A Book Review of Leadership Is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say—and What You Don’t by L. David Marquet
This article on leadership values was originally published on the Maestro Mastery Blog. Maestro Group uses a science-based approach to startup sales strategy and training. It gives teams the tools they need to sell more, faster. Suitless partners with Maestro Group to help companies (and VCs) make sure they are growing responsibly.
Changing what we say can change our success as leaders. This is the basic premise of L. David Marquet’s Leadership Is Language. Marquet’s bigger idea is that by changing how we speak, we can escape the Industrial Era mentality in which we have all been trapped for the past two centuries. He postulates that, while we, our work, ideas, and technology have been barreling ahead, the language we use is still stuck in the time of the telegraph.
Leadership Values in a New Era
Industrial-age workers were divided into the doers and the deciders. The deciders told their employees what to do and how to do it. Maximum production in the shortest amount of time was the goal of the deciders. The workers, meanwhile, did the back-breaking factory work. They had no say in how things got done, and they were not motivated to go beyond what was expected of them, as this would only make their jobs more difficult.
Marquet labels the deciders as blueworkers, and the factory workers as redworkers. Bluework involves thinking, new ideas, and creativity. Redwork is about hard work, efficiency, and living by the clock. In any field there is redwork and bluework, but what Marquet argues is that there should no longer be blueworkers and redworkers. Our ideas will be better and our endeavors more successful if everyone is both a blueworker and a redworker. Further, our work will be more fruitful if we purposefully intersperse redwork and bluework, deliberately pausing to assess what’s effective, what has changed, and the best way to move forward.
Everyone is a Doer and Decider
There are plenty of CEOs who would agree with Marquet that getting input and ideas from everyone is essential, and that plowing ahead with no time for reflection is often problematic. Even so, according to Marquet, the language we have inherited from the Industrial Era is antithetical to the idea that everyone should both think and do. Despite best intentions, it is often what stands in the way of creating a better way to work.
As an example of how language can sabotage team input and smart decision-making, Marquet shares the story of the ill-fated El Faro. El Faro was a container ship that traveled back and forth between Florida and Cuba. In 2015, it encountered hurricane Joaquin on a journey to Cuba. It sank, and all 33 crew members perished. Marquet analyzes the language of the transcript, which is all we have left from El Faro. His opinion is that, had the captain of the ship used different language in speaking with his crew, who clearly had concerns, the story could have had a different ending.
Marquet does not place blame on anyone, he places it, rather, on the outdated leadership values we’re all still using from the 1800s. We’re not going to cover point-by-point Marquet’s entire methodology. That’s in the book, which we recommend highly. It’s a quick read and offers many suggestions and concrete examples of how to put them to immediate use. Instead we’ll look at seven actionable tips from Marquet’s updated leadership playbook that we think are useful to any leader, whether you’re a ship captain or company founder.
Change Your Own Behavior First
Marquet stresses that simply encouraging employees to speak up is not enough. This puts the onus on them. The words you use and the questions you ask (see sidebar), have likely already indicated to your employees a reluctance to listen, even if that has not been your intention.
Before you can expect your employees to change their behavior, you need to change yours. The captain of El Faro instructed his crew to wake him up if they had any concerns, but so many of the other things he had said made the crew think their opinions were not welcome or valued.
Vote First, Then Discuss
There’s a decision to make, so you get your team together, have a lengthy discussion, and then vote on how you should proceed. Sound familiar? But Marquet suggests that this is doing in backwards. Once one person states their position, especially if that person is highly revered, they end up anchoring the rest of the team’s answers. Those with an opposing viewpoint are less likely to speak up. You’ll hear more ideas from more people if you vote first and then discuss.
We often assume that everyone must come to a consensus on a decision, but it’s that kind of thinking leads to coercion. By talking first or talking more or talking louder someone is attempting to coerce those around them into their way of thinking. That’s not what true collaboration looks like. True collaboration is not harmonious. It invites divergent thinking and dissension. But what it also does is make certain that everyone is heard. In the end, everyone might not agree that the right decision was made, but everyone will feel heard and commit to moving forward together.
Break Things Up
Another reason someone who doesn’t agree with leadership decisions will still commit to doing it (if you’re following Marquet’s playbook) is that they know the team will have a chance to reassess and alter the plan if needed. Marquet is a big fan of breaking things up into smaller parts. He says, “we need to deliberately chunk the improvement cycle into discrete, small, bite-size pieces, but each one should result in a complete product—testable in the market.” In essence he’s describing agile development, but making it accessible to everyone, not just software engineers.
According to Marquet, each chunk of redwork should be sandwiched between two chunks of bluework. Think about what you’re going to do, do it, and then think about what you did. This allows for improvement and adaptation to changing environments or new information.
Control the Clock
One thing that the bluework/redwork/bluework sandwich allows you to do is control the clock. You can’t think effectively and creatively when you’re under a time constraint. When you schedule bluework into your timeline, you are essentially stopping the clock. Allowing your team the freedom to think without the pressure of the clock leads to better decision making.
Taking control of the clock is Marquet’s first play in his new leadership values playbook. If you’re always beholden to the clock, there’s no way to improve and collaborate as a team. Marquet blames not controlling the clock for, among other incidents, the NASA Challenger disaster and Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway awarding an Oscar for Best Picture to the wrong movie. Pauses are essential, not only in questioning, but in our work as well.
Complete, Not Continue
Industrial Era factories never paused. Night and day, they continued producing goods. There was never a sense of completion, but rather of continuation. But the Industrial Age play of “continue” doesn’t work anymore. If we never complete something, we won’t be able to look back at it and learn from it.
What happens when you simply continue instead of completing, improving, and then forging on? For Blockbuster, it meant that they continued renting DVDs without stopping and went from 9,000 stores globally to one store today (yes, there is still one Blockbuster). For Kodak and Polaroid, it meant continuing to produce film even though digital was on the rise. In other words, the “continue” play can get you into some deep trouble in today’s rapidly-changing world.
Improve, Not Prove
Of course, completing your redwork and moving into bluework is only beneficial if you and your team don’t try to justify what you’ve done, but rather aim to do even better. Don’t try to prove yourself; try to improve yourself.
This is a tough step in the new leadership values playbook. It’s human nature to defend your actions and decisions. Marquet recognizes this part of our mindset as the “be good self,” and it needs to be tamed in order to activate the “get better self.” One way he suggests doing this is by framing redwork as a period of learning rather than a period of achievement.
Flatten the Power Gradient
If Marquet is suggesting that everyone be both redworkers and blueworkers, is he suggesting there should be no chain of command? Definitely not. Marquet is a military man, after all. He does, however, think that many companies need to flatten their power gradient. While there should be a chain of command that is followed, information needs to be able to flow freely through the organization.
The steeper the power gradient is in an organization, the harder it is to tell your boss something they don’t want to hear. Did you know that most airplane accidents occur when the pilot is at the controls and not the copilot? Why would that be true? Wouldn’t pilots be more experienced than copilots? Yes, but copilots are less willing to point out a mistake to a pilot than vice versa. Pilots crash more planes because of too steep of a power gradient. It’s about leadership values.
Chances are you’re not making life-or-death decisions on a daily basis. Space shuttles won’t explode and ships won’t go down if you don’t change your language and adopt a redwork/bluework cycle for your business. But it is possible that you might keep selling film when everyone else is moving to digital.