For our last talk, David Marquet, author of Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers Into Leaders, discussed intent-based leadership. David had led the USS Santa Fe from “worst to first,” under his leadership. During his time, he learned that true leadership – no matter if it is showcased at a company or in a community space – is about giving control to others. It is not about barking orders or making demands.

“Leadership is community, community is leadership,” David said. While leading the USS Santa Fe, his goal was to create a place were people feel good to come to work. In the traditional work force, David argued, people work on an assembly line and feel disempowered, stifled, and suffocated.

Start by Saying “I Don’t Know”

A leaders saying “I don’t know” is very powerful. People can stop guessing and focus on finding the answers themselves. “If you don’t feel like ‘I don’t know’ is an answer, then you can’t ask hard questions,” he said.

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=”- @ldavidmarquet at #CMXSummit”]”Bad leaders give bad orders. Good leaders give good orders. But the best leaders don’t give orders at all.”[/inlinetweet]

David told us that greatness comes from making decisions to be great. You suppress people’s abilities to be great if you don’t empower them.

After a Navy Inspection, the USS Santa Fe was given the highest score the Navy had records for. A major turn around from the condition on bard under the previous Captain.

When the Navy gave the USS Santa Fe the highest score possible, they believed that David was successful because of his clever orders, but that wasn’t the case at all. David tells us: “I was out of the order-giving business.”

The Framework for Community Leadership

After telling us about his story, he gave us a framework for thinking about organizational leadership in our communities. It comes down to three key pieces of leadership strategy.

1. Get people to think.

David says that leadership starts with the CEO. Without a strong core leader, you cannot expect others to step up and take on leadership roles. As a community builder, it’s really your job to create leaders, not to create brand followers. So if you are leading a community and you don’t have executive buy-in (or you’re the executive and you’re unsure of your mission), it will be impossible to accomplish the task of creating an unbreakable community.

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=”-@ldavidmarquet at #CMXSummit”]The most important community is the organization itself. [/inlinetweet]

That leader must then get people to think. All community members are really volunteers, so it is not your job to order them around. It is your job to empower them to think for themselves.

“The most important thing people can do at work is think,” David said.

When one of David’s crewman was about to do something, David had them say “I intend to” rather than asking him what to do. This change in language gave crewmen the power to make their own decisions and created a crew of 135 active and passionate, creative people.

Within this idea, David outlined the pillars of a community that was empowered to think for themselves, as follows:



2.  Push authority to information.

Another issue that David faced on the Santa Fe was sending information about the submarine and crew to the higher authorities. In a traditional workforce, only the higher-ups have the authority to make big decisions, but the people working on the ground hold the key to almost all of the information about customers and processes.

David reversed this model aboard the USS Santa Fe, giving authority to the people who have the information already. This encourages people to talk to each other up and down the command chain, like so:


The USS Santa Fe under David’s command maintained a high retention rate, and David attributes this to the fact that the crew members could connect everything they were doing to something that matters.

David said, “People don’t want easy; they want agency. Train for critical thinking, not compliance.”

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=”-@ldavidmarquet at #CMXSummit”]”People don’t want easy; they want agency. Train for critical thinking, not compliance.”[/inlinetweet]

When you give them authority, they can then move up the ladder of leadership, and you can watch their language change from “Tell me what to do…” all the way up to “I’ve been doing…”.



This is similar to David Spinks’s community commitment curve. As you move up the ladder, commitment increases. The least committed are those at the bottom who simply respond to orders.

Removing Fear

David asked us: “In one word, what would keep someone from someone from moving up the ladder?” The number one roadblock is fear. As a community leader, it is your job to remove that fear by giving people information. Once you give people more context, they can offer help.

3. Make people feel safe.

David reminds us not to add stress into the lives of those we lead. We have to give them space to make mistakes and learn.

For instance, instead of asking people “Are you sure?”, ask them “How sure are you?”


Then, listen to their answer. Listening is important. It makes people feel heard and seen.

4. Fix the environment (not the people).

As a community leader, it is not your job to “fix people.” Instead, it is your job to create a safe enviroment where people have access to information and the authority to make decisions on your behalf.

Do you have this now? How can you create this in the future?

David suggested a few tips for moving forward:

  • Listen.
  • Be a “cultural warrior.”
  • Ask questions that make people feel safe, like “How sure are you?”
  • Move people up the leadership ladder.
  • Use “we”, not “they”.

In closing, David Marquet asked us all to think about how we can empower our communities to feel like leaders and to create organizations that create flourishing communities. It all starts at the core of your organization. If that internal piece is not strong, you cannot create a strong external community.


Susan Silver

Susan Silver is the writer with a mathematical muse. They have six years experience working as a community manager, moderator, and engagement specialist. Susan believes that whatever you imagine, you ...

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