Leadership Lessons from the United States Navy Applicable to Engineering Leadership

Published on Apr 18, 2018

3 min read

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PHILIPPINE SEA (April 12, 2018) The guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG 105) receives fuel from the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) during a fueling-at-sea (FAS). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Taylor King/Released)

I am interested in military leadership and the stories of military leaders. I served in the US Navy for several years and met some amazing leaders there.

Is being a military leader the same as a civilian engineering leader? The short answer is no. But there are many transferable lessons. The military invests a lot in teaching and developing leaders and military leaders have the opportunity to try and apply different leadership techniques.

Here are four interesting books (recommended by leaders interviewed on this site) all written by former U.S. Navy leaders where they extract what can be applied to civilian leadership.


Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders by Captain David Marquet

This is a story about leadership and empowerment told by Captain David Marquet based on his experience in the U.S. Navy submarine force. Capt Marquet took over as commanding officer for the USS Santa Fe and transformed it from the lowest-performing to top-performing nuclear submarines.

Each chapter ends with several “Questions to Consider,” e.g. “What must leaders overcome mentally and emotionally to give up control yet retain full responsibility?”

Key items from this book include:

  • How Captain David Marquet transformed his ship from the classic “Leader-Follower” mentality into a “Leader-Leader” mentality. He empowers each and every sailor to become a leader and take responsibility through powerful phrases like “I intend to …”, “I will …” rather than asking for permission first.
  • Achieving excellence over just avoiding errors and mistakes.
  • When a leader leaves the performance of a unit should not go down if the leader has done a good job. That is not a good sign.

This book was recommended by Mike Hansen, Head of Product Development and Engineering for Sonatype who was also in the U.S. Navy.


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

This book discusses leadership lessons learned by Navy SEAL officers Jocko Willink and Leif Babin while deployed in the Iraqi city of Ramadi in 2006.

The book is divided into 3 chapters: Winning the War Within, The Laws of Combat and Sustaining Victory and how each can be applied to a business or social context. The book includes really gripping stories of the battles they fought in.

Some takeaways from this book include:

  • How leaders must take complete and “extreme” ownership of everything and anything that happens. An example given in the book is a nearly disastrous friendly fire incident aka “blue-on-blue” between Navy SEAL units. It was a complex situation and many mistakes were made, nevertheless, Jocko Willink declared all the mistakes were his.
  • There are no bad teams; only bad leaders
  • Check your ego. Be humble.
  • Simplifying as much as possible
  • How Jocko Willink managed up his chain of command e.g. by only asking for things when they were truly needed, and never complaining.

There is also an awesome podcast Jocko Podcast where Jocko Willink discusses many of the same topics from Extreme Ownership and also the lessons from many other military leadership books. He goes into great depth there and some episodes are over 3 hours long!


Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by General Stanley McChrystal and David Silverman

The book covers lessons learned from fighting against Al Qaeda and ISIS. It deals with the principles of adaptability, information-sharing and decentralized command in a complex changing world and how these can be applied to business.

I have not read this one yet, but I saw one of the co-authors David Silverman speak and the book is highly recommended by my friend Jerry Li who was also interviewed on this site. It’s a great interview.


It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff

This book was recommended to me by an upcoming guest whose interview has not yet been published.

In this book, Captain Abrashoff goes over the ideas and techniques that he used during his 20-month tenure aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold to transform the ship the from an under-performing ship into the best performing ship in the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet.


If you have any other suggestions, please share in the comments. Enjoy!

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