Perhaps you wouldn’t expect my background as the commander of a nuclear submarine in the US Navy to hold many lessons for UK companies wrestling with today’s turbulent market conditions? You’d be wrong. My story in command of the USS Santa Fe (SSN-763) offers a new perspective on leadership, which could make all the difference for such organisations.
The challenges facing UK businesses are a familiar list that ranges from operating in a fragile economy, to finding and keeping the best people, to responding to more intense competition for trade.
But what’s less familiar – and heightens the challenge for companies across all sectors – is the fundamental uncertainty created by Brexit and the political and economic upheaval that is anticipated as a result.
There are other fundamental changes for organisations to navigate. For example, technology has had a profound impact on the relationship between business and customers who are now better informed, have more choice and a have louder voice.
So let’s simplify the picture: life is difficult, it’s uncertain and it’s changing rapidly. Now maybe the connection with the Santa Fe might make more sense to you?
Soon after I took command, we were running a simple drill to simulate a fault with the reactor. In this scenario, propulsion is shifted from the main engines to a smaller, electric propulsion motor. As captain, I ordered: ‘Ahead two-thirds.’ The officer on deck repeated the order: “Ahead two-thirds.’
I noticed the helmsman who was to execute the order looked unsettled, so I asked what the problem was. He explained that there was no two-thirds in electric propulsion mode. The Santa Fe was unlike the submarines I had trained for and worked on before.
The officer on deck said he repeated the command knowing it was wrong. I realised that the leader-follower environment meant his crew would do anything he said – even if it was wrong.
That’s when I began treating my crew as leaders, not followers, and giving control, not taking control. And to cut a longer story short, as a result the Santa Fe went from ‘worst to first’, achieving the highest retention and operational standings in the Navy.
In the uncertain and changing environment that faces companies in the UK, the quality of leadership will be crucial to how successfully they respond to change and how they perform despite the uncertainty.
We need a new way of thinking about leadership. The idea that there are leaders and there are followers and that leadership is about a small number of talented people directing others is increasingly flawed and out of date. We live in a very different world, and you simply can’t order people to be creative or flexible. It’s an era where the customer has to be heard, and so do the people in your team who are closest to them.
It’s also an era when organisations need to be light on their feet. As uncertainty persists, the amount of time available to react is cut shorter and shorter. The successful companies will be the ones that have the agility to move quickly when elements of certainty finally emerge.
We need to find leaders at all levels – that’s the step change in thinking that my Intent Based Leadership programme offers. Re:markable provides organisations with the practical advice they need to move their mindset and start thinking about their people as leaders rather than followers.
These leaders will be people who are trusted to use their judgement to make the right decisions for customers. They will be people whose opinions and experiences are valued. People want to be trusted and encouraged to step forward and take responsibility – to take the lead. And that’s exactly what their employers should be encouraging them to do, especially if they want to succeed in a marketplace that is characterised by so much change and uncertainty.
How will this new mindset make a meaningful difference? Well, how about energising innovation? Not simply via well-resourced R&D departments. I’m talking about innovation from the bottom up – giving people a chance to try new things and create new answers to the problems facing their employer.
If they don’t, they will find themselves repeating commands they know are wrong, and facing the uncertainty created by Brexit and changes driven by technology with one hand tied behind their backs.
David Marquet is a former US Navy commander, and a speaker and author