Nuclear Option

The newly appointed Commander of the USS Santa Fe, a ‘fast attack’ nuclear submarine, gave the order to proceed at a rate of ‘Two thirds’ ahead. The Navigator relayed the order to the Helmsman. They were proceeding on ‘battery power’ only as part of a drill and the recent order didn’t seem to have made any appreciable difference to their progress but when batteries alone are propelling such a large mass one doesn’t expect ‘grand prix’ performances.

The Captain observing the ‘body language’ of the helmsman enquired if ‘Everything was alright?’ The helmsman replied that he was ‘Okay’ but that he had to inform his inquisitor that there was in fact no ‘Two third’ setting for the electric motor on that particular vessel; the options were ‘One-third or full-ahead.’

The Captain made the, not unreasonable, enquiry of his Navigator as to why; when the officer knew the setting didn’t exist, he had instructed the helmsman to set the speed at two-thirds ahead.

The officer’s reply was revealing; ‘Because you ordered me to; sir.’

The Navigator’s willingness to blindly follow orders coupled with the Captain’s ignorance of the workings of the Santa Fe prompted a change in how that submarine and its crew was managed that has since become a study in the art of leadership.

Capt. David Marquet served in the US Navy for 17 years when he received his first command. Following 12 months intensive theoretical study of the USS Olympia and its crew-records he was to take control of the nuclear powered submarine but when he arrived at Pearl Harbour to assume command he was, at the last minute, redeployed to the USS Santa Fe, a vessel he had scant knowledge of. 

The Santa Fe was a ‘next generation’ submarine with the dubious distinction of consistently performing last during evaluations carried out by Navy inspectors.

Captain David Marquet gathered his officers in the ‘board room’ or, more correctly the  ‘war room.’ A long discussion ensued around the matter of a crew trained to follow the orders of superiors without question and the not insignificant fact that their Captain, through no fault of his own, had little knowledge of the submarine he was in command of.

 The group agreed to a number of changes;

  • The phrase ‘Permission to…’ to be replaced by ‘I intend to…’
  • The word ‘They’ no longer to be used; as in ‘They forgot to order the part.’
  • Bureaucracy to be streamlined with lower ranks empowered to make routine decisions (Two signatures instead of five).
  • Conference meetings before operations to be discontinued.
  • Inspectors were to be greeted, by crew members who met them, with a strong handshake and introduction by name and rank.

 Following these agreements the compliant Navigator, for instance, would declare that he ‘intended to submerge’ the vessel rather than asking permission to complete the manoeuvre. This, not so subtle, change placed the onus on the ‘Nav.’ to have the Santa Fe and its crew prepared to go under water (where they all belonged) rather than leaving the responsibility with the Commander as a ‘Permission to’ request would.

The changes, which are summarised in this post, had a profound effect on how the crew of the Santa Fe performed. When the Submarine was inspected subsequently it went from ‘worst to 1st.’ In fact its crew received the highest marks of any US Navy crew since records had begun.

David Marquet is now sharing his ‘accidental’ leadership guide with organisations around the globe. His proudest achievement is the fact that 9 of the officers who served with him on the Santa Fe subsequently received their own commands.

”Leadership should mean giving control rather than taking control and creating leaders rather than forging followers.”