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Work Hard, Play Hard: Leadership Lessons to Redefine Your Thinking

August 28, 2011
Updated January 20, 2015

I remember hearing about an incredible leader in the U.S. Navy over a decade ago. This guy was a mere commander, in charge of 310 sailors on a new guided missile destroyer, yet he radically changed many Navy policies and practices during his command. He may have been a middle manager in the context of the U.S. Navy, but he acted like an admiral.

Meet retired Captain Michael Abrashoff, co-founder of GLS Worldwide, a leadership consultancy, and the author of the excellent book It’s Your Ship.

Abrashoff’s book is built on the lessons he learned while commanding the USS Benfold from June 1997 to February 1999. Each chapter contains a core lesson, which is reinforced by anecdotes and stories he shares from his experiences. This post lists these messages, including highlights of some noteworthy experiences.

An important point to emphasize is the sustained courage that Abrashoff showed in a male-dominated military culture dating back a few centuries. The U.S. Navy is massive and far-reaching globally, with a deep and intricately layered management system. One could argue that pushing back against such a system is a fool’s game; breaking rules is suicidal.

When Abrashoff took command of the USS Benfold (named after a heroic Navy hospital corpsman who sacrificed himself in combat during the Korean War), he was in charge of a new ship with huge morale and performance problems. His philosophy on leadership was about co-creation, where everyone on the ship needed to contribute and that there were always better ways to get work done.

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.
– Michael Abrashoff

Because food is such an important mainstay in the Armed Forces, Abrashoff used the ship’s budget to purchase civilian food which was not only much better quality than contractor grade, but also cheaper. He sent his cooks to culinary school.

In the case of the sailor who can slept in while in port and who missed the departure of the Benfold, it would have been easy to throw the book at the young man. However, Abrashoff questioned him and learned of the reason. Yes, the sailor was still punished, but not in a way to ruin his career. Indeed, he later excelled at his trade.

The same story applied to a racial incident that involved a fight. The knee jerk reaction would have been to bring down the hammer. Abrashoff, breaking off from tradition, dealt with the situation sternly but fairly. Both sailors proved themselves to the commander in the following months by being tops at their trades.

What Captain Abrashoff is telling us is that we’re all human. People have to own their behaviors and deal with the consequences. However, each us deserves the opportunity to explain our actions and to make amends.

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.
– M.A.

Probably everyone knows that sailors do a lot of painting while at sea or in port. One sailor reminded Commander Abrashoff that the USS Benfold was being painted six times a year. He suggested that using stainless steel bolts, instead of ferrous ones, would eliminate rusting. A simple solution.

Another story he shares is his decision to purchase civilian Gortex jackets for every crew member. Not only were they waterproof and warmer than Navy issue, but cheaper. While in port, sailors on another ship coveted the jackets of the USS Benfold crew. Their commanding officer learned of this, and being Abrashoff’s senior he ordered him to have his sailors remove the jackets. Abrashoff refused, challenging the more senior officer to file a complaint. The issue ended there, in the harbor.

In yet another instance Abrashoff ordered his non-commissioned officers in charge of supplies to purchase 100 cases of beer. Alcohol is forbidden on ships, and Abrashoff’s subordinates were beside themselves in angst. They stonewalled until Abrashoff very clearly told them to get the beer immediately and to lock it up.

Fast forward to when the USS Benfold was in port, but for reasons of Abrashoff’s lower seniority his sailors were not allowed to go to shore to party. A storm struck, ending the party that other sailors were to have enjoyed. The next night the sailors saw a barge pulled adjacent to the Benfold. The 100 cases of beer, boomboxes, etc. were sent over to the barge where the Benfold’s crew had a wonderful time.

Creative events similar to this became the norm, such as Jazz night once a week on the ship.

“Technology is only a facilitator. The people operating the equipment are what gives us the fighting edge, and we [U.S. Navy] seemed to have lost our way when it came to helping them grow.”
– M.A.

This book is enjoyable and hugely informative reading. Leadership lessons permeate it. In closing, I’d like to share Mike Abrashoff’s main lessons, each of which stands as a chapter. Pick up a copy. You’ll savor every page.

1. Take command
2. Lead by example
3. Listen aggressively
4. Communicate purpose and meaning
5. Create a climate of trust
6. Look for results, not salutes
7. Take calculated risks
8. Go beyond standard procedure
9. Build up your people
10. Generate unity
11. Improve your people’s quality of life

Take a moment to watch this video of Mike Abrashoff.


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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 29, 2011 1:28 pm

    I’ve had the pleasure of listening to Mike speak and have had the chance to chat with him for a bit. He is a very genuine guy in person – no pretense. The guy on the pages is the guy you meet.

    One of my favorite stories –

    He told about a pump that was down in the bowels of the ship that was critical to their operational status. If that pump was down, then the whole ship was down. Unfortunately, this pump was very tempermental. And, of course, there was only one sailor on the whole crew who really understood the mechanics of this pump and knew how to keep it going.

    So, who was the one guy on the whole ship that Mike checked in on every day? Even though it meant climbing down into the depths of the ship every time…

    I believe the lesson is this: don’t waste your energy on things that seem important, but don’t actually accomplish anything – focus on those small things hidden down in the dark that are easily ignored; the ones that can bring your whole operation to a halt.

  2. August 29, 2011 12:47 am

    I think this is one of your best posts ever!

    Speaking as a teacher, I see that this commander had all the qualites of a good teacher, particularly in treating each man as an individual and bringing out each man’s best potential.

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