“Whatever they tell me.”

Posted by jlubans on December 09, 2019

Caption: Of Parkinson’s Law and Marquet’s Flashlight*.

Two books I’ve been perusing lately, one a classic and the other a more recent application of leadership theory; both have links to the seas. The classic is by the naval historian, Parkinson, and the other is by L. David Marquet, a nuclear submarine commander. His book, “Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders” juxtapositions neatly with C. Northcote Parkinson’s 1961 essay, “Parkinson's Law, or The Pursuit of Progress”.
Parkinson pointed out – much to the everlasting chagrin of bureaucrats the world over - that while between the world wars the number of navy ships decreased by two thirds, and (ship) personnel by a third, the number of bureaucrats ballooned approximately by 6% a year.
With fewer people and less work to manage – management was still expanding.
Parkinson concluded that this was due to two influences:
Managers hired two or more subordinates to report to them so that neither was in direct competition with the manager. (I would add that “keeping up with the Joneses” is also a driver.
Jake, a unit head, sees that Jill, a competing manager, has added a staffer. Immediately, Jake wants one and goes all out to add a budget line.)
And, secondly, Parkinson claimed that bureaucrats create work for other bureaucrats. It is here where his Law of work expanding to fit available time comes in. With little real work to do, the newly minted bureaucrat spends time, a lot of it, on making work for others and reviewing that work.
And, of course, the new bureaucrat will be burdened – he will soon tell you – by interminable meetings, signing off on forms and records, approval of paperwork coming from below and going on up, and in assuring compliance with the many rules and regulations promulgated by his bureaucratic counter parts.
All this and more displaces trust in the people doing real work and shifts decision-making authority to upper levels.
Perhaps someone has disproved what Parkinson found. Maybe they have shown that all those extra office workers during peacetime in the British Navy were adding genuine value.
When I spoke with my peers about Parkinson’s findings, they’d chuckle over Parkinson’s humor but they never applied it to themselves – besides it was about the British Navy, not about their exalted work!
And so it goes.
The two books are linked.
Parkinson observed how bureaucracies grew (even absent real work) and Marquet’s book provides a good example of what can go wrong in a multi-layered, top down, bureaucracy.
If you take away an employee’s authority and freedom to do his work, you enervate the employee and befuddle the organization.
Marquet, taking over a demoralized submarine of 135 sailors, found that top down decision-making was the ship’s dominant culture.
Individual initiative was not encouraged. Early in his command, when he asked a sailor, “What do you do?” the response was, “Whatever they tell me.”
Santa Fe’s sailors had learned that waiting to be told was “safer” than going ahead and fixing something – initiative would result in discipline for not following the rules, not getting permission or bypassing the chain of command.
Marquet has made a second career out of his experiences leading the Santa Fe. Aside from his book, he consults for organizations.
I am sure they are mystified when he says Taoist-sounding things like “I practiced less leadership, resulting in more leadership at every level of the command.”
Or, when he says, Don’t “Make inefficient processes efficient” vs. Do “Eliminate entire steps and processes that don’t add value.”
One last quote sure to lead to sputtering conniption fits among old salts and landlubber managers: Don’t “Take control vs. Do "Give control.”
While I practiced much of what Marquet proposes I did it mostly on intuition. I was convinced early on that freeing responsible and capable people would make positive things happen. Like Marquet, we quickly harvested the low hanging fruit that my top down predecessors could not or would not see.
Marquet explains – in detail – his reasoning for his way of leading. I look back now some 25 years, and his rationale makes plenty of sense.
I wish I had had Marquet’s courage and ability to listen to negative views about his leadership and his ability to explain what it was he was doing.
His openness brought along many of the doubters in his command.
Marquet succeeded at turning his ship around. In the Pacific command the Santa Fe gained excellent morale and scored at the highest levels in all the indicators of a battle ready crew and ship. He’d pretty much defeated the negative attitude evident in the “Whatever they tell me to do” way of thinking.

*When Marquet took over command he asked for a flashlight. He needed it to look into the nooks and crannies of the nuclear submarine.
None of the flashlights provided worked, either too dim or broken. He got a new flashlight, one as “bright as the sun”. It worked well in illuminating not only equipment failures but also the failures of a leader-follower model, the hierarchy, which was stifling innovation and independence. Others under his command soon began carrying working flashlights.

ONLY a click away:

And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019

« Prev itemNext item »


No comments yet. You can be the first!

Leave comment