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A Powerful Lesson On Decision-Making In A Fast-Paced World

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In this guest piece by David Marquet, Retired U.S. Navy Captain, David chronicles his experiences and mistakes while in command of the submarine the USS Santa Fe to reveal how you can empower your employees and colleagues to think for themselves.

* * * * *

We were in the final stages of a cat-and-mouse game with the enemy diesel submarine. The simulated war had escalated to the point where our submarine was authorized to sink it.

The enemy had picked this area deliberately. The shallow uneven bottom reduced the effectiveness of the torpedo, and to ensure a hit we would need a precise idea of the enemy’s location. The best way to do this would be to actually see it, which is why we were at periscope depth, looking for the enemy sub visually.

We had packed more than twenty men into the control room, a space roughly half the area of a typical Starbucks.

We carried the MK-48 ADCAP (advanced capability) torpedo. It is a devastating weapon against both surface ships and submarines. We launch the torpedo to intercept the target the way a hunter leads a duck.

In addition, the torpedo has its own sonar system, looking for the target for a precise intercept. The torpedo streams a wire behind it that stays connected to the submarine, allowing us to see what the torpedo is seeing and redirect the torpedo, sending steering orders down the wire.

“Target!” Amid the buoys and haze, and against the Hawaiian Islands as a backdrop, the OOD saw the enemy’s periscope and immediately lowered ours. If we could see him, he could see us.

“Captain, recommend firing point procedures!” Dave Adams was pushing me to order the attack and I liked that. As weapons officer, he knew we had all the pieces together for a successful shot: weapons loaded and ready in the tubes, an accurate bead on the target, and authorization to engage. Waiting for more precise information would only give the enemy more time to detect us.

“Very well, Weps.” I wanted to acknowledge his initiative.

I ordered the attack. “Firing point procedures, submarine. Tube one primary, tube two backup.”

I wiped the sweat off my brow.

The standard litany followed that order, as principal officer assistants reported readiness to launch. The next words I heard, however, were not part of that litany.

“Request to raise the BRA-34 to download the broadcast.”

What? Raise the radio antenna?

We were at the end of our twelve-hour broadcast cycle. It was time to get our messages. We’d avoided raising this antenna because it sticks out of the water higher than the periscope and would need to remain up for several minutes, making detection of the Santa Fe likely.

I resisted the urge to throw a fit. I glanced at Commodore Kenny, who was standing to the side of the control room. He was smiling as if they’d planned this wrinkle just to test me. Clearly, his radio inspector had been keeping him informed that we were approaching twelve hours on the broadcast and that the deadline to download our message traffic would likely come right at the worst time.

By pointing at the chart and giving my crew the solution, I had made things worse. I deprived them of the opportunity and obligation to think.

Tempted as I was to bark orders at this moment, I looked at my shoes instead. “We’re not going to do that,” I muttered. “We have to find another solution.” Even if we lost the opportunity to attack right then, I needed to get everyone on board thinking.

I waited for several seconds. It worked.

The department heads jumped into a quick discussion. I resisted the urge to say anything, and stayed quiet.

Seconds were ticking by and the uncertainties of the enemy’s position were growing. Someone pointed out that if we sank the other ship we would have to report that by communicating, and when we did, we’d get the broadcast then. And oh, by the way, there’d be no one around to counterdetect us at that point!

“Captain, recommend continuing with the attack!” Voilà! “Final bearing and shoot!” The scope came up.

This time I was on it. I pointed the scope on the enemy submarine and pushed the bearing button, sending the precise bearing to the computers calculating the intercept course.

“Set!” The bearing was entered; calculations were updated and sent to the torpedo.

“Shoot!” Dave Adams announced. By procedure, once I ordered “final bearing and shoot” the Weps ordered the final button push that launched the torpedo.

Woosh! We felt the shudder in the control room as high-pressure water rammed the ADCAP out of tube one, its motor started, and it was on its way.

“Unit running normally, wire good!” “Unit has merged on the bearing of the target.” The normal reports were coming in. Now we waited. Our torpedo would run out to where the enemy was and turn on. If all went well, it would see the target in its first couple of pings and home on in.

“Detect!” It saw the enemy. We checked our torpedo’s location and where we thought the enemy was. We updated the enemy’s position slightly.

“Acquire!” We had them!

“Loud explosion.” (This was simulated by the inspector, who assessed that our torpedo had successfully attacked the enemy submarine.)

Cheers in the control room. We had achieved our first success!

By not solving a problem during an exercise for my team, they came up with the solution themselves. This is an exercise that doesn’t merely apply to the military. It’s very easily mimicked in any workplace, and particularly in an emergency situation that requires quick decisions and clear orders.

Surprisingly, a vast majority of situations do not require an immediate decision. There is usually time for the team to chew on the situation. With intent-based leadership, you must take time to let others react to the situation as well.

You have to create a space for open decision by the entire team, even if that space is only a few minutes, or a few seconds, long. This is harder than in the leader-follower approach because it requires you to anticipate decisions and alert your team to the need for an upcoming one. In a top-down hierarchy, sub-ordinates don’t need to be thinking ahead because the boss will make a decision when needed.

How many times do issues that require decisions come up on short notice? If this is happening a lot, you have a reactive organization locked in a downward spiral. When issues aren’t foreseen, the team doesn’t get time to think about them; a quick decision by the boss is required, which doesn’t train the team, and so on.

You need to change that cycle. Here are a few ways to get your team thinking for themselves:

  • If the decision needs to be made urgently, make it, then have the team “red-team” the decision and evaluate it after the need for immediacy has passed.
  • If the decision needs to be made soon, ask for team input, even briefly, then make the decision.
  • If the decision can be delayed, then force the team to provide input. Do not force the team to come to consensus; that results in whitewashing differences and dissenting votes. Cherish the dissension. If everyone thinks like you, you don’t need them.

The next time one of your employees brings you a problem, return the problem unsolved.

A 1981 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, David Marquet served in the U.S. submarine force for 28 years. In 2009, Captain Marquet retired from the Navy, and now speaks to businesses and groups who want to create empowering work environments that release the passion, initiative, and intellect of each person. He is the author of the award-winning book “Turn the Ship Around!”.

Adapted from “Turn Your Ship Around: A Workbook for Implementing Intent-Based Leadership in Your Organization” by L. David Marquet with permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright (c) Louis David Marquet, 2015.


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