingly, once one person dissents it gives everyone else in the group permission to dissent. What’s key is how the group reacts to somebody disagreeing. Do we explain how wrong and short-sighted they are, or do we lean in with curiosity? I’ve watched many senior executives defend their position as soon as someone disagrees, instead of responding with curiosity. Disagreement activates a fight, flight or freeze mechanism within us, and a good leader will learn to shift that to curiosity.

Q – Is the leader afraid that the group will lean over to the opposite opinion as theirs?
Leaders tend to view themselves as decision makers, which is not the right perspective.

The leader isn’t a decision maker but rather the maker of a decision-making factory. They are the architect creating a structure and a way of interacting among their team so that the good decisions come out.

Every organisation has two products: their actual products and the decisions that help to improve the process for making their product. The industrial model of leadership is that the leader decides and the workers execute. This form of leadership is actually coercion – getting people to do things that they didn’t choose to do in a way that they didn’t choose to do it. There are subtle ways leaders coerce with their language by adding phrases such as “…does that make sense?”, and “…right?”, and “…are we good here?”

Those phrases are a little push that says: “Do what you’re told.” A lot of leaders are not really interested in true dissent as it can be inconvenient. A truly curious leader would ask what they are missing, or ask: “Six months from now, let’s imagine this whole thing went wrong, what would be the most likely reason?” Those are the questions you should be asking about important decisions.

Image: After listening to the propeller beat of a sonar contact, a sonar technician aboard a Los Angeles class nuclear-powered attack submarine goes to a manual to identify the class of ship emitting the sound.

Most organisations, explains Marquet, don’t differentiate between focused tasks and reflective thinking, so they end up being half-focused and half-expansive.

Q – One of the most fascinating parts of Leadership is Language is when you talk about red work and blue work. Can you describe that for us?
Our brains work in two important ways. The first way is task-focused (red work) – we use this when we’re concentrating on moving parts on an assembly line or writing code. The focus requires us to deliberately exclude unnecessary and unwelcome intrusions into that focus. The second way is decision-making (blue work). When we’re making a decision, we want to welcome in all the information we have been excluding because that will lead us to make a stronger decision.

Unfortunately, most organisations don’t differentiate between the red work of focused tasks and the blue work of reflective thinking, so they end up being half-focused and half-expansive. If you don’t know if you’re ever going to pause and reflect on things then you always need to reserve that part of your brain. You can’t be 100% focused, because if you do you’ll lose track of time. You could be chopping down the wrong forest for days without releasing it, and you might worry that you’re chopping the wrong way, but you will continue on.

Compare that to the mindset of saying: “I’m going to chop for two weeks, then in two weeks we’ll stop and evaluate if we’re in the right forest or if we need to redirect.” That mindset allows you to put everything into chopping for those two weeks, knowing an evaluation is coming.

This plays out throughout our lives. Our education system is designed so that we’re doing the blue, expansive, learning early in our life, when our brain is most adaptive and growing. And then after university people often go and do red work for the next 40 years. It is so important to pause red work from time to time so that you can open up your mind and reflect.

The production clock is the thing that keeps us from being really reflective. Everyone has had the experience of being on a run and an idea pops into your head; or having a shower and suddenly thinking of a solution to a problem. That happens because you have taken away the stress of the production pressure and your relaxed brain is able to connect to things it couldn’t connect to before.

David Marquet has written two books:
Turn the Ship Around! and Leadership is Language

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