It’s your ship

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The moment I heard about the remarkable turnaround of the USS Benfold under the guidance of Captain D. Michael Abrashoff, I looked forward to reading his leadership book, It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy.

As a Naval Reserve officer as well as publisher of a trucking magazine, I am always looking for better ways to inspire employees and improve management. From that perspective, Abrashoff’s story is remarkable. He took a ship full of sailors with morale so low they cheered when their former captain left the ship and transformed it into a model of leadership that won the coveted Spokane Trophy for combat readiness. His book offers principles relevant to anyone responsible for guiding a company through turbulent waters.

Are you part of the problem? Abrashoff says he examined his own preconceptions and looked inward when faced with problems. Leading by example, he asks himself whether he gave them enough training, resources and information to be successful. Eighty percent of the time the problem was his.

Is this the best way? Just because it’s the old way doesn’t mean it meets the needs of today’s business climate. Question every procedure.

View failure as a learning experience. Abrashoff believes in working with each crew member to bring them up to speed.

Don’t kill the messenger. Nobody wants to hear or deliver bad news, but don’t encourage people to bring you only good news. Value the employee willing to bring you the bad news. Honest information is the only path to good decisions.

Retention means redemption. Much like our own driver shortage, the Navy has a tough time retaining sailors. Abrashoff believes in redeeming his crew one at a time by instilling trust and empowering individuals to make a difference. He had to change his own way of leading to help his people grow.

Promote risk takers. Don’t create a culture where only those who never make mistakes are promoted. Abrashoff didn’t like to make the same mistake twice, but he implemented new programs that required risk. If they failed, he learned from the mistake.

Abrashoff’s leadership guidelines place a premium on simplicity and consistency. “The most important thing a captain can do is to see the ship from the eyes of the crew,” he says. It’s a philosophy I plan to adopt at once.