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It's Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy

by Phil Dourado May 24, 2012
It's Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy

Up from the Hub archives. Originally published 2007

Here’s a true leader tale from Captain D. Michael Abrashoff, who turned around a poor-performing ship, USS Benfold, to make it, according to a number of measures, ‘the best damn ship in the navy’. That phrase became the strap line that Benfold sailors used to describe their own ship. And it became the title of his book, which is the best leadership book I have ever read: It's Your Ship - Management Techniques From The Best Damn Ship In The Navy

I love this book because Abrashoff achieved in seven months what it would take you three years of more to achieve if you plodded your way through Professor John Kotter's seven-step framework for leading big change, or any of the other MBA/management-inspired change frameworks. What's more, you wouldn't be sure of achieving (even in a timescale of years) with those heavyweights frameworks what this real, practising leader, achieved in just months in terms of business performance, using his gut instinct.

Here's a story from the book to show how he started turning the organization around:

“On Sunday afternoons, we had cookouts on the aft flight deck…One Sunday early in my command, I went back to observe. A long line of sailors stood waiting to get their lunch. My officers would cut to the head of the line to get their food, and then go up to the next deck to eat by themselves. The officers weren’t bad people; they just didn’t know any different. It’s always been that way.

When I saw this, I decided to go to the end of the line. The officers were looking down, curious. They elected the supply officer to come talk to me.

‘Captain’, he said, looking worried, ‘you don’t understand. You go to the head of the line.’

‘That’s okay,’ I said…

I stood in line and got my food. Then I stayed on the lower deck and ate with the sailors. The officers became totally alert. You could almost hear the gears shifting in their heads.

The next weekend we had another cookout and, without my saying a word to anyone (author’s note: my emphasis), the officers went to the end of the line. When they got their lunch, they stayed on the lower level and mingled with the sailors.

Given the Navy’s basically classist society, to say that the fraternal scene on the flight deck was unusual would be an understatement. To me, it felt right…

As captain I was charged with enforcing 225 years of accumulated Navy regulations, policies, and procedures. But every last one was up for negotiation whenever my people came up with better ways of doing things…

To facilitate that I had to encourage the crew to take initiative - and make sure the officers welcomed it. And that meant they would have to get to know one another as people. They would have to respect one another, and from that would come trust.”

SOURCE & FURTHER READING

It’s Your Ship, Management techniques from the best damn ship in the navy, by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff, an instinctive, largely self-taught leader. This book is packed full of practical lessons for challenging hierarchy and improving performance through inspired leadership.