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Leadership is Language: Key concepts from David Marquet's latest book

One page summary of Turn the Ship Around author's latest book Leadership is Language

David Marquet - presentation banner with book

“We need to match our zeal for ‘can do’ with ‘can think.” – David Marquet, Leadership is Language


In his global bestseller Turn the Ship Around former U.S. Navy submarine captain David Marquet tells the story of how his crew rose from being the poorest performers in the fleet to top spot.

We interviewed David about his latest book Leadership is Language in which he credits communication for the crew's transformation. Here are his key concepts:

  • “Changing our words changed our world.” 
  • We replaced a reactive language of convince, coerce, comply and conform with a proactive language of intent and commitment to action.
  • We replaced a language of prove and perform with a language of improve and learn. 
  • We replaced a language of invulnerability and certainty with a language of vulnerability and curiosity. 

In Leadership is Language, Marquet also shares the tragic story of container ship El Faro, which sank off the Bahamas in a hurricane in 2015 with all 33 crew aboard. There were no survivors. Using spoken records retrieved from the wreck, Marquet believes outdated top-down language from the Industrial Age playbook may have contributed to the tragedy.


Pay attention to share of voice. If there are four people and each person says 25% of the words spoken, you have a perfectly balanced share of voice. One aspect of the El Faro tragedy is how unevenly the talking time was shared on the bridge.


6 new leadership plays for a new playbook: 

  • Control the clock instead of obeying the clock (Make a pause in activity possible; name it, preplan it)
  • Collaborate instead of coercing (Vote first, then discuss. Use a fist to show zero then fingers up to 5) 
  • Commitment rather than compliance (Commit to a short burst of activity for the purpose of learning something – “What could we do first?).
  • Complete defined goals instead of continuing work indefinitely (View work in discrete elements or every hour, every day will feel the same. Pause to celebrate.). 
  • Improve outcomes rather than prove ability (Reflect openly with your team how your actions might have been better. Encourage curiosity from everyone: How can we make it better?)
  • Connect with people instead of conforming to your role (Cherish and value differing opinions. Flatten the power gradient “We need to do this” is better than “I need you to do this.”) 

Bluework = Thinking and Decision making. 

• Variability is an ally

• Greater variability in possible actions means greater innovation, greater creativity more options. 

Redwork = Doing, execution

• Variability is unhelpful

• Humans like getting stuff done.

To be effective we need to weave back and forth between thinking and doing. The problem is that the language we use is only about doing, not thinking.

Example: “Are you sure it’s right to go?” versus the cognitively taxing (but better) “How sure are you it’s right to go?” 

There is a rhythmic dance between bluework and redwork, between thinking and doing, between embracing variability and reducing variability, between improving and proving. 

The first question is “Are we in redwork (doing) or bluework (thinking)?”

 If stuck in bluework (analysis paralysis) commit to doing a small, very small, piece of action that will move you into redwork. If stuck in redwork (running in circles) then control the clock, then take steps to collaborate and improve. Perhaps ask a “what” or “how” question of a team member. 

It’s more fulfilling to work in jobs that involve everyone in thinking. 

Running meetings: Vote first then discuss. This stops the anchoring effect where attendees follow the leader. If you’re running your meeting properly and divergent thinking still isn’t happening, your responsibility as a leader is to go looking for it. 

Beware of Escalation of Commitment. Once we commit to a small step, humans have a tendency to continue and commit in that direction. We stubbornly stick to it, even in the face of evidence that the course of action is failing. Build in pause and reflect stops. 

  • Create a safe space for people to speak up. 
  • When leaders admit they don’t know, they allow the team to admit that they don’t know. It also allows a team member to admit they do know. 
  • Trust people first because your trust in them will affect their behaviour.
  • Acknowledge power gradients exist in all relationships. Whether you see it or not, it’s there. 

Try: “Your fresh eyes will be valuable on this.” “You are the only person who sees what you see.” 

Developing and executing company strategy should be couched as learning. Avoid a “Here’s our strategy” statement from the CEO but “Our hypothesis is that a strategy of ABC will result in XYZ” and put an expiration date on it.” 


Members can log on to see our interview with David Marquet as he summarises key concepts in Leadership is Language.

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