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David Marquet

July 19, 2016 by Speakers' Spotlight

New Leadership, Restructuring the Old Guard

Captain David Marquet imagines a work place where everyone engages and contributes their full intellectual capacity, a place where people are healthier and happier because they have more control over their work–a place where everyone is a leader. A former US submarine captain and the author of the bestselling book, Turn Your Ship Around, David explains why modest power may be the best power of all:

The next generation of leaders is gravitating a new style of leadership with less hierarchy and more collaboration, diverging from the more rigid, top-down approach of their predecessors.

“Members of the next generation will expect leaders to be more transparent, to offer clearer feedback, and to be able to justify their decisions to their followers,” according to Financial Times columnist Andrew Hill. “Titles will count for less; influence over wider networks of people for more.”

But changing existing structures, relaxing hierarchy and opening up communication and collaboration won’t be easy.

“Clearly at some point the ambition and idealism of the next generation of leaders will meet the complex realities of a world still tarnished by leadership failures, among Wall Street and City banks, at scandal-hit Volkswagen, or in Syria and the Middle East,” Hill writes. “It is not impossible that at some point a crisis leader on the more traditional model of a Churchill will be needed again. For all the younger generation’s optimism, hierarchies and power structures have a habit of reasserting themselves, even in quite loosely constituted organisations.”

For the next generation to avoid falling back into old habits, it helps to understand the concept of power gradient. The Power Gradient  — how much more power there is at one rank than another. While salary and office size are proxies, the measure is based on how people feel about the next level up or down. If bosses don’t feel like they need to give a lot of explanation, if “their word is final,” or are irritated when questioned, this is a sign of a steep power gradient.

On the subordinate side, it is manifested as an unwillingness to challenge, a fear of asking a question or pointing out that the boss might not have the entire picture.

Power gradient does not have anything to do with rank. In the military, the power gradient between one commander and a seaman on one ship might be near infinite whereas on another it might be moderate.

If we are to compare power gradient to the flow of a river, we know that steep rapids are dangerous but also that flat stagnant water is not good. What we want is gently flowing currents, a modest power gradient.

Within an organizational structure with a modest power gradient, there is more communication across the levels of hierarchy, more of a feeling that opinions matter lower, and more of a sense of curiosity above.

This increases organizational effectiveness and creates an environment where people can be at their best.

David Marquet/July, 2016