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Is Tough-Ass Leadership Better Than Servant Leadership?

October 14, 2018

Servant 1

As a Western society we’ve been enraptured with leadership for decades. The past 30 years have witnessed a tidal wave of books on leadership and management, with most of them having short shelf lives and, in reality, providing gimmicky messages based on flimsy or non-existent research.


One segment of the literature has conveyed the core message that those in charge of organizations should follow a servant-oriented approach to leadership. Adapted from Robert K. Greenleaf’s work, servant leaders exist to serve their followers as they work to advance their organizations towards shared visions. In short, a servant leader has the natural feeling to serve to lead others, in contrast to wanting to lead based on authority and power.


However, in a period of escalating global competitiveness, characterized in part by a race to the bottom when it comes to wage rates and working conditions, some would argue that being a nice boss and being inclusive by practicing a servant leadership philosophy is a recipe for disaster, where the take-no-prisoners approach by hungry emerging economies is the new reality.


Welcome guys like cut-throat Oracle founder and CEO Larry Ellis and retired General Electric CEO Jack Welch. Did I say “welcome?” Well, let’s take a look at a selection of CEOs who could be deemed mean jerks versus servant leadership corporate managers, and what their results were for the companies they lead.


First up, Larry Ellis (pictured below). Never one for mincing his words or chewing out a subordinate, Ellis attracted attention by lambasting Hewlett-Packard (a company with which he had previous good relations) when it fired high-performer CEO Mark Hurd in December 2011 for what turned out to be false claims of sexual harassment. Ellis, who seemed to take exquisite glee in criticizing HP’s management, subsequently hired Hurd (the subsequent legal issues were apparently been worked out).


In her 2003 unauthorized biography of Larry Ellis “Everyone Else Must Fail,” Karen Southwick (who died from cancer in 2004) stated that he was a “…modern-day Genghis Khan” because of his ruthless business approach, which includes his intolerance for anyone who gets in his way.”


Larry Ellis
This is the CEO who is said to show up for meetings when he feels like it, discards senior rising stars and exudes narcissism like no rival. Yet Ellis is ranked as the fourth richest person in the United States with a net worth of around $59 billion.


However, the 74 year-old Ellis produces results, despite his alleged poor listening skills, top-down management style and lack of empathy. For one thing, he’s known for hiring very talented people who deliver. Oracle’s annual revenues in 2018 (end of May fiscal year) were $40 billion US. The company has a long list of acquisitions of diverse technology companies.


Would Oracle be better off financially if Ellis had been practicing servant leadership?

A second tough-ass CEO was “Neutron” Jack Welch (pictured below), head of General Electric between 1981 and 2001. Now 82, Welch has been viewed as the catalyst who relentlessly drove GE to streamline its operations by shutting down factories, running lean inventories, de-layering management, and laying off employees. His focus for GE was being number one or two in any market in which it competed. Non-performing managers didn’t last long under Welch. Indeed, he conducted an annual firing of the bottom 10% of underperforming managers.


And it worked – depending on to whom you speak. Welch was a hero to many in the corporate world, yet he still has many detractors who argue that the lifeblood of any organization is its employees, managers and staff. Nuking managers on an annual basis is not the way to lead an organization, according to Welch’s opponents.


Since retiring from GE, Welch has done a number of media interviews, from which he has had to backpedal a few times. For example, in a March 12, 2009 interview with The Financial Times he stated: “On the face of it, shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world. Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy…your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products.”


That comment got a reaction from other CEOs: would Welch have made the same comment when he was in charge of GE? The topic of shareholder value and who are the primary constituents of a corporation continues to be battled out in the business literature.


Jack WelchOne can argue endlessly whether Larry Ellis, Jack Welch and others have taken the correct route in leading their respective companies. In fact, some might say that the role of a corporate CEO is not to engage employees in a collective singing of Kumbaya, but rather to demolish the competition and ensure that the company remains at the forefront. You’re either on the bus or under it, as the popular expression goes.


In fact, let’s look at the issue from an even more global level: China. This country’s dramatically impressive growth rates and steady climb up the value chain in manufacturing has been based on results-based management with little margin for error. The on-the-bus analogy is very apt here.


Many leadership practitioners don’t validate the process of brow-beating subordinate managers and staff, preferring the approach of aligning and enrolling people to work towards a shared vision and common purpose. However, others would accuse them of being softies. The financial results of GE under Welch and Oracle under Ellis are indeed impressive.


As a contrast to the CEO as emperor, let’s look at some other company leaders who have lead successful enterprises using very different people-oriented approaches.
Max Depree (Pictured below), retired CEO and respected leadership author provides a compelling case for a servant-oriented approach to leadership. DePree, who’s written such concise books as Leadership is an Art and Leadership Jazz bases his writings on his real life experiences in running a highly successful company.


His father, D. J. DePree, founded office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller in 1923, purchasing the Michigan Star Company with his father-in-law Herman Miller. Max and his brother, Hugh, began to co-manage in the early 1960s. In the mid 1980s Max took over as CEO, holding that position until 1990. He subsequently launched a career as a highly successful author on leadership. The Max DePree Center for Leadership continues to promote his beliefs and practices.


Max DePree.jpgFrom the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s, Herman Miller was rated as 7th globally in return on investment. However, of particular significance was Max’s emphasis on integrating his beliefs into the company’s culture. The Scanlon Plan, a program that encouraged and rewarded employee participation, was one major outcome.


Herman Miller continues its focus on employee engagement, product quality and customer service through its commitment to operational excellence, which encompasses production systems, employee ownership, innovation and economic value-added. Herman Miller has been ranked as one of Fortune magazine’s most admired companies for the past consecutive 18 years.


Let’s look at a second CEO who has been part of an amazing story in the competitive and volatile airline industry. Southwest Airlines began operations in March 1967, serving just three cities in Texas. During its four year history, the airline has grown to be the world’s largest low-cost carrier, earning repeated accolades along the way for its focus on customer service and its humane treatment of its employees.


The current CEO is Gary C. Kelly, who took on the new role on July 15, 2008. However, Kelly began his career with Southwest in 1986 as comptroller, subsequently working his way up to CEO. It’s not a usual part of a CEO’s job description to dress up in a silly costume for Halloween, but Kelly has a way to inspire fun in the workplace. This is the CEO who makes a point of sitting beside customers and employees on flights to listen to their concerns and flying experiences.


Southwest Airlines has faced the same challenges as other airlines over the years. However, Kelly has resisted layoffs and instead engaged employees on ways to address challenges. Here are a few metrics that underscore the success of Southwest Airlines. First, it had achieved 45 consecutive years of profitability in 2017, ranked #1 in customer satisfaction in 2016 by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and $543 million in employee profit-sharing in 2017. Kelly, himself, has been the recipient of numerous leadership awards, including leading one of America’s top workplaces.


To reach this level of success in what has been described as a dysfunctional industry is extraordinary. It was not done easily, yet Southwest’s formula for success is not a trade secret; it’s about treating employees as human beings and keeping them engaged and aligned towards the corporation’s core purpose.


SouthwestSouthwest Airlines has gained noteworthy attention over the years by the humour its flight crews use as a way to lighten the tension the flying public often has and to make the experience more human (see photo). Here are but just two examples that illustrate this humour. It’s useful to note that some other airlines, including Canadian ones, have tried to replicate this humour, but not as successfully as Southwest. Why? Because employees have to be happy in their work to be funny.


From a Southwest flight attendant who intervened when passengers were taking too long to get seated: “People, people we’re not picking out furniture here, find a seat and get in it!”


During a pre-takeoff safety explanation on the intercom from a flight attendant: “There may be 50 ways to leave your lover, but there are only four ways out of this airplane.”
So what’s the verdict, folks? There are success stories on both sides of the CEO-as-tough-ass versus servant leader issue.


For companies like Southwest Airlines and Herman Miller, they have stood the test of time and continue to remain profitable. It will be interesting to watch how Oracle proceeds into a rapidly changing world of technology. General Electric already has had its ups and downs and faces some big challenges. The recent departure of long-serving CEO Jeffrey Immelt for John Flanery caused some initial positive speculation about the company’s share price and future growth, but that has subsided.


In the end it’s our personal decision where we wish to work. Yes, even in a tough labour market there are times when some soul-searching is needed.


From your own perspective and experiences, where would you prefer to work when it comes to how executive leadership is practiced?


Take a moment and share a comment.


The workplace is an incubator for the human spirit. 
(The late Anita Roddick, Founder of the Body Shop)


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The Leadership VISION Thing

October 7, 2018

Vision

We hear a lot about how important it is to have a vision, whether for an organization or at the individual level. During my three decades with the federal government I was part of numerous vision and mission-building exercises. Similar to those done in the private sector the results were often tepid and short-lived.

This is not surprising since the North American mentality of wanting instant results without sustained commitment, combined with limited attention spans, pervades our organizations.

Simply stated: You get out what you put in. Don’t be surprised if your instant pudding suddenly deflates.

But with this rather pessimistic opening, should we just ditch the “vision thing” and try to cope with the growing avalanche of change?

Absolutely not.

Why?

Because a well-crafted vision, co-created with employees – people – can be an extremely powerful guiding light, enabling an organization to confront major internal and external change events. The analogy is whitewater canoeing (one of my past recreational enjoyments). Entering a river’s rapids without first thinking through what your final destination will be is a fool’s game. The stakes are big – injuries, or even death.

However, if you know where you want to end up and have a plan for contingencies, then your odds for a successful outcome are that much better.
The same with organizations.

Visualize where you want to be and how you will get there, but understand that along the way unanticipated events will undoubtedly occur. However, by co-creating a vision with people, building the capacity for change adaptability and sharing the leadership your organization will be able to successfully tackle any event.

Sure there may be some significant pain and adjustments along the way. But when the organization emerges on the other side of the whitewater INTACT, the hard work and commitment by EVERYONE in the organization will have proved to be an invaluable investment.




No man was ever wise by chance. -
- Seneca


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Ten Leadership Behaviours to Master Turbulent Change

October 1, 2018

Yogi

Baseball great Yogi Berra had his own explanation when his batting wasn’t up to par: 
“I never blame myself when I’m not hitting. I just blame the bat, and if it keeps up I change bats. After all, if I know it isn’t my fault that I’m not hitting, how can I get mad at myself?”

Well, that logic may have worked for Berra but in the real world of global change and organizational upheaval, placing blame on others (or in Berra’s case, an inanimate object) isn’t the most desired solution.

This post presents 10 leadership behaviours to master to help guide you through turbulent change.

Recall for a moment the explosion of protests and demonstrations in the Middle East and North Africa (the Arab Spring) in early 2011. Or the increasing polarized politics in the United States, accompanied by growing fears of the national and state financial debts. Or the country’s growing income equality and the likely future citizens’ uprising.

Or rapid technological developments, whether in social media, telecommunications, manufacturing or bio-technology, with serious implications for employment and changing skill and education needs. And last, globalization’s impact on the distribution of production around the world.

The world is changing—and fast. Read on to learn how you can thrive in a sea of volatile change.


1. Listen Actively:
 As Stephen Covey” states in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” (Habit #5). If you’re not keenly hearing what your customers are saying or signaling, you’ll miss potential business opportunities.

2. Self-initiate: 
Empower yourself by not asking for permission to be creative or to ask unorthodox questions. Be your own idea factory and actively seek out others to share and discuss.

3. Become a Change Master: 
Embrace change and what’s happening in society with enthusiasm. Don’t look in the rearview mirror; look down the highway of change.

4. Be a Sponge for learning: 
Never think, even for a nanosecond, that you’re almost “there” when it comes to knowledge. As humans we “know” but the smallest molecule of all the knowledge generated to the current point in time.

5. Think laterally: 
When you hit the wall when it comes to trying to generate new ideas and solutions for your customers, step back and reflect on the problem through a new lens. I recommend going for a walk in the woods with your canine friend.

6. Bust Barriers: 
Your ideas will drown if you remain trapped in your silo. Blow up the barriers by moving across your organization. Plant seeds with those who seem ready to embrace the new. Find change agents among your colleagues.

7. Be a Trender: 
No, I’m not talking about what’s cool to wear or what music is in. Understand what’s going on in the world (see being a sponge) and try to make sense of it when it comes to your customers.

8. Become a Synthesizer: 
There’s a whole lot of information out there, much of which is either useless or redundant. But there are gold nuggets of exquisite knowledge waiting to be discovered. Learn how to filter out garbage information and distill what’s really important to your business.

9. Be Adaptable: 
This means being open to outcome, not attached to it. Ride the wave of change, both through rough and good times.

10. Expand Your Knowledge and Expertise:
 If you want to be taken seriously by senior management when it comes to introducing ideas that could lead to innovations, it’s vital that you have a strong grasp on your own knowledge and what you bring to the table. Take time to solidify this. Then go for it!

Take some time to reflect on these behaviours.

a) What do they mean for you?

b) How would your career development benefit by mastering these behaviours?

c) Which ones would you prioritize for immediate action?

Back to you Yogi: “If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.


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11 Ways to Succeed at Work During Turbulent Times

September 23, 2018

Storm wave

The past decade has been characterized volatility. A near global financial meltdown in 2008, followed by The Great Recession (the worst economic slowdown since The Great Depression) and anemic recoveries in most Western countries, has also seen the longest continuous bull stock market in history, now in its 10th year. The U.S. and Canadian economies finally gained traction, driving down unemployment. The housing markets have been strong, benefitting from low interest rates.

Major technological advancements in telecommunications, new trading competitors, and rapidly changing geo-political events have contributed to turning the traditional organizational model on its head. That’s not to ignore the virtual disappearance of the sacred employment contract between employers and workers. Job security is now a dinosaur, even in the once-safe public sector. This conflicts with the low (official) unemployment rates, raising concern with central banks (notably Canada) on rising consumer indebtedness.

As the American humorist Will Rogers once said: “It’s not what we don’t know that hurts, it’s what we know that ain’t so.”

This applies aptly to our current economic turmoil and the uncertainty of what’s in store for economies around the world in the months and years to come. The forecasts pre-2008 financial meltdown were naive, and those following The Great Recession were ill founded. And in 2018, there’s no shortage of opinions and predictions from economists, stock and bond market analysts, bankers, and the like.

In short, no one has a clue, especially economists, whose track records are generally miserable.

Storm 2

There are numerous events of which we have no control over. However, there are things we do control. By focusing on these we’ll be able to improve our performance at work, build better relationships with co-workers, and reduce our stress levels. Take a moment to reflect on the following 11 ways to succeed at work.

1. Tell the truth to superiors, to one another and to ourselves.

2. Live our lives with integrity, being consistent with what we say and do at home, at work, and in our communities.

3. Ignore those who attempt to infect us with their cynicism.

4. Take responsibility for our own learning and personal growth.

5. Initiate change at work for the betterment of our organizations.

6. Persevere in making our organizations better places in which to work.

7. Lead balanced lives between work and home.

8. Be inclusive leaders, actively ensuring that others have the opportunity to lead.

9. Be followers, knowing when it is time to move to the side.

10. Celebrate our accomplishments.

And when you fail at any of these elements, don’t forget the 11th one:
 Don’t give up, keep trying.

What would you also add to this list?

To thrive in a world of change and chaos, we will need to accept chaos as an essential process by which natural systems, including organizations, renew and revitalize themselves.
— Kevin McCarey (Leadership and the New Science)


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Climbing Mount Sustainability: Profile in Leadership Excellence

September 16, 2018
ray_anderson
Ray Anderson died on August 8, 2011; however his leadership legacy lives on. In a turbulent period of economic uncertainty, emerging global competitors, and mounting concern over climate change and its impacts on how corporations conduct themselves, Anderson’s vision of a zero carbon footprint from his company should serve as an inspiration to all of us. Read on to learn about the man who was called the planet’s greenest CEO

Society is being inundated with messages, advertisements, celebrity appeals, books, and articles on the need for sustainable, environmental business and consumer practices. Companies espouse the great things they are doing to reduce waste and emissions and to be more corporately responsible. And indeed many firms are doing just that. But there’s also a lot of hype and smoke and mirrors. Trying to distill fact from fiction is not an easy process. But this post takes the upbeat approach, profiling one corporate leader who achieved amazing things over 15 years.

Meet Ray Anderson, former CEO of Interface Inc. Based in Atlanta, Interface is one of the world’s largest interior furnishing companies, with plants in the U.S., Canada, England and Australia.
 
In 1994, company founder and chairman Ray Anderson initiated a process to transform the company using nature as the model. His QUEST process (Quality Utilizing Employee Suggestions and Teamwork) focused on eliminating waste from cost and measuring workers against perfection. For example, it was found that 10% of each sales dollar went to waste. Between 1994 and 2004, Interface calculated that the elimination of waste (“the savings”) represented 28% of its operating income. Back in 2004, Anderson stated that the company was only one third of the way to eliminating waste: “It gets close to doubling your profit if you can eliminate waste.”

Anderson and his management team were inspired by Janine Benyus’s book Biomimicry. The manager of product development was so inspired that he took his design team into the forest to study nature to determine how floor covering could be produced using nature’s design principles. The outcome was new flooring, which when installed has virtually no waste since cut pieces are reintegrated.

Everything stays in the flow, the material loop. All of that is basically emulating nature in an industrial system, and that remains our goal,” asserts Anderson. One of Interface’s measures is carbon intensity, the amount of petroleum removed from the earth and then processed through the supply chain to yield one dollar of revenue. The company’s carbon intensity fell by one third over nine years, and it closed 39% of its smokestacks and 55% of its effluent pipes. This was achieved by such means as eliminating certain processes or redesigning others to produce a waste-free, emission-free, effluent-free production line.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Anderson talked about climbing Mount Sustainability in Interface’s pursuit of sustainability. Understanding how to climb each of the seven “faces” to the peak will yield a zero environmental footprint. The faces are:

1) Eliminate waste: eliminate all forms of waste throughout the business
2) Benign emissions: eliminate toxic substances from products, vehicles and facilities
3) Renewable energy: use all forms e.g., solar, wind, landfill gas, geothermal, biomass
4) Closing the loop: redesign processes and products using recovered and bio-based materials
5) Resource-efficient transportation: transport people and products efficiently to reduce waste
6) Sensitizing stakeholders: integrate sustainability principles to improve people’s lives
7) Redesign commerce: create a business model that supports sustainability-based commerce

Although Interface made significant progress over the years, Anderson had to work diligently at transforming the company’s corporate culture and ensuring that new employees share his vision. One major benefit Interface experienced is that it became a “magnet” for attracting talented people as word spread about the company, a notable occurrence in an industry with a poor reputation.

The focus and attention that Anderson devoted to his quest is indicative of a leader who knew how to achieve remarkable results. The competencies he used to effect lasting change were not unique to just the corporate world but in fact very relevant to the political world. Ray Anderson’s story should be an inspiration to those leaders who wish to demonstrate their companies’ social and environmental responsibility, yet also ensure their long-term economic viability.

The status quo is a very powerful opiate and when you have a system that seems to be working and producing profits by the conventional way of accounting for profits, it’s very hard to make yourself change. But we all know that change is an inevitable part of business. Once you have ridden a wave just so far, you have to get another wave. We all know that. For us, becoming restorative has been that new wave and we have been riding it for 13 years now. It’s been incredibly good for business.

-
- Ray Anderson


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Leadership and Innovation: Bridging the Gap

September 9, 2018

Human Bridge.jpg

The word ‘leadership’ is used so loosely in everyday speech that it’s in danger of becoming a superfluous term. Within organizations – public and private – not only is it used to excess but this trend is undermining what leadership is intended to accomplish.

This is most unfortunate because the organizational turbulence we are witnessing as a result of gyrations in financial markets, technological advancement, emerging markets, geo-political events, and global competition is calling for enhanced leadership.

However, implicit in this calling is an urgent need for much greater clarity on what our collective expectations are regarding leadership and how it should be practiced in organizations.

In her earlier book The Female Advantage (inspired by the early work of McGill University management guru Henry Mintzberg), Sally Helgesen succinctly sums up the issue: “…our continued habit of linking leadership with position signals, our inability to grasp how organizations are changing….in the future, our ideas about the nature of leadership will undergo a radical transformation.”

What this new leadership will look like and what qualities it will embody are important issues. However, Helgesen also emphasizes that organizations that address how power is distributed will have moved forward in creating leadership at all levels.

The nub of the issue is how leadership is distributed (or shared) within organizations. The paradigm shift they face is transcending how they have operated in the past, whether producing goods or services, and how they’ll adapt to new competitive global forces. It was Albert Einstein who once said: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”

A second word that is overly used is innovation. Definitions abound in the literature, and I won’t attempt to introduce one here. It is fairly intuitive that if companies wish to succeed in a competitive world and if they wish to be around for the long term that they must strive continuously to improve their products or services, eliminate those that no longer serve a purpose, adjust their internal processes, invest in new technologies, and develop their employees – or what economists call human capital stock.

Gap.jpg

The practice of leadership within organizations and the linkage to innovation has probably never been as critical as it is now. As mentioned above, the gyrations being felt are exerting increased pressure on those in the top leadership positions of companies.

Management strategist Gary Hamel is quite helpful here. He speaks to an agenda for management innovation, noting that three major challenges confront firms in the global competitive environment:

a) creating a faster pace of renewal,

b) embedding innovation throughout the company,

c) fostering a participative work setting to bring out the best in employees.

This calls into play leadership, and one aspect is that managers need to learn how to function as innovators, and not just their staff. Management innovation, therefore, is about changing how managers “…do what they do.” It is a “…marked departure from traditional management principles, processes, and practices, or from customary organizational forms that significantly alters the way the work of management is performed.”

To ensure that a management innovation has a lasting effect, Hamel specifies three necessary conditions:

1) The innovation is founded upon a new principle that challenges the status quo; the more unconventional the principle, the longer it will take competitors to adjust,

2) It comprises a range of processes and techniques,

3) It is part of a continuous process of innovation and improvement.

Recognizing that innovation occurs throughout organizations, but that one of senior leadership’s strategic roles is to create the environment for this to happen, requires that leadership also needs to be distributed at all levels. When people see that the right conditions are being created to encourage innovation they will move forward by empowering themselves to makes things happen. The gap between leadership and innovation will then start to close.

When all think alike, then no one is thinking. -
- Walter Lippman


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Leadership Lessons from a US Navy Commander

September 3, 2018

USS_Benfold.jpg

The unrelenting litany of negative news stories about the economy and the impacts on companies of all sizes makes for depressing reading. Adding to this are the stories on greedy and inept CEOs who have lead their firms into oblivion. Witness media stories of job outsourcing to far-away countries to then learn of factory collapses where people worked for a few dollars a day making clothing for well-off Westerners. Indeed, millions of Chinese workers have lost their jobs as work as been outsourced to even lower wage countries.

Here’s a good news story to share, one that’s inspirational and that sets the benchmark to which corporate leaders should aspire. The story’s about an incredible leader who served in the U.S. Navy. He’s been retired for many years and speaks publicly on his leadership experiences. Meet Mike Abrashoff.

After you read his Six Leadership Principles, reflect on what they mean to you and how you may wish to adapt them to your own workplace.

Commander Abrashoff lead 300 sailors on the USS Benfold, a one billion dollar high-tech destroyer that had the reputation as being one of the weakest performers in the U.S. Navy. But Abrashoff was not your ordinary navy commander, or typical managerial leader for that matter. He earned accolades from numerous sources for his down-to-earth yet firm leadership in a work environment that demanded the best from everyone. Through his efforts, the USS Benfold was transformed into the Navy’s best performing ship.

He constantly challenged his crew to explore better ways of doing their work and ways to save money. He believed fervently that the more that people could make a difference in their work and enjoy it along the way, the results would show it. In 1998, for example, his ship returned $600,000 of its $3 million repair budget. In contrast to the average of 54% of sailors staying in the U.S. Navy following their first tour of duty, 100% of Abrashoff’s people signed on for another tour.

How did Commander Abrashoff do it? And what set him apart from other leaders? Here are his six principles that made the USS Benfold an example of shared leadership.

1. Leaders listen without prejudice.

Abrashoff kept an open mind with his crew, encouraging them to make the ship a better place in which to live and work. One example was his agreeing to replace every nut and bolt on the ship with stainless steel ones. The result was that the sailors no longer had to spend countless hours sanding and painting. The high tech paint process for the new nuts and bolts cost only $25,000 at the time, which was good for 25 years.

2. Don’t just take command, communicate purpose.

To get his crew to contribute in a meaningful way, Abrashoff helped them to understand who they were and connected this knowledge to purpose. He spent time with each new crew member. He got to know each sailor’s family situation, their personal goals (both within and outside the navy), and what he could do to help them in their work and with their larger aim in life.

3. Practice discipline without formalism.

Abrashoff stated: “Anyone on the ship will tell you that I’m a low maintenance CO. It’s not about me, it’s about my crew.” His crew were up front with him, telling him the truth. Moreover, crew members didn’t wait to be told to do something. They just did it. As he expressed: “When people who do the work know that they – not the manual or the policy – have the last word, you get real innovation in every area.”

4. The best captains hand out responsibility, not order.

Abrashoff set priorities when he took command of the USS Benfold. After addressing the issue of food quality, he then tackled training junior officers. His thinking was that he needed to prepare these officers to assume more senior leadership positions in the future. As he put it: “If all you do is give orders, then all you’ll get are order takers.”

5. Successful crews perform with devotion.

A key element of a leader’s job is to create an atmosphere in which people not just perform well but want to perform well. Abrashoff introduced a welcoming program for new crew members. This included being paired up with an experienced crew member who showed the new member the ropes; an internet account to keep in touch with family, and a free phone call home. He believed that quality of life was very important for his crew.

6. True change is permanent.

A naval ship takes on the personality of its commander. Abrashoff’s view was that once you start change, you can’t stop it. He explained: “The people on this ship know that they are part owners of this organization. They know what results they get when they play an active role. And they now have the courage to raise their hands and to get heard. That’s almost irreversible.”

Companies in North America are under constant stress from global competition. Leadership will play an ever-more important role in renewing companies and helping position them to strengthen their competitiveness through innovation, enhanced productivity, and people development.

Commander Abrashoff’s six leadership principles are well worth considering for inclusion in any corporate change initiatives and leadership strategies.


Leadership is mostly the art of doing simple things very well.


— Commander Mike Abrashoff


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