It’s Your Ship

Management Techniques from the Best D. Ship in the Navy


D. Michael Abrashoff

Warner Books, 2002, 212


The former captain of the USS Benfold tells how maverick leadership principles transformed his ship to the best one in the Navy.  It’s an easy read with lots of stories.  According to the flyleaf there are four secrets: 1) See through the eyes of the crew. 2) Communicate, 3) Create discipline by focusing on purpose, and 4) Listen aggressively.


The business community has to figure out how to help people grow.  When people leave their companies, 65% are actually leaving their bosses.  (3) 


“Leadership is earned, not designated.”  (4)


“Most obstacles that limit people’s potential are set in motion by the leader and are rooted in his or her own fears, ego needs, and unproductive habits.” (4)  “Helping people realize their full potential can lead to attaining goals that would be impossible to reach under command-and-control.” (5)


“Captains need to see the ship from the crew’s perspective.” (6)  “Only then can you find out what’s really wrong and, in so doing, help the sailors empower themselves to fix it.” (13)


“I just knew where Benfold was when I arrived, and generally where I wanted us to go from there.  If I had been forced to chart a course defined by metrics, the creativity we sparked and the changes e achieved probably could not have happened.”  “I decided that on just about everything I did, my standard should be simply whether or not it felt right.  You can never go wrong if you do ‘the right thing.’”  “If that doesn’t sound very profound or sophisticated,…it really is as simple as that.” (9)


The top four reasons people leave:

  1. Not being treated with dignity or respect
  2. Being prevented from making an impact on the organization
  3. Not being listened to
  4. Not being rewarded with more responsibility.  (13)


“I assumed that they wanted to do well and be the best.” (14)


“The crew’s insights might be more profound than even the captain’s.” (15) 


“The secret to lasting change is to implement processes that people will enjoy carrying out.” (15)


“As I saw it, my job was to create the climate that enabled people to unleash their potential.  Given the right environment, there are few limits to what people can achieve.” (31)


“Whether you like it or not, your people follow your example.”  “You train your crew how to operate through every decision you make and every action you take.”  “It’s funny how often the problem is you.”  (33)


“Leaders need to understand how profoundly they affect people, how their optimism and pessimism are equally infectious, how directly they set the tone and spirit of everyone around them.” (350 


“Mediocre leaders don’t even take the trouble to know their people.” (35)


“As a manager, the one signal you need to steadily send to your people is how important they are to you.  In fact, nothing is more important to you.”  (36)


“Leaders know when to stand up and be held accountable.” (38)


“Never fail the Washington Post test.  If what I’m about to do appeared on the front page of the Washington Post tomorrow, would I be proud or embarrassed?” (39)


“Listen aggressively.”  “Each person who talked to him had his complete, undivided attention.”  He was so respectful. (Re William Perry, former secretary of defense) (43)


The author interviewed each crewmember on the ship (five each day) to communicate his expectations and to get to know them.  He came to know all 310 people (and their spouses) by name.  “I became their biggest cheerleader.” (46)


“The whole secret of leading a ship or managing a company is to articulate a common goal that inspires a diverse group of people to work hard together.” (52)


“Like any other workforce, mine appreciated hearing from top management.”  “Change frightens workers, and their fears thrive in silence.”  “Keep talking.”  “People can absorb anything if they are not deceived or treated arrogantly.”  (54)


“Knowledge is power, yes, but what leaders need is collective power, and that requires collective knowledge.  I found that the more people knew what the goals were, the better buy-in I got—and the better results we achieved together.” (55)


The After Action Review involves gathering those involved after any action to critique it.  Check your ego at the door; there is no retribution for any comments. (60)  “When people saw me opening myself to criticism, they opened themselves up.  That’s how we made dramatic improvements.” (61)


“When people feel they own an organization, they perform with greater care and devotion.”  (62)


“The best way to keep a ship—or any organization—on course for success is to give the troops all the responsibility then can handle and then stand back.  Trust is a human marvel….”  “You have to earn it, and you earn trust only by giving it.” (63)


“Trust is like a bank account—you have got to keep making deposits if you want it to grow.” (65)


“It’s critical that leaders don’t shoot the messenger who brings bad news.” (67)  “Create a climate of trust in which people are not afraid to deliver news that they know you don’t want to hear.” (68)  “Make your people feel they can speak freely, no matter what they want to say.  If they see that the captain wears no clothes, let them say do; facts are facts and deserve attention, not retribution.” (92)


“Take calculated risks.”  “I never took a reckless risk.”  “I took only the risks that I thought my boss would want me to take, risks I could defend within my job description and authority.” (105)


“If a rule doesn’t make sense, break it.” (111)


The power of information.  “Those that have it prosper.  Those that don’t, wither.” (125)


“Build up your people.” (140)  “I focused on building self-esteem.”  “Praise is infinitely more productive than punishment.”  Dealing with bosses: Never tear them down; help them grow strong.  “Get inside the bosses’ heads.  Anticipate what they want before they know they want it.  Take on their problems; make them look so good that you become indispensable.” (141)


“The more I went around meeting sailors, the more they talked to me openly and intelligently.  The more I thanked them for hard work, the harder they worked.”  (144)


Some leaders stay connected electronically but they’re disconnected personally and some never leave their offices.  (144)


“Build up your bosses.”  “I aimed to be the consummate team player, a loyal servant to harassed bosses.” (155)


Annual performance evaluations are difficult.  Continually counsel the people you are going to evaluate.  You are successful if their rating is not a surprise.  Provide feedback throughout the entire year.  Key to good leadership is ongoing counseling and consistent honesty. (163-4)


“While good news makes you feel warm inside, it’s the negative news that makes you learn and helps improve your performance at your job.” (170)


“I’m a big believer in getting resentments and grumbling out in the open, where they can do a lot less damage.” (173)


“Having fun is a notion you can apply to any workplace anywhere.” (189)


“In our time, organizations often become too complex for their leaders to run effectively.”  “The price of dysfunctional leadership is, of course, a dysfunctional organization.” (208)