The Ship Turned Around: How Intent-based Leadership Creates Effective Leaders

Intent-based leadership is a successful leadership framework, developed by L. David Marquet whilst Captain of the Santa Fe Submarine. The U.S. Navy tasked him with leading a ship with little expertise of the vessel himself. He had to innovate fast, and he found success. Here’s what we can learn from his book, “Turn the Ship Around.”

A Ship But No Clue

Marquet described that when he took control of the Santa Fe in 1999, he knew nothing about the ship. He had experience running a completely different one (The Olympus, to be exact). The problem was, it would take him a year to learn this new ship, yet the crew were to set sail within 6 months.

He simply didn’t have enough time. He had to think differently. His only solution was to go against the grain of traditional leadership.

In this guise, the Navy were used to one captain making all the decisions. But he wouldn’t be able to make these decisions in their entirety.

Marquet adopted the idea of passing decision making to those closest to the information. Using this approach, he felt that he may have a chance of turning the ship around, even without having the technical knowledge of it.

Standard Protocol? Bah!

Standard protocol in the navy is that the Captain normally has a long list of orders to give the crew. Decisions start and end with him.

The Captain would shout, and they would follow. Some of which are:

  • “Submerge the ship!”
  • “Start up the reactor!”
  • “Shut down the reactor!”
  • “Connect to shore power!”
  • “Divorce from shore power!”

For his idea to work, he vowed to never give an order again. It meant going against all the protocols that currently existed in the navy.

Start by Changing the Language of How You Lead

Marquet first changed the thinking and the language. He turned traditional instructions and a crew that were trained to take orders, into leadership with intent. The premise was simple:

You, as the leader, give intent to your employees. They give intent back to you.

They don’t request permission. They definitely don’t ask what to do next.

That’s the old way of leading. Here’s how that normally goes:

Crewman: “Captain, I request to submerge the ship.”

Captain: “Submerge the Ship!”

In the alternative model, it goes something like this:

Crewman: “Captain, i intend to submerge the ship.”

Captain: “Very well.”

This may sound just a change in words. But this subtle change created a tremendous shift in ownership. It’s now the person with the information that will make the intent and ultimately the decisions. They have control over the next steps.

His reasoning was simple: They had the information, why couldn’t they make the decisions under his supervision?

For Marquet, it started with asking each crew member to provide their intent. When this happened, the team took it onboard to discover new tasks, procedures and technical knowledge in their respective processes, so they could give full intent to Marquet, and then ultimately make the appropriate decisions autonomously.

From the engineer in the engine room, knowing when to stay silent in the enemy’s vicinity, and when to implement some rather noisy maintenance, to the crew member who can submerge the ship when the time is right… everyone (eventually) knew exactly what they had to do and did it.

They led their respective parts of the ship.

But they had to learn and develop in their roles.

As they developed their capabilities, they would discuss their intent and next steps with the Captain or their Officer. Each time they did this, they learned more things.

As they grew, they then could change from intending to do something, to doing it without discussing it.

The Two Pillars to Give Control

Marquet identifies two key pillars to provide control and give intent-based leadership to team members in an effective and safe way.

  • Technical Competence (Is it safe?);
  • Clarity (Is it the right thing to do?).

Check for Technical Competence

As a leader, this involves discussions about their technical capability. Do they currently have the skills to make decisions I’m asking of them?

By engaging in discussions, you can coach your teams to improve their knowledge as they develop.

Let’s look at an example.

We can address the previous example in a little more depth. In this case, is it safe to submerge the ship?

Crewman: “Captain, I intend to submerge the ship.”

Captain: “What do you think I’m thinking right now?”

Crewman: “Err, is it safe to submerge the ship?”

Captain: “Exactly! Now show me it’s safe.”


“All men are below.

Hatches are shut.

The ship is rigged for dive.

Bottom depth checked.

The submarine is in the water.”

Captain: “Very well!”

Notice that they now build the discussion around what the crewman intends to do next, and if they have covered all the required bases.

This discussion, in particular, the “What do you think I’m thinking now” question, is so powerful because it pushes back on the crewman to think the way the Captain would think.

This then means that they learn because they will think ahead before giving intent. They’ll ask themselves, “What do I need to have checked before I give intent?” 

“What will the captain ask?”

This continuous reflection and discussion helps coach each individual into identifying where they are currently and how to improve their capability further.

Check for Organisational Clarity

The next part of the pillar is to ensure they are doing the right thing. It may be safe to submerge, but should the sub be submerged right now?

As they improve their competence and develop in their role, it’s now time to lead by asking questions around clarity – “Is it the right thing to do?”

Crewman: “Captain, I intend to submerge the ship.”

Captain: “What do you think I’m thinking right now?”

Crewman: “Err, is it safe to submerge the ship?”

Captain: “Exactly! Now show me it’s safe.”


“All men are below.

Hatches are shut.

The ship is rigged for dive.

Bottom depth checked.

The submarine is in the water.”

Captain: “Is it the right thing to do?”

Crewman: “Yes sir, our mission is to ….”

Captain: “Very well!”

See how the discussion naturally flows from; Are we competent and safe, to are we doing the right thing?

These questions open up as individuals develop and become more skilled.

The Cascading Effect of Intent Based Leadership

After being exposed to this type of leadership and empowerment, Marquet found his Officers quickly adopted his style of questioning.

They would ask questions about their team’s intentions. This ensured that technical competency and organisational clarity were in place before crew members took the initiative.

This cascading approach meant that eventually, everyone was following the intent based leadership model.

They were thinking ahead, and pre-empting the questions that their leaders would ask; getting themselves in a position to ensure that their information matched their intent.

The Speed of This Step Change

Marquet identifies that when he put this intent-based leadership in place, there was a significant step change in how people worked and reacted (for the better). He saw a tremendous change within just 24 hours. It wasn’t perfect, and indeed it took a few years for full implementation and for competency to be fully deployed.

Don’t forget, this drastic change happened in an environment that was only ever used to taking orders and blindly following them.

Best Ever Results

A year after implementing this method, The Santa Fe received another inspection. They got the highest inspection grade the inspectors had ever seen!

This ship went from the worst performing to the best ever.


In his own words, Marquet identified that, whereas 1 captain made all the decisions for 135 crew members on each of the other submarines, in the Santa Fe, there were 135 people making decisions.

When you break it down this way, it’s a heck of a lot more momentum and efficiency which far outweighs any individual, no matter how talented they are as captain.

How Do You Get Started?

In Marquet’s words, “Move the authority to where the information is.”

In other words, don’t wait for someone to ask for permission. Give them the permission to make decisions. They have the information in front of them!

Can a Manufacturing team decide whether the new product is ready to be delivered to their customers or not?

Of course!

Can a salesperson close a $1,000,000 deal?


Can a software engineer give permission to release the software? 


In all three cases, they have the information to make the decision.

The secret is to create the environment for everyone to make the decisions as if the CEO were standing behind them.

They do it with clarity and competency, because they have been trained and coached into leading this way.

The 6 Principles to Help Implement Intent-Based Leadership

Here are the principles that help create the framework for successful intent-based leadership:

  • Don’t be perfect, be better (& don’t avoid errors) – give the team opportunities to learn competency and clarity. Allow them to work towards the team goals and achieve them whilst getting better each day. Making mistakes is a part of learning;
  • Tune control, based on the level of competency and clarity – allow them to grow into the role, and provide the right guidance, conversations and feedback to match their current skill level. Don’t allow them to submerge the ship if they are currently not capable. Get them to give you intent, so you can discuss the protocols and ensure they have it right. When they prove themselves, eventually allow them to get on with the task with little discussion;
  • Make people feel safe – Support them and guide them through the process. Don’t turn your back and assume they know what they are doing. Coach them through the decision making, so they know they have your support and guidance and that it’s ok to make mistakes;
  • Push authority to information – empower those that have the information to make the decisions. Avoid a chain of command that checks, signs and verifies before anything gets done;
  • Fix the environment, not the people – Ensure the environment is conducive to making the right decisions and getting things done, using empowerment and control at the front line;
  • Act your way to new thinking – Get out there! Coach and lead discussions about intent. Don’t think everything through before taking the first step. Learning happens in real time.

The Leadership Ladder

The Leadership Ladder is a simple tool you can use to develop your intent-based leadership.

Think of it as a means to provide the right type of questioning to suit the level of discussion you are having with each team member.

The golden rule is this: If someone asks you to tell them what to do, you need to spend a lot of time to get them up this ladder as fast as possible.

For instance, if a team member asks, “what do you want me to do?” they would typically be at the bottom of the ladder.

Naturally, to progress them up the ladder, and as they become more skilled, the leader should ask questions around,

“What do you see?”

“What’s happening around you?

“What do you notice?”

This is conducted safely. No mistakes are made and this questioning provides the platform to reflect and work on what they need to know before taking full control.

Getting them to answer the “what do you see” question can start them internalising, so they think the way of the leader, without that leader having to take total control themselves.

This gradual questioning to support their current level of control, allows them to grow in the role, whilst moving up the ladder of competency.

Here’s the typical questioning and language normally used at each level.

Senior Officer’s Typical LanguageCrew Member’s Typical LanguageLevel
What have you been doing?I have been doing….7
What have you done?I have done….6
What do you intend to do?I intend to do…5
What would you like to do?I would like to…4
What do you think?I think…3
What do you see?I see…2
I’ll tell you what to doTell me what to do1

Leaders at Level 1 may use language like, “This is what you need.” They will then proceed to provide step-by-step guidance on what to do. Team members on this same level, will normally say something along the lines of, “Tell me what I should be doing.”

In comparison, a leader at Level 3 might ask a level 3 team member about their opinion on an idea. The team member would reply with, “Here’s what i think we could do.”

By listening to the language of your employees, you can gauge where they are in the leadership ladder, and progress with the right conversation, to help them understand and keep moving up the ladder.

The Benefits of an Intent-based Leadership Approach

The mantra, “Ask for forgiveness, not for permission” is one of the ultimate principles of the intent-based leadership system. It’s a ‘proceed until halted’ approach to empowering people to make things happen.

Another way to phrase it is, Keep doing what you are doing unless I tell you to stop.

We know that autonomy is one of the critical elements you can give to your employees, to help improve development, engagement, happiness and motivation.

Intent-based leadership provides this in abundance. All implemented in a safe and controlled way.