The Ladder of Leadership


With guest blogger David Marquet

How do you encourage every individual in your team to take on a leadership role? Former nuclear submarine commander and author of Turn Your Ship Around David Marquet shares his tips.

Imagine you are a new Senior Vice President for Operations at a widget company. You took over from a very top-down boss and want to get your people to become leaders on every level. This is my take on the three steps to helping your staff realise their leadership potential.

Don’t provide solutions

You are responsible for producing and shipping your products. Your normal process is to do a batch inspection of the parts before shipping them. This week, because of an unscheduled shutdown on one of your machines, the parts are coming off the line late. If you do the inspection, you will need to air freight the parts to your client to meet the deadline. If you skip the inspection, you risk shipping faulty parts.

Your production supervisor (let’s call him Andy) says, “Hey boss, we have a problem with this week’s shipment. We don’t have time to do our inspection”.

You reply, “Well, what do you think we should do?”

Notice that Andy is bringing in a problem without a solution? This is a commonly camouflaged “tell me what to do” scenario. The trick is to recognise a “tell me what to do” and resist providing a solution.

Solving people’s problems may help grow your company, but it won’t grow your people.

Make it small

Sometimes people are reluctant to tell you what they think. When you recognise a “tell me what to do”, try breaking the problem into smaller parts by asking “What can you tell me …?”

The important part is that it doesn’t matter if you think you know the answers to those questions.

If people have had a long history of working for a top-down boss, they might be reluctant to immediately volunteer what they think. To counteract this, “make it small”. Instead of asking Andy to solve the whole problem, have him describe parts of it.

For example, “OK, can you tell me more this shipment?”

Perhaps Andy would reply, “Not much. It’s to customer 45324 and it’s our weekly batch of 10,000 widgets. We’ve been shipping this for the last couple years.”

You could follow up with, “Thanks…can you tell me more about the inspection?”

Andy might then tell you that inspections started after a run of bad parts were shipped and the company lost customers. The problem was that the machine was not calibrated, but since it’s been calibrated a bad part is almost never found.

You’ll notice we’re not trying to get Andy to answer the question whether we should skip the inspection or not – that’s too big a jump. We’re just getting him to tell us what he knows. Notice too, that we (the company) haven’t helped a whole lot. Andy only knows the customer by their 5-digit code, he doesn’t even know who they are.

“I think…”

Now try to encourage a perspective change. Get Andy to think about the issue from different a perspective.

You could say something like, “What if you were our client here. What do you think they’d want us to do?”

or, “What if you were me? What do you think I’d want here?”

Intent-Based Leadership starts with rejecting the idea that leadership is for the select few at the top and instead embracing in highly effective organisations, there are leaders at every level. This method of leadership is based on empowerment, not ego, and process, not the personality of the leader.

By withholding immediate solutions, ‘making it small’ and encouraging shifts in perspective, you can allow your people to develop the skills and initiative required to be leaders on any level.


David Marquet is a featured keynote speaker at Agile Australia 2015 and will be leading a workshop on Intent Based Leadership Tuesday the 16th of June in Sydney.

This content was previously published on David Marquet’s blog and as part of the AgileTODAY magazine.

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