Revisiting books that influence us

Revisiting valued learning resources helps you see them in a new light, and reveals previously-unnoticed insights, says Tim Slack.

At the South African World Conference for Appreciative Inquiry in 2015, a friend lent me a copy of Turn the Ship around! A true story of Turning Followers into leaders by L. David Marquet. It was a great read, full of practical advice. The heart of the story is how David Marquet turned the worst performing US submarine into the best. Two particular things changed my thinking: first – he measured his success by the crew continuing to function at the highest level – even when he left command – as it was not dependent on him. 

Second – he encouraged emancipationof the crew, and challenged the traditional encouragement of empowerment. Empowerment still results from and is a manifestation of a top-down structure,” he says. At its core is the belief that the leader ‘empowers’ the followers, that the leader has the power and ability to empower followers. What we need is release, or emancipation. Emancipation is fundamentally different from empowerment. With emancipation we are recognising the inherent genius, energy and creativity in all people and allowing those talents to emerge.”

Although it was not directly about Appreciative Inquiry, there was significant overlap with his references to the importance of questions fostering co-design and ‘emancipating’ people. The book has had a profound effect on my AI practice and training and is included in our reading lists and referred to in our book Reflections – Realising the power of Appreciative Inquiry. 

Recently, a project supporting strength-based changes to working practices prompted me to reread the book. This demonstrated the value of revisiting a valued learning resource – with a realisation that there were some things I had not fully understood. For example, he advocated moving away from briefing people and getting crew to brief him on the actions they were going to take. On second reading, it became clear that, for him, this emancipation approach was based on a different premise. It was a recognition that, when individuals have high competency levels, they do not require briefings – you just need to ask questions that highlight understanding of the task, provide clarity and confirm the actions to be taken place. A practical example of the emancipation approach! 

As well as stimulating new thinking, the re-read reminded me of potential other gems to revisit. This includes Reinventing Organisation by Frederic Laloux and Humankind, by Rutger Bregman. 

I discovered that David Marquet had published Leadership is Language – the hidden power of what you say and what you dont. It is another gem and I would like to highlight just one thing – how the ‘wisdom of the loud’ people, wielding power according to position, status and dominating behaviours, can prevent the best actions and decisions; and that the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ is more effective.

‘Wisdom-of-the-crowd’ research routinely attributes the superiority of crowd averages over individual judgments to the elimination of individual noise, an explanation that assumes independence of the individual judgments from each other. Thus, the crowd tends to make its best decisions if it is made up of diverse opinions and ideologies. An enlightening  book on this subject is The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.

Reading list 

Turn the Ship Around; L. David Marquet, Penguin Press (2015) 

Reinventing Organisations – A guide to creating organisations inspired by the next stage of human consciousness; Frederic Laloux and Nelson Parker (2016)

Humankind – A hopeful history; Rutger Bregman, Bloomsbury Publishing (2020) 

Reflections – realising the power of Appreciative Inquiry: an Appreciative Journal and practical resource book; Suzanne Quinney and Tim Slack, Wordscapes (2017)

Leadership is language – the hidden power of what you say and what you dont L. David Marquet, Penguin Business (2020)