Monday, June 20, 2005

"It's Your Ship" - A Review of A Remarkable Book On Leadership

On several occasions in the past, I have written in this space about Capt. D. Michael Abrashoff, USN (Ret.). Mike has made the transition from being a decorated and acclaimed naval officer to offering his leadership insights to business leaders. His newsletter – available on his Website at - is one I look forward to reading each month.

Capt. Abrashoff has authored two fascinating books that I have devoured and now look forward to sharing with you. I offer them as a one-two punch! In this posting I will review his first best seller: It’s Your Ship – Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy. Later this week I will offer my thoughts on the sequel.

By his own account, Mike Abrashoff was dragged reluctantly to the enlightened conning tower where he now stands and from which vantage point he offers advice to those who desire to grow as leaders. As a young officer, Abrashoff was like many newly-minted Annapolis graduates, passing along the command and control ethos that he had absorbed and that has been the hallmark of military “leadership” for generations. As XO aboard the Shiloh, he learned a signal and indelible lesson in command when he unthinkingly passed down the chain of command an order that eventuated in a sailor falling asleep while standing watch – an egregious offense aboard a warship.

“Well, this was an open-and-shut case – if you are asleep on watch, you are guilty. There was no need to bother about the facts. So, I sent the sailor to the captain for punishment, without any further investigation.

To my utter surprise, the captain asked the sailor why he had fallen asleep on watch. The sailor said he had been up all night cleaning a dirty workspace. Why did he have to stay up to clean it? Because the chief told him it had to be done by 8:00 A.M.”

As the investigation continued and the chain of orders found it’s way back to Abrashoff, the department head told the captain: “The XO told me to get it done by 8 A.M.”

Abrashoff shares the lessons he learned that memorable day:

“How in the world could I have known that they were so short-handed that they would have to keep someone up all night to get it finished? But in fact I should have known or at least been approachable enough for the officers to feel safe explaining to me why it was a problematic order. I didn’t get all the facts; I didn’t realize that there were not enough resources to get the job done in the time I had allowed. The captain dismissed the case and I felt like a complete idiot. Never again, I promised myself, would I give an order without clearly articulating the goal, providing the time and resources to get it done, and ensuring that my crew had the proper training to do it right.” (Pages 34-35)

That watershed moment in Captain Abrashoff’s career led him to make many adjustments in his view of leadership, his willingness to listen, his approach to the chain of command, and his commitment to champion the cause of his people so that they could be equipped for success. The pinnacle of his career as a naval officer was commanding the USS Benfold in the Persian Gulf and seeing his ship transformed from a dysfunctional amalgamation of misfits and malcontents into a proud vessel that was awarded the Spokane Trophy, emblematic of the best ship in the Pacific Fleet.

In this book, Abrashoff recounts many of the lessons he learned along the way – lessons that are all immediately applicable to any business or organization. He manages to tell the story of his own development as a leader and the development of his shipmates without coming across as arrogant. Clearly, the unapproachable Abrashoff of page 35 somehow transformed himself into a very approachable and engaging leader who not only set a high standard for his own crew, but offers transferable lessons to business leaders willing to listen and read.

Each chapter treats one leadership lesson or principle and fleshes out the abstract ideas with stories of the men and women who were the crew that brought about the transformation of the Benfold.

Take Command
Lead By Example
Listen Aggressively
Communicate Purpose and Meaning
Create a Climate of Trust
Look for Results, not Salutes
Take Calculated Risks
Go Beyond Standard Procedure
Build Up Your People
Generate Unity
Improve Your People’s Quality of Life

I had two over-arching reactions to the book. First, was a realization that all of these lessons can be boiled down into a simple dictum and recipe for success: Set high standards for yourself and your people, create an environment that challenges them to embrace those standards as their own, and then train, equip, encourage and communicate with your people in such a way that you empower their success.

Second, this approach to excellence and leadership is very reminiscent of the principles of leadership I have heard articulated by my friends who have flown and taught at the Navy’s Top Gun school.

Abrashoff’s style of writing is one that I enjoy. His use of colorful and apt metaphors raises the quality of the writing above the level of most leadership books I have encountered. By way of encouraging you to read this book, I share the closing paragraph:

“In business, I have encountered many companies with the kind of bad habits and poor leadership that troubled Benfold when I first went aboard. Too many company departments appear blind to what they could accomplish together. Bereft of good leadership, they are trapped in needless bickering, politics and posturing, with predictable damage to the bottom line. And yet unity of purpose is quite achievable, even against heavy odds, and sometimes because of them. We created unity on Benfold. The U.S. military did it in Afghanistan. I am convinced that businesses everywhere can do the same. After all, it’s our ship.” (Page 210)

Enjoy reading this book, and bon voyage!


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