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David Marquet’s “Leadership is Language.” Book Review

Julie’s Verdict: Readability 10/10 | Usefulness 10/10.

A definite must read.

Available from Amazon from £9.99 (for the Kindle Version)

"Leadership is like the abominable snowman, whose footprints are everywhere, but is nowhere to be seen." – Warren Bennis.

If you search Google Scholar you will find over 4 million articles published which contain the word leadership. Amazon has over 70,000 books listed that mention leadership in the title or blurb. Billions are spent on leadership development annually. Yet a recent Global Leadership Forecast publication, reports there has been little to no progress in the perceptions of leadership capability in the past decade, with the percentage rated excellent/very good remaining at 4o per cent.

Companies in the top third of financial performers are twice as likely to have high-quality leadership as those in the bottom third, indicating a strong business case for organisations to get it right when it comes to leadership and leadership development.

The question is then, what is going wrong and what can be done about it?

According to L. David Marquet, (also the author of Turn the Ship Around) leadership is suffering from an inability to adapt from the old industrial age/scientific management approach to leadership, where thinking was separated from doing and thinkers from doers. He argues, whilst these command and control approaches to leadership may have been right for the time, they cannot be applied in modern organisations where thinking and doing cannot be separated. However, based on Marquet’s observations of leadership, too many organisations seem to be unwittingly using automatic and programmed language patterns that stem from the Industrial Revolution.

In Leadership is Language, Marquet demonstrates the power of the language leaders use in creating the right environment for people to do their best work. He uses examples of the language used during events such as the sinking of the Sante Fe and the Deep Water Horizon disaster to demonstrate what happens when you get stuck in what he calls the ‘Industrial Age play.’


Who should read “Leadership is Language” by L. David Marquet?

Everyone who is a leader, aspiring leader or works in leadership development. Even if you consider yourself to be an effective leader there are lessons to learn from this book.


Key points of “Leadership is Language.”

Leadership is language defines work as ‘redwork’, execution (doing) and ‘bluework’, decision-making (thinking), which in the Industrial Age were often separated and ‘redworkers’ (doers) and ‘blueworkers’ (thinkers) created. This system was flawed, as it resulted in getting exactly as much effort as was needed to meet the minimum requirements, as the repetitive and low autonomy redwork led to lower levels of conscientiousness. Marquet argues, the challenge we face in the 21st Century is the creation of environments where, though we still have redwork and bluework, we don’t have redworkers and blueworkers.

There are a host of modern management approaches devised to address this, yet “we still have deeply divided workforces, workplaces that marginalize people, and people suffering stress and burnout at work” (p. 55). Marquet suggests this is because these approaches do not go far enough in breaking the Industrial Age thinking.

Marquet uses the metaphor of a sports playbook to describe elements of leadership that need to come into play and why. He calls this ‘The New Playbook’ as opposed to the old ‘Industrial Age Playbook.’

Leadership is Language, introduces us to 7 new plays:

  • CONTROL THE CLOCK, not obey the clock. Make a conscious decision about when you will exit redwork, move to bluework and back. Pre-plan a pause.

  • COLLABORATE, not coerce. During bluework encourage divergence. Be curious, invite dissent and give information not instructions.

  • COMMIT, not comply. Compliance provides a pass on thinking and responsibility. To release discretionary effort focus on commitment.

  • COMPLETE, not continue. Chunk up work for frequent completes and opportunities to celebrate success (refer to Agile project management practices).

  • IMPROVE, not prove. Focus on ‘get better’ not ‘be good’.

  • CONNECT, not conform. Reduce the power gradient by demonstrating vulnerability.

All of these plays rely on using the right language, which often means asking the right questions of people, rather than telling them what to do. Those familiar with coaching will see lots of congruence with coaching led conversations in the examples given. The book also emphasises the importance of psychological safety in the application of the plays.


My biggest take away from David Marquet’s "Leadership is Language.”

My biggest takeaway has to be the utility of the information provided. There are a wealth of practical exercises and advice that can be put into practice by leaders and those delivering leadership development. I have already tested one of the tools in a session I delivered this week. I call it the Wisdom of the Crowd activity, it was inspired by what I read on pages 38 and 39. The main principle is that to get the most divergent thinking applied to a decision the team should vote first then discuss not, as often happens, the other way around.


What could be better about David Marquet’s "Leadership is Language."

Not much really. Though there are a lot of links to established thinking e.g. self-determination theory, coaching and psychological safety, the book draws them together and packages them in brilliant practical advice for improving leadership that will not cost you a fortune. It will take time to practice the skills before they become automatic and the new language replaces the old programmed language of the Industrial Age.

Also, it could be made clearer that this is not a linear set of rules to apply. Each play is interdependent on the others so you couldn’t just adopt one at a time.

It is worth remembering that all change takes practice, developing new skills is like building a muscle, you have to keep repeating the behaviour to get the result. You are also more likely to commit to the change if you have someone to hold you accountable, such as a coach, or other team members who have committed to a change.

If you are looking to develop yourself and/or your team’s leadership then get in touch, we offer coaching, personal insights assessments, individual and team events and lots more.


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