The story about rice that made me understand great leadership

Within the leadership philosophy of “Intent-Based Leadership,” there is a saying that goes: “Create leaders, not followers.” It sounds great, and no one would argue against it, but do you really understand what it means? I didn’t, until I heard a story that I will now share with you.

It all began when my colleague Michael Göthe and I decided to invite David Marquet to conduct a public class in Stockholm. David Marquet is the author and submarine commander behind the best-selling book, “Turn the Ship Around!” He is also the driving force behind Intent-Based Leadership.

Once the date for the class was set, David asked me to handle all practical matters with his colleague, Chuck. During my first interaction with Chuck, he informed me that he had also served on the submarine that “Turn the Ship Around!” is based on. I thought this was great because now I could get the true story behind the book. Unfortunately, Chuck said that the book was quite accurate. Hiding my disappointment, I asked for a story not included in the book. He obliged. Here’s how the story goes:

There was a young chef on board the submarine. According to naval procedures, he had received a menu for the upcoming 21 days, to be approved by the captain, David Marquet. The only problem was that one of the meals was supposed to be served with rice, but it didn’t specify whether it should be white or brown rice. You might be thinking, “Is this really a problem?” But remember, this is the U.S. Navy, where normally only the captain is expected to think “what” and the crew is expected to think “how”. Then, as a good leader, the captain gets the crew to follow orders. The clearer the orders, the better. If you work with software development and deal with requirement documents, this is akin to clarity in requirement documents.

Feeling that the lack of clarity needed to be addressed, the young chef decided to consult the person who had signed off on the menu—Captain David Marquet, who is well-known for his advocacy of delegation.

Now, pause for a moment and think about what you believe David’s response to the chef was when asked whether he meant brown or white rice.


If you think David said “You decide”, you’re wrong, just like I was.

What David actually did was this: He asked the chef what the criteria for a good decision would be. Together, they came up with three factors:

  • What does the crew prefer?
  • What do they have the most of in stock?
  • What was served last time?

Then, Captain David said, “You have the closest access to this information, so make the right decision based on these criteria.”

This made me understand that effective leadership involves empowering everyone to make decisions for the benefit of the organization—essentially, creating good leaders. Imagine what a great organization we would have if everyone were a capable leader, all collaborating toward the same goal.

Not impressed? Well, consider the alternative—simply saying, “You decide.” Doing this would be like creating a small kingdom within the submarine, specifically, the kingdom of food. The chef would become the ruler of that domain and could unilaterally decide what everyone on the submarine would eat. We would then have created an ego, not a leader.

It may sound strange, but look around and you’ll see that in many large companies, departments often act like small kingdoms. Think about departments such as Finance, HR, IT Development, Operations, PR, Facilities, Marketing, Internal IT, Legal, Development Support, and Security. Are they always making decisions based on what furthers the company’s mission, or are they primarily concerned with their own metrics and budgets? Do you see them as aiding you in accomplishing your own objectives—which should align with the company’s—or do they seem like just another hurdle to overcome?

So don’t build kingdoms or foster followers – create true leaders.

If you are interested in learning more about Intent Based Leadership, please check out our classes.

One response on “The story about rice that made me understand great leadership

Comments are closed.