Leadership Language

Review of: Leadership is Language:

The hidden power of what you say … and what you don’t … by L. David Marquet

Navy Captain Marquet (author) took his submarine, the Santa Fe, from worst to first – in both performance and morale.  “This did not happen,” he says,”because I leaned harder on the officers and crew.  It happened because I leaned back and invited them to lean in on me.  We went from one leader and 134 followers to 135 leaders with a bias for action and thinking.”

They recorded all-time high inspections, morale soared, and re-enlistments skyrocketed.  Collaboration and commitment, he found, worked much better than command and control.

New language:  

They didn’t fire anyone.  They didn’t issue new orders.  Instead, their language changed:

  • From reactive (command and coerce) … to proactive (listening and collaborating)
  • From perform (accountability) … to improve (learn to get better)
  • From certainty (I am in charge) … to curiosity (how can we fix this together)
  • From doing (what I am told) … to thinking (how can we best accomplish the goal)

New play book:

Marquet suggests that using the old playbook we are bound to lose.  His new playbook includes six lessons:

Stop the clock; don’t obey the clock

Push pause when there is uncertainty and check it out.  Ask for help.  Create a culture where it is okay to speak up and call a time out.  Be explicit.  Give the pause a name: time-out; raising a yellow card; pulling the emergency cord.  And build in intentional pauses to show that raising concerns is expected.

Collaborate; don’t coerce

Coercion is talking first, pulling rank, talking louder, pushing my thinking.  We sometimes call it, “getting everyone on board,” or “building consensus,” but it’s really about getting my way.  Collaborative decisions are almost always better than coercive decisions.  Vote first, then discuss. Even better, vote anonymously.  Be curious, not compelling.  Invite dissent.  Give information, not instruction.  Discuss probability.  Discuss assumptions.  Give doers more weight in decisions.

Commit; don’t just comply

Compliance says, Just tell me what to doCommitment asks, How best can we attain the objective?  Compliance says, I just work here.  Commitment says, I have a learning mindset and keep getting better.

Complete; don’t just continue on

Continue says, Do it the way we have always done it.  Don’t ask questions. Complete means create smaller chunks.  Prepare your team well and check back early and often to make course corrections.  Create a do it, try it, fix it culture.  Define smaller steps at the beginning to build momentum.  Celebrate behaviors, like hard work and figuring it out, that created success.  Invite others to tell about their success.  Help everyone learn from each other.

Improve; don’t prove

Proving is about accountability and the expectation to “be good.”  Improving is looking at the results and seeking to “get better.” This is about asking questions, seeking help, getting feedback.  Admit we don’t have all the answers. Be vulnerable. Ask your team, How do you see it?  How could we do better? Improving is about collaboration and innovation.

Connect;  don’t conform

Conforming is about hierarchy, fear, paralysis.  Connecting is about listening, learning, and creating a safe place to ask questions.  How do we do that? We admit we don’t know.  We take a risk, letting others know risks are okay.  Trust the process, and your people, enough to ask, What are we missing? What is your perspective?

Saving the El Faro

The El Faro, a huge tanker, steamed into a hurricane off the Florida coast and went down with all hands.  Why? Because they followed the old play book.  They obeyed the clock, instead of calling a time out to avoid the hurricane.  The Captain was coercive, and missed many opportunities to collaborate.  Compliance was the order of the day, rather than a commitment to learning and thinking.  Continue, carry on, was the rule: Don’t ask questions.  Prove your loyalty. Don’t attempt to improve our situation.  Conform, don’t connect, discuss, or consider options.

Think first; Then do

I found the content of this book to be spot on.  Creating a thinking culture – a flexible, innovative thinking culture – will always outperform a compliant doing culture. With COVID we are all sailing into the eye of the hurricane.  No one has all the answers.  We need each other.  And the book is full of great stories and very specific examples of good language tools.  Not the easiest book to read.  Some effort and assembly required but definitely worthwhile.


This is the “play” that makes all of the others work, according to the author.  So, the next time you are tempted to pull rank and ask everyone to buy-in to your decision, remember …

The wisdom of a diverse team is always better than the wisdom of the boss alone.

For more, see Connections.  For more crisis leadership books see More to Read.

  • Reviewed by Larry Nyland
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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

To talk about growing extraordinary "high capacity" leadership for your team …
Contact: Larry@Larrynyland.com | 425-418-4398 | LarryNyland.com