Leadership Lessons From the Navy

Imagine leadership in the military in your mind’s eye. I would wager that most of us would come up with the many of the same images of stoic heroism, courage under fire, sacrifice, valor and loyalty. Can’t you picture the soldier staring off into the distance, probably alone, with a look of resolve? Gritted teeth in battle? The inspirational speech before the attack, imbuing the troops with confidence and courage? These images are familiar and make sense in many ways. They have been with us for centuries. Again and again, certain kinds of leadership traits are celebrated in the arts, movies and popular culture. Leadership, though, can take many forms. We know this, too, from our day to day. We see leadership in our colleagues, at the supermarket, in sports and at work. Leadership in the military can appear in many different guises as well. In today’s highly technical, interdependent armed forces, communication and trust can be as essential as steely resolve.

Former U.S. Navy Captain D. Michael Abrashoff has much to say about leadership, both military and civilian, in his accessible and popular book, It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy. It is an engaging read, one that will have you thinking differently about what might make for good leadership. The lessons Abrashoff imparts have relevance for many sectors, too. Its about much more than the navy.

Abrashoff took charge of the USS Benfold at the age of thirty-six. That’s young for such an important post. The Benfold is a destroyer with more than 300 service men and women assigned to it. Under Abrashoff’s command the ship, which was poorly rated, became one of the best performing in the navy. Abrashoff did not make these great gains though a wholesale change of crew. He did it through thoughtful leadership, working a variety of methods to empower the crew. His efforts were extraordinarily successful.

After his military career, Abrashoff became a leadership coach, author and consultant. His passion is studying and developing leadership. Abrashoff knows of what he writes. What he did and why on the Benfold is the focus of the book. Big picture, the approach is simple: emphasize commitment and cohesion. He argues that focusing on these can be more effective than traditional command and control leadership. As we learn in the book, actually implementing that kind of shift can be very challenging.

When given the assignment, Abrashoff was intentional from his very first interactions with the USS Benfold’s crew. He made a commitment to be an aggressive listener. Pushing to hear from as many crew members as possible, Abrashoff welcomed input, feedback and information. That commitment entailed hearing opinions and criticism, too. Abrashoff made it a point to never blame the messenger for negative information. His discipline as a leader built trust and improved communication. It was clear to the crew, too, of how he led: with purpose and by example.

As Abrashoff learned more about the strengths and weaknesses of the crew, he made sure that his team was aware that he supported them and that he held them to high expectations. This did not happen overnight. When there were successes, Abrashoff regularly pushed the ship to go above and beyond, building on what worked. Abrashoff embraced data, which he made sure was widely shared. He considered and even implemented ideas from less senior crew members. Small changes led to more small changes, some of which were successful, which provided an environment for more substantive changes. In other words a virtuous cycle of information sharing and evaluation steadily took over the USS Benfold.

Abrashoff built greater trust through responsibility. He owned problems personally. This sometimes meant bucking established Navy protocol. Growing into his role, Abrashoff made hard decisions, some critiqued on the ship and some within the Navy, when he was confident that they were the right way to proceed. Abrashoff’s vision was to change culture, bringing out the best in his crew.

It’s Your Ship does not offer one set of actions that would make one an effective leader. Instead, it provides a mindset, multiple examples, techniques and guides that explain how the right mindset to leadership is perhaps the most valuable tool in a leader’s toolbox. Furthermore, the book shows that aligning that mindset with an understanding and appreciation of what culture will lead to the best results. It’s Your Ship is more about approach than a recipe book.

While it is not Abrashoff’s focus, the book also offers fascinating insights into Navy policy, practice and culture. For example, I had no idea that one the of requirements of good Navy leadership is budgeting. Each ship has a budget that a captain manages. Abrashoff gives several examples of when he was able to save money and redirect it to support his priorities. The book offers insight in to competition within the navy and how it shapes careers and practice. In the absence of out and out conflict, competition through all manner of activities, evaluations and programs is an essential tool to keep teams prepared and sharp. Abrashoff shares good anecdotes about how data was collected (or not), how shore visits and repairs are arranged, and much more.

Abrashoff’s book and follow up work will resonate in businesses and all manner of organizations. He is a attentive scholar of leadership, a strong communicator, and a values driven leader. Moreover, there is absolutely no doubt that he must have been an amazingly effective captain. With that in mind, let us rethink our military leadership cliches and perhaps include caring listener among those essential traits.

David Potash

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