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Book Summary – Turn the Ship Around! : A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders

Turn the Ship Around - Book summary

Turn the Ship Around! tells the story of how Captain David Marquet successfully transformed the USS Santa Fe in less than a year, from the worst-performing submarine in its fleet to the best. It presents a different approach to leadership, using a “leader-leader” model instead of a “leader-follower” model. This approach can be applied to any organization to unlock the energy and potential of people at all levels. In this Turn the Ship Around summary, we’ll briefly outline the leader-leader model. For more details, examples and tips, do get our complete book summary bundle in text, infographic and audio formats.
Turn the Ship Around summary - book summary bundle

This book is written in a chronological order, from how Marquet formed his leadership theories to how he implemented a fresh leadership model to turn the ship around. Before his successful transformation of Santa Fe, Marquet had struggled for years with the conventional leadership model. In our full 13-page summary we’ll outline Marquet’s leadership journey and insights, including (i) the limitations of a hierarchical top-down model, (ii) why/how he failed to empower his team earlier in his career, and (iii) how the circumstances for Santa Fe were ideal for him to experiment with the new leader-leader approach.

For now, we’ll go straight into a short overview of the Leader-Leader approach.

Turn the Ship around with The Leader-Leader Approach

Most people unconsciously divide the world into leaders vs followers, and make assumptions about what each group can/can’t do. Such assumptions influence our thoughts and actions to impact the performance of individual employees and the organization.

It’s not uncommon for enthusiastic employees to suggest new ideas, only to be told “that won’t work” or “it’s not your job”. People feel frustrated and eventually stop trying or leave the organization altogether. Bosses also feel frustrated when their staff would rather do the bare minimum rather than to innovate or take responsibility.

Turn the Ship Around Summary_key conceptThe leader-leader model recognizes that everyone has the ability and potential to lead. It taps on individual potential at all levels, reduces dependency on a single leader and delivers sustained performance. This model can be applied to any organization and leadership level—it allows senior leaders to unlock the energy and potential of their people, and helps junior/middle leaders to step up in a way that encourages their bosses to let go.


To implement the leader-leader approach, you need 3 key components: Control, Competence and Clarity. Decentralized control is at the core of this model, but it can only work if it’s supported by competence and clarity. Without those 2 pillars, decentralizing control will only bring chaos. When all 3 components are properly installed, they’ll reinforce one another in a positive spiral.

Turn the Ship Around Summary_leader-leader approach


Control refers to the freedom and authority to make decisions about why, what and how you’re going to work. The goal is to delegate decision-making control as far as possible in the organization. In our full version of Turn the Ship Around summary (click here for full summary), you can learn various mechanisms on how to decentralize control, such as rewriting your control policies, changing mindsets using behaviors, thinking aloud, using regular check-ins to align and educate people etc.


For decentralized control to work, people at every level must be technically competent to make the right decisions. If you give people additional responsibility without equipping them with the required knowledge and resources, things will fall apart.  In the book, Marquet covers various tools/techniques you can use to improve technical competence at all levels, including: inculcating deliberate action, adopting continuous learning, using certifications (instead of briefings), defining goals (not methods), etc. You can get a detailed overview of these mechanisms in our complete 13-page summary.


For people at all levels to make effective decisions, they must be fully aligned with the organization’s purpose, and thoroughly understand the organization’s goals and decision-making criteria. In our full Turn the Ship Around summary, we’ll elaborate on the rane of mechanisms to develop clarity, build trust, inspire people and develop clear guiding principles at all levels.

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Within a year of taking over command of Santa Fe, he had turned the ship around with a marked improvement in performance, a huge jump in enlistments and retention and crew members were visibly advancing in their careers. To incorporate the 3 sets of mechanisms above into your organization:
• Examine your internal processes to identify key sources of excellence, e.g. specific interfaces with customers.
• Figure out the types of decisions that’d affect your organization’s ability to achieve excellence in those areas.
• Break down what’s required to help your employees to make those decisions (e.g. technical knowledge, goal-clarity, decision-making authority and accountability) and make it happen.


In this article, we’ve given a brief overview of the leader-leader model. The book is packed with many other anecdotes about the navy and Marquet’s personal reflections. Each chapter also comes with a list of questions for you to reflect about your leadership approach and where your organization stands.  For more details, do get a copy of the book, get our text/ infographic/ audio summary bundle or visit


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