A perspective on leadership

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Mordecai Paechter, Masters in Entrepreneurship Co-ordinator

In January 1999, Captain David Marquet took the helm of the USS Santa Fe, an extraordinarily high-tech nuclear submarine, worth billions of dollars and carrying a nuclear load that could obliterate a small planet.

It was also the worst performing submarine in the entire US fleet. Morale was bottoming out, and the vessel had the worst crew retention rate in the submarine force, reenlisting only three crew members in 1998. A photograph of the Santa Fe crew, inattentively idling on duty, had done the rounds on the internet and was routinely used as a training example of how not to be.

Something fundamental needed to change, and Captain Marquet had his work cut out.

In his book describing and summarising his experiences, ‘Turn the Ship Around!’, Captain Marquet explains how he used a radically non-traditional approach to leadership to transform the USS Santa Fe into one of the most successful submarines in the US fleet, in particular with regards to the retention and advancement of his crew.

Casting aside a traditional ‘leader-follower’ model of organisational responsibility, Marquet sought to empower his crew to each take leadership responsibilities. The Captain would no longer micromanage operations – an impossible task, given the complexity of a nuclear submarine on active deployment – but instead he was primarily responsible for formulating and explaining general strategic objectives.

The crew themselves would work out how to achieve these objectives, using their own creativity and their intimate, first-hand knowledge of their stations. Describing this as a ‘leader-leader’ model, it was replicated throughout the entire command structure, which was now benefiting from hundreds of engaged brains rather than just one. The ship would now be ‘driven’ from the bottom up, utilising the junior sailors as its organisational motor.

When I first read Captain Marquet’s book, shortly after joining the Entrepreneurship Centre in March of this year, I was struck by similarities with my own experiences. Like many of the Santa Fe’s crew members, I know the depressing experience of switching off the conscious, creative mind and simply ‘doing whatever they [my management] tell me to do’, of having an organisational structure that acts as a lid on the potential of its workforce rather than a launchpad for individual and structural success.

This is not the experience I have had at the Entrepreneurship Centre, which is unlike any other environment in which I have worked. As a team of entrepreneurially-minded individuals, we are each responsible for leading our own projects, or parts of projects. Whilst we work to a unified, management-led strategy, we are encouraged to achieve our individual objectives using our own creativity and planning, and devising our own solutions. Rather than rigidly sticking to our own lanes, we are collaborative, communicative, relying not on micromanaged lists of instructions but, on a growing pool of shared expertise and enthusiasm. We are encouraged to be intrapreneurial and innovative in our own work, rather than simply just sticking to the old processes and methods.

Collaborative leadership at every level is the lifeblood of the Entrepreneurship Centre. Regular collaboration and contact between the “admins”, the academics and the entrepreneurs creates cross-fertilisation across all our work, equipping the whole team with the necessary tools and frameworks to grow our programmes and our centre. And of course, this inevitably filters out into our programmes. There is an unmistakeable and infective buzz across our entire entrepreneurship community, linking the administrative, academic, and practical elements of all our programmes. We are making something special!

I am probably one of hundreds of ‘Programme and Admissions Co-ordinators’ in the University of Cambridge, but I think I have the best job of all of them. Whatever it says on my contract, this is not an “administrative” job. I don’t serve this community – I am a part of it. And like all of the Entrepreneurship Centre, I have the privilege to grow with it.

Mordecai Paechter

Mordecai Paechter

Mordecai joined the Entrepreneurship Centre in March, having worked in several diverse roles across the University, including as a Porter at King’s, where they read Classics as an Undergraduate from 2013-17. Since working in the EC, Mordecai has been developing a keen interest in organisational behaviour and the implications of internal structures on growth and development.
Mordecai Paechter

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