Taking Command Without Giving Orders

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There is no idea so brilliant that turning it into a cliche can’t neuter. Take the well-worn adage “two heads are better than one.” The wisdom it contains — that problems are best solved through the combined thinking resources and perspectives of multiple people’s input — is so obvious that it suffers from the curse of being common … as in not sophisticated enough to be relied upon when one is responsible for REALLY IMPORTANT THINGS.

Regardless of organizational size or mission, leaders all too often fall into the trap of control — specifically directing as many operational items as possible — because they believe the business of their business/team/group is much too important to entrust to the unpredictable impulses of all the people they employ. Even in this age of “employee empowerment” — another  cliche for which there is no shortage of articles, books, and consultants all largely saying the same things — the impulse to direct and control is powerful because it comes from primal places:

  • Trust and comfort in the known — one’s own beliefs, knowledge, and competencies;
  • Distrust and fear of the unknown — other’s beliefs, knowledge, and competencies.

Imagine the power of that command/control impulse when magnified through a hierarchical, chain-of-command culture like the US Navy. Now, imagine you are riding that culture-accelerated impulse wave, and you are handed the keys to a nuclear submarine. Capt. (ret) David Marquet did just that, and he has a surprising message for leaders everywhere about leading in the most pressure-packed, important (and dangerous) environments around:

135 thinking brains are better than one. Go figure.

Capt. Marquet is not talking about “employee empowerment,” however. He clarifies the difference in this section from his fantastic book, Turn The Ship Around!:

The first step in changing the genetic code of any organization or system is delegating control, or decision-making authority, as much as is comfortable. and then adding a pinch more. This isn’t an empowerment “program.” It’s changing the way the organization controls decisions in an enduring, personal way. …

Many empowerment programs fail because they are just that, “programs” or “initiatives” rather than a central principle — the genetic code, if you will — behind how the organization does business. You can’t “direct” empowerment programs. Directed empowerment programs are flawed because they are predicated on this assumption: I have the authority and ability to empower you (and you don’t). Fundamentally, that’s disempowering. This internal contradiction dooms initiatives. We say “empowerment’ but do it in a way that is disempowering. The practice outweighs the rhetoric.

If trusting the crew to own their responsibilities and the decisions that naturally go with them is good enough for operating a nuclear submarine, tell me more about how your organization’s mission is too important to risk doing the same …