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Leadership Lessons from a US Navy Commander

September 3, 2018


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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