Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Review of “It’s Our Ship – The No-Nonsense Guide to Leadership” by Capt. D. Michael Abrashoff

I have already reviewed on The White Rhino Report the first two books penned by Capt. Mike Abrashoff, “It’s Your Ship” and “Get Your Ship Together.”

"It's Your Ship" Review

"Get Your Ship Together" Review

I was delighted to learn that he has written a follow-up book that has just been published this month. Mike has taken the lessons he learned as the Captain of the USS Benfold and begun to apply them in speaking to, and consulting with, a variety of businesses. In his latest offering, “It’s Our Ship,” he shares lessons he has learned in receiving feedback from his first two books. He also offers examples of companies that have been successful in applying the leadership principles he has elucidated.

I am pleased to share with you some of the nuggets that I most appreciated. Early in this book, Abrashoff shares some hiring tips used at – advice I found to be very insightful:

“Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of says that his employees have already been so conditioned to identify with customers that his company relies on employee judgments. ‘During our hiring meetings,’ he once wrote in the company’s annual report, ‘we ask people to consider three questions before making a decision:

  1. Do you admire this person? For myself, I’ve always tried hard to work only with people I admire, and I encourage folks here to be just as demanding. Life is definitely too short to do otherwise.

  1. Will this person raise the average level of effectiveness of the group they’re entering? We want to fight entropy. The bar has to continuously go up. I ask people to visualize the company five years from now. At that point, each of us should look around and say, ‘The standards are so high now – boy, I’m glad I got in when I did!’

  1. Along what dimension might this person be a superstar? Many people have unique skills, interests, and perspectives that enrich the work environment for all of us. It’s often something that’s not even related to their jobs. One person here is a National Spelling Bee champion. I suspect it doesn’t help her in her everyday work, but it does make working here more fun if you can occasionally snag her in the hall with a quick challenge: ‘onomatopoeia!’ (Pages 20-1)

As I have observed successful military leaders – officers and enlisted personnel – I have come to the conclusion that the best officers are the ones who figure out early in their careers how best to relate to the NCO’s who are the heart and soul of each branch of the service. Abrashoff gives a great example of that principle when he talks about young John Wade, who served in 1991 on the destroyer Arthur W. Radford:

“John’s relatives, both officers and enlisted men, had often warned him about smart-alecky young officers who thought they knew everything when they first reported to ship. John cringed at ever being seen as such. So he told the chief he wanted to learn from him: ‘If he would help me grow, I promised, then I would be his biggest advocate. I would work my ass off for this division and this team.’

John met the chief clutching his rookie ensign binder of official training materials – presumably everything he needed to know to master his new job. The grizzled old chief took the binder from him and set it on the desk: ‘Mr. Wade,’ he said, ‘you’ll get to this volume in due time. But right now, in order to lead the division effectively, you need to know this.’ He tossed a different book to John, and Wade caught it. It was the training requirements for the sailors he would be leading.

John practically inhaled that book, spent weeks standing watches with his sailors, and wound up knowing how to man the radar and performing their duties as well as they could. John was rightly proud of his achievement. He not only learned every job in his division, but also earned his sailors’ respect as a good man and a good leader. You can’t ask more of a junior officer.” (Pages 21-2)

It is clear that Capt. Abrashoff has developed tremendous respect for former Defense Secretary, Dr. William Perry, for whom Abrashoff served as a military assistant during the Clinton administration. The way in which Abrashoff was hired as part of Perry’s staff is instructive:

“I asked why he had hired me. ‘I didn’t hire you,’ he said. ‘The staff did. I’ve been in business and government for forty years, and I know how to hire the smartest person. But that’s never been a marker for my success.’ The real key, he said, was creating a team of people who would support one another and help him get the mission accomplished. ‘Out of the twelve candidates for the job, you were the only one who took the time to talk to the rest of the staff as if they were people,’ he said. ‘When I asked them who they wanted to work with, they said they wanted to work with you.’” (Page 23)

I was impressed with a unique celebration instituted by Steve Smith, CEO of Tec Labs:

“Smith celebrates his employees’ work anniversaries with a ‘living eulogy’ delivered during a Bagel Meeting. Employees take turns speaking about the honoree in a way that’s ordinarily reserved for fond remembrances at a wake or funeral. ‘The impact is profound,’ Steve said. ‘The person just sits there, hearing all about the things they are and all the things they’ve accomplished. There’s a lot of tears. But it allows people to know they’re loved and cared for.’ Remember, Steve added, ‘the two big motivators in people’s lives are love and respect.’” (Pages 103-4)

Finally, I will share some of the book’s insights about excellence and arrogance in a leader:

“I’ve spent a lot of time these past few years reflecting on why William Perry became such a wonderful role model – for me and for countless others whose lives he touched. What was so appealing, I think, was his humility. Perry was a very self-effacing leader. People were drawn to him, and his modesty made the jobs of military people easier around the globe. . .

In comparison, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made our jobs more difficult around the world, both during his tenure and now. Rumsfeld is obviously a brilliant man, but his seemingly arrogant style turns people off. . . Charles R. Larson, who retired as Superintendent of the Naval Academy in 1998, summed it up when he told the midshipmen they needed to create a sense of excellence without arrogance.” (Pages 118-9)


Like the first two books that Abrashoff has crafted, “It’s Our Ship” offers valuable and practical portraits of proactive leadership at work in a variety of settings. I recommend the book with enthusiasm.



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