Featured case: Turn the Ship Around! (A & B)

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The case

Who – the protagonist

US navy logo

Louis David and David Marquet, officer and commander officer on US Navy nuclear submarines.


The US Navy operates two different types of nuclear submarines – the ballistic-missile type and attack-submarines. A nuclear submarine is operated by specialised and highly trained crews of 12 to 14 officers and 120 to 150 enlisted men and women.


Traditionally, the US Navy relies on the leader-follower principle, but Louis and David seeked to change attitudes by empowering their crews to make decisions regarding their tasks instead of simply following orders.


The US Navy’s submarine force was founded in 1900. It now boasts over 60 ships in its fleet.


Louis graduated top of his class from the United States Academy in Annapolis. Starting as an engineer officer in the US Navy’s elite submarine force, Louis had lofty ambitions; becoming commander officer commander officer of one of the nuclear submarines.

Louis experienced two leadership styles as a junior officer during his first assignment on USS Sunfish, the traditional leader-follower model and the encouraging initiative approach. Louis was eager to use the latter method when responsible for 60 people as an engineer officer on the USS Will Rogers.

David was appointed commander officer of the under-performing USS Santa Fe. With only six months to deployment and lacking the technical experience when it came to the Santa Fe, David quickly learned that he had to rely on his crew’s knowledge, leading to them feeling empowered.

Key quote

“Why don’t you ask me? Why don’t you just say, ‘Captain, I intend to go active on sonar for training’?” – Commander Marc Pelaez empowering Louis aboard USS Sunfish.

What next?

crew discussing

Louis and David had different experiences of empowering their crews.

Louis tried to impose this method on his crew, who were used to a clear command-and-control leadership style, but errors were frequent and they preferred to be controlled.

Whereas David was almost forced into being led by his crew, and they flourished by taking on extra responsibility, as opposed to previously being unhappy with the restrictive nature of strictly following orders.

Empowering crews clearly has its merits, but the challenge for US Navy officers is identifying the right approach and accompanying circumstances for this kind of leadership.
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Download the case and teaching note

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Turn the Ship Around! (A)
Ref ESMT-317-0175-1
Turn the Ship Around! (B)
Ref ESMT-317-0176-1
Teaching note
Ref ESMT-317-0175-8

The authors


David Marquet and Jan Hagen

David (who was the protagonist in both cases) and Jan discuss their experiences of writing the case.

Personal perspective

“It was easier in that I knew the story but I still needed to understand how we did what we did,” said David.

“I also needed to resist the tendency to view things in too detached a way because that would have resulted in lifeless document.”

Human nature

David added: “There are two problems with the traditional leader-follower principle.

“First, it’s human nature to want to be ‘in control.’ So giving away control will feel wrong. Leaders overcome this feeling and act anyway.

“Secondly, the industrial revolution has left us with a legacy of command and control systems that seems ‘normal.’ Every business we’ve interacted with, and there have been hundreds, have the same structural issues we had, even the ones that say they don’t.”

Pros and cons

Jan commented: “Empowerment is a leadership instrument with relevance for a wide set of organisational settings.

“The two cases demonstrate that contrary to what we may believe, empowerment can be very effective even in an explicitly hierarchical organisation and in a high risk environment.

However, as the A case shows, if not properly implemented, empowerment can also cause immense frustration both for the leader and the employee.”

Overcoming stereotypes


Jan continued: “For most students the military context is unfamiliar. Nevertheless, they are often prejudiced. 

“However, the case forces students to look beyond the stereotypes they have in mind and see that even though the military is a hierarchical organisation with very strict rules, it leaves room for the empowerment of its personnel.”

About the authors

David Marquet is an expert on leadership, a former submarine commander, and author of the Amazon #1 bestseller: Turn the Ship Around!
e david@turntheshiparound.com
tw @idavidmarquet

Jan Hagen is an Associate Professor at ESMT Berlin, Germany.
e Jan.Hagen@esmt.org


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