Great leaders NEVER say these words!

Professor Brian Keating
4 min readSep 1, 2020

A conversation with US Navy Captain L. David Marquet

Author and leadership expert David Marquet is my guest on this episode of INTO THE IMPOSSIBLE. As a Navy captain, David’s command of the submarine U.S.S. Santa Fe took it from worst to first in terms of crew retention and morale. A remarkable story and one that led to his post-retirement career of writing and speaking about motivational leadership.

David is rightfully proud of the fact that a record number of future submarine captains emerged from the Santa Fe. He was inspired by the experience to write his first book, “Turn the Ship Around!” As he points out, this title has a Star Wars connection. It’s the name of a song from The Family Guy parody of “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” so, when googling, you find his book and workbook but also videos of the catchy tune.

David and I also discuss his newly released follow up book, “Leadership in Language.” His lessons revolve around the subtle and likely subconscious ways that many managers use language to discourage participation and feedback. Small changes in how a question is posed or a meeting is organized can make a huge difference in workplace morale and employee retention.

David acknowledges how entrenched society is in these bad habits, and that it takes planning and practice to adapt. “You don’t need to change the laws of physics, but you need to change your habits,” he says. “And there’s so many people, myself included, that are just stuck in the patterns.”

Early on in the interview David reveals that he took astrophysics in college and liked it, and also that his dad has a PhD in optical physics. The influence is clear when David uses terms like variability, uncertainty, and wave function during our conversation.

I was reminded of the quote from Rabbi Lubavitcher Rebbe, “A good leader creates followers, a great leader create leaders.” One of David’s lessons that resonated with me is the so-called Fist to 5 method, wherein real, relative feedback is encouraged rather than a binary yes/no option. Or even worse, a statement followed by the questionable “right?”

David’s healthcare worker example is timely. Some managers would say to employees, “You feel safe, right?” Clearly they want agreement and no discussion. Giving them an opportunity to answer on a zero to five scale, “How safe do you feel today?” gives the manager a real answer and the employee a sense of ownership, both of which are crucial.

Not every application is life and death, but as David says, “You can be better every day.” He posts videos with small steps to take on the journey from follower to leader on his YouTube channel Leadership Nudges.

It’s important to make these small adjustments. David points out that no one gets it right all the time. “If you get to the end of the day and you don’t in your head think ‘Oh, I could have asked this better, I could have trusted a bit more here…’ If you don’t have like ten of those at the end of the day, I think you’re walking through life clueless,” he says.

Many thanks to David for making time to talk to INTO THE IMPOSSIBLE about his leadership philosophy and his books. Next time I’ll be sure to brush up on my naval terminology and slang.

Buy Marquet’s books here:

Leadership is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say — and What You Don’t

Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders

The Turn The Ship Around! Workbook: Implement Intent-Based Leadership In Your Organization

Find Marquet on the web and Twitter @ldavidmarquet

Find Brian Keating on Twitter @DrBrianKeating and YouTube

Please subscribe, rate, and review the INTO THE IMPOSSIBLE Podcast on iTunes for a chance to win a copy of David Marquet’s book:

David Marquet served as captain of the U.S.S. Santa Fe, a Navy nuclear submarine. Since retirement, he has written books and workbooks about effective leadership. He also gives speeches and runs the YouTube channel Leadership Nudges.



Professor Brian Keating

Chancellor’s Distinguished Professor at UC San Diego. Host of The INTO THE IMPOSSIBLE Podcast Authored: Losing the Nobel Prize & Think like a Nobel Prize Winner