Top critical review
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Great book with a significant omission
on November 8, 2014
I am giving this three stars as it is a critical review, however the overall strength of the book and clarity with which it is written warrants at least 4 stars, probably 5 if one reads it with a grain of salt.
I read this book on a recent business trip. I selected it on the basis of being the most interesting and potentially useful book I found after doing an advanced search in Amazon, sorting by "highest average customer review" in the "business and money" category. This is certainly an interesting and page-turning book. And I am (still) strongly tempted to implement some ideas from it in my own organization. However after I read the book and let it digest, something started gnawing at me - I was uneasy about it for some reason though I could not put my finger on it at first.
I gravitated towards this book also because I knew a former "nuke" enlisted man, who graduated with a degree in electrical engineering after he was done with the military. If I recall correctly, he even had some item of paraphernalia with an anti-Navy sentiment, maybe FTN or some-such. I also recall that he loathed the khakis (officers). He was on a boat with a serious morale problem.
Now, have a think about that. Someone on the lowest tier of the totem pole (enlisted man) has the intellectual horsepower to graduate in electrical engineering at one of the top 50 universities in the world (a Big 10 school), and was most likely selected for that role on the ship on that basis. If you know much about engineering, especially the harder streams such as electrical, you will know that they require a level of intelligence that is significantly above average. The average IQ for a EE is 126. Only 1 person in 24 has such an IQ in the USA. My friend was above average for electrical engineers in terms of intelligence. And he said that the hardest thing he ever had to do was study for the nuclear (ORSE?) examinations.
That the US military would put such talent working on a submarine's nuclear systems, and that their examinations were that difficult should give you one small clue that perhaps comparing your workforce's potential competence and that of the USS Santa Fe may be an apples and oranges comparison. The US military is well known for recruiting on the basis of IQ and other factors, through various batteries of tests. They do this because it works. In order for a given role in the military to be performed competently, there is an associated IQ threshold. The military knows this and ensures that people who do not have the mental ability for a given role are not assigned to that role.
To put this in some more perspective, the USS Santa Fe is a billion dollar vessel, that was most probably world leading at the time it was built in terms of capabilities. It is the result of many millions, if not billions of dollars of R&D work done by some very talented engineers. Into this highly evolved and optimized system are placed individuals who have been subject to extensive testing for innate competence, and $100k is spent per submarine sailor in order to train them. At least some of the lowest level employees apparently have IQ better than 1 in 24 people in the general population (e.g. electrical engineers).
Does your business resemble this? Are the systems in your business world leading (or at least industry leading), having been designed with a budget of many millions if not billions of dollars, by some very talented engineers? Do some of your lowest-level employees have the intellectual horsepower to become electrical engineers? Do you spend $100k per employee in training every employee to an acceptable standard? Are you allowed by law to test for intelligence in the manner of the US Navy, and even if you could, do you know the minimum requirements for roles in your business? Is your business the unusual Silicon Valley type business that needs the sort of high cost talent that only a fraction of the country is capable of, or is it the more typical if unsexy business that gives gainful employment to the middle or even the left half of the bell curve that makes up the majority of the country?
If not, I would be careful about buying into the statement "If the leader-leader model can work on board a nuclear submarine, it can work for you.". Fixing a morale and empowerment problem in a vessel staffed with able but poorly managed people is difficult but fixable. Maybe it is even replicable with a leader that comes from the middle of the pack, or even top 25% of his class in nuclear power school class and the submarine officer basic course, instead of number 1 such as Marquet. But if you don't have the "right people on the bus", as Jim Collins would say (and I know Marquet is familiar with Collins as he has read "Built to Last"), then you have the same basic problem as a cargo cult - all the morale and empowerment in the world won't solve your business's aptitude problem.
According to Marquet, "leader-leader" stands on three legs, one of which is "competence". It is this leg that appears to me to be shakiest when implemented as laid out in this book and applied to the business environment, because especially if your business needs some significant R&D work to get to the top, there will likely be a minimum level of IQ/training/experience/skill to get there. If you don't have this sort of talent in your organization, you will need to hire it. If you don't have the money for that sort of hiring, you are SOL. You may not be able to get to where you want to be with the existing staff you have. To put this in the sort of phrasing Marquet uses:
ENSURING KEY EMPLOYEES HAVE SUFFICIENT APTITUDE is a mechanism for COMPETENCE. (The book to read is Herrnstein and Murray's "The Bell Curve".)
And this is only aptitude. In a business, honesty is usually as important as aptitude. When an employee uses his aptitude to rip off the business (something probably not of much concern in an SSN, but which can spell disaster in a small business), you want to hope that with all the empowering (or the lack of disempowering that would otherwise harsh an employee's mellow) you have done, there are enough checks and balances to detect the theft before your business goes bankrupt. But it's better to not hire a dishonest person in the first place. Similarly, good salespeople are partly born and partly made, but mostly born. The difference between the best salespeople and the average is in orders of magnitude.
In summary, this is a great book, and no doubt L. David Marquet had great success in boosting morale and getting maximum leadership potential out of his men on the USS Santa Fe. The momentum generated by Marquet's leadership approach still evidently in effect when Marquet was no londer in command, is commendable. However, in order to generalize Marquet's model as outlined in his book to situations other than US naval vessels (i.e. businesses) will require understanding that ability is not uniformly distributed among people. If your existing employees do not have sufficient ability, this will need to be rectified before leader-leader can possibly work to the extent you would like it to.