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Leadership Is Language

“As the leader, you should be the last one to offer your opinion”

By: Leah Kinthaert

For more than 20 years, L. David Marquet led a distinguished career in the U.S. submarine force, with his last post as commander of the nuclear submarine, the USS Santa Fe. Captain Marquet retired from the Navy in 2009 and in 2013 published “Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers Into Leaders.” Fortune magazine says that the book is the “best how-to manual anywhere for managers on delegating, training, and driving flawless execution” and USA Today called it one of the “12 best business books of all time”. His newest book “Leadership is Language”, which comes out on February 4th was just listed by Inc. Magazine as of “16 New Business Books You Need to Read in 2020”. We sat down with L. David Marquet to get a sneak peak of his book and ask him how we went from being a submarine captain to a bestselling author and nationally recognized speaker.


“You mention the hypothesis behind the book is that language has been programmed by the Industrial Revolution  – and since the Industrial Revolution is long over – we no longer work on old-fashioned assembly lines,    for example, we shouldn’t we using language that was designed for that sort of work. So, in particular I wanted to ask what you mean when you said we should ‘not obey the clock but control it’. What do you mean by that?”

“Think of it this way. When you have an assembly line, you pay people hourly – per unit clock time. This sort of arrangement is fine for short bursts of production work, but it’s not good for creative, intellectual, and self-reflective thinking work. Our bodies process the pressure to produce (on the assembly line) in a fear-based way. But now, assembly line workers are the pilots on airplanes, nurses in hospitals, and software developers. The way these individuals work is not to punch a clock and simply get the job done but to do the job the best way they can. We need thinking from them, not just compliance. We even want these individuals to go so far as to question – are we doing/making the right thing? That can only happen after we control the clock and call a pause to the production work. We need to relieve the pressure of the clock.”

“So, leaders should schedule time beyond just completing tasks, allow for ‘time outs’ where we can improve tasks. For example, at Informa you have a team running a small event. You don’t want to change the process every single time. Do the process ten times, then pause. Have the team take notes on what went well, what went poorly, what can we do better. This sort of process isn’t continuous improvement, but step improvement and controlling it, making sure it happens, that is the responsibility of leadership.”


“Makes a lot of sense. That actually leads into my second question, again relating to how we need to change work patterns from old school Industrial Revolution style ones to more modern ones. You mention that leaders need to now ‘collaborate, not coerce’ and that ‘as the leader, you should be the last one to offer your opinion’… My question is – workers look to a leader to tell them what to do, whether it’s the beginning of the quarter, or the beginning of a task. How does this fit into that new collaborative style?”

“To the question, ‘What should we do?’ as a leader I can say do A-B-C. And I feel good because we’re doing stuff. And my team feels good because they know what to do. The problem is, with this sort of process, your team members also think ‘I don’t bear the responsibility for what happens’. Additionally, it gives them a pass on thinking.”

“Ultimately as the leader, yes, you have to focus on pulling out some of the most important goals. However, you need to make sure each individual employee is taking part in making planning decisions. The benefit is they’re committed because it’s their idea. They’re in charge of their own destiny, ultimately, they think – my job matters, I made that. That’s where you will see their passion channeled. I will give you an example, when I had a situation on a submarine where I was the commander, and we had a piece of equipment that was broken. It threatened to delay our departure for sea. The electricians on the submarine worked overnight and fixed it. They never thought to take a break, take a shower – they were covered with soot from head to toe but they stayed and worked. Here’s the thing — I never ordered them to do it. They decided to.

When people are involved in decision-making, they will go further. The same goes for creativity and innovation – if we expect that from our employees they have to be brought into decision-making and strategy. This will automatically also give them credit when projects are completed, or things succeed.”


“So how did you end up changing careers from the Navy to being a leadership expert. Did you have an epiphany – hey this is what I should be doing?”

“I left a senior position pentagon and started my own consulting company. I was in touch with the people who had been on my submarine, and one day I got phone call a phone call from a junior officer. He said: ‘I am the 10thofficer from the Santa Fe to be promoted to submarine captain’. Normally there are 2 or 3. It was really striking that the methods we used with my team had had such influence in these individuals moving to leadership positions.”

“Around this time I was ready for a change. My wife said, ‘why don’t you write a book’. I didn’t care for many of the leadership books I had come across. I found them too abstract, with too few concrete examples. There was just so much nonsense out there. Meantime, I had I met Simon Sinek through a mutual colleague while I was still in the military. He had just begun his “Start with Why” movement.  He had a speaking engagement in New York City which he couldn’t do, and he respected my ideas and skills, so he gave me the opportunity to talk in his place. Things just fell together. It was a talk for an entrepreneur’s organization. Clint Greenleaf who owns the Greenleaf Book Company was in the audience; he liked what he heard and ended up publishing my book.”


“What a great story! Thanks for speaking with us today.”