Three must reads for after the summer

Summertime is the time when I have some extra time for reading. As I have been reading up on Leadership and what it means within an agile context, I came across these three titles which are stories told by military leaders. I have no affinity whatsoever with the military, but nonetheless I found these interesting must reads
29 August 2019
Saskia Vermeer-Ooms
  • Agile leadership
Organize Agile

Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers Into Leaders – L. David Marquet

Leadership Turn the Ship Around

I first heard about this book during a meetup, in which we discussed delegation within an agile context. I watched the video “Greatness” by David Marquet which lead me to read the book. Marquet describes his experiences as a commander on the USS Santa Fe. He transformed the ship and its crew from having the worst record of the fleet to a high performing, award winning ship. According to Marquet, control leans on the two pillars competence and clarity. He discusses these topics as such:

● Control: Find your organization’s generic code for control, identify decision candidates which can be pushed down to the next level.
● Competency and knowledge: Learning should take place everywhere and all the time. To ensure people can make thought-through decisions, you need to make sure that they have the right information and knowledge to do so.
● Clarity: Begin with the end in mind, in order to make the crew aware of the big picture.

The book also has some practical worksheets and workshop suggestions that you can use within your organisation to help you in the steps to delegate control down. As an example, leaders can start by finishing this sentences:
● “When I think about delegating this decision, I worry that…”
● “Our company would be more effective if [level] managers could make decisions about [subject].”

One of the guiding principles Marquet mentions is to have leadership at every level. He says the payoff is a workplace where everyone around you is taking responsibility for their actions and everyone is a leader.

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World – General Stanley McChrystal

Leadership Team of Teams

Another book coming from the US Military is this book by General Stanley McChrystal. It is situated in 2003 during the Iraq war when McChrystal’s Special Operations Task Force has the mission to disrupt and disable Al Qaeda. The problem that General McChrystal faces is that Al Qaeda turns out to be organized as a networked and adaptable force. The traditional way the US Military is organized can’t seem to keep up. They are slowed down because of decisions need to be made through the traditional hierarchy.

The realisation that they are dealing with a complex environment (rather than complicated) leads McChrystal change the command structure. By combining agility, adaptability and cohesion of small teams with the power and resources of the whole organization, he moves realizes the team of teams structure.

Some of the ingredients for team of teams that are mentioned in the book:
● fostering shared consciousness, meaning people have an understanding of the bigger picture
● having strong lateral connectivity by personal relationships
● empowered execution allows all levels to make decisions, leaders will need to let go and share their power

A network of transparent communication combined with decentralized decision making authority helps build trust throughout the network. Eventually leaders will transform from chess makers into gardners.

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

Leadership Extreme Ownership

The third book, also situated during the Iraq War is called Extreme Ownership. It is written by two former, hard core US Navy SEALS, who are now both working as leadership consultants. In the book they share their lessons learned from decisions they had to make during life and death situations they encountered in combat.

These are some of the statements they make about extreme ownership:
● Stand up and take the blame for mistakes
● Simplifying to avoid confusion
● Ensure leaders at all levels understand the mission
● Giving praise for positive outcomes
● Being decisive, prioritising and executing
● Being disciplined in following plans, but being flexible enough to adapt

Each chapter starts with an anecdote of the situation they encountered in Iraq, next the underlying principle within this story is explained, followed by an application of this principle within the business world.


One could think that a hierarchical organisation like the military would be the last place to find new insights on leadership in an agile context. My view of the military was that it was mostly driven by coercive power in which taking the blame for your subordinates’ mistakes would be unthinkable. These three books however have changed my view. I find them very inspiring and realize that maybe the most valuable trait of a leader is to be a good storyteller. Something that all the above leaders do extremely well. And that ties into what I’ve heard before about leadership: unless you have a good story to tell, no one is willing to follow.

Saskia Vermeer-Ooms

Agile Coach