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Lessons in Leadership From Michael D. Abrashoff’s It’s Your Ship, Book Review Example

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Book Review

In the book It’s our Ship, Capt. Michael D. Abrashoff of the U.S. Navy offers a memoir of his experiences as the commander of the U.S.S. Benfold, and describes how he helped right the capsized organizational culture that existed on the ship prior to his assumption of command. Although Abrashoff is speaking of his experience as a military leader, he rightly notes that most of what he came to understand about leadership in that context is relevant and applicable for anyone in a similar position. It’s Your Ship is more than just a memoir, it is also a guidebook for anyone who finds him- or herself at the helm of an organization that is not performing at peak efficiency and productivity. Abrashoff shares a range of anecdotes and personal insights that are both entertaining and enlightening, and this book would likely prove valuable to anyone interested in understanding what makes a true leader.

Introduction

In the book’s introduction, Abrashoff discusses the context in which he took over command of the Benfold; the Navy’s attrition rate was at 35% for first-time recruits, and most who did complete their initial enlistment contract did not reenlist. Abrashoff notes that at the time it cost roughly $35,000 to recruit a new trainee and thousands more to prepare him or her for roles in the Navy; if many of these young men and women were not going to make it through their first few years, and many more were going to leave after their initial enlistment period, this was money that was not well-spent. With a budget of hundreds of billions of dollars annually, the Navy was, as Abrashoff saw it, often not getting value for its money, nor was it getting the best out of its people. As the commander of the Benfold, Abrashoff became determined to do something about that, at least on his ship.

After the initial introduction, Abrashoff turns to a discussion about his ideas about leadership.  He asserts that the majority of those who depart from an organization do so because they are really leaving their manager; moreover, he sees the role of the manager, and the manager’s needs within an organizational structure as one of the three primary variables that will determine whether an organization is successful. The other two variables are the organizational culture –or “atmosphere”- along with the competence of the crew. Although Abrashoff speaks I terms of “crew” throughout the book (and understandably so) it is clear from the outset that terms such as “crew members” and “employees” are completely interchangeable; Abrashoff’s book is, after all, intended to serve as a template for all forms of organizational leadership and management.

Abrashoff asserts that his goal is to get the most out of his crew, and to spur their enthusiasm for making the ship function at the highest possible level. Abrashoff believes in generating enthusiasm among his crew; an enthusiastic crew will try to perform at its best. Abrashoff describes the structure of his book, pointing out that each chapter is built around a particular idea or concept he learned about leadership during his time on the Benfold. He encourages leaders to take risks and “go out on a limb” to improve their organization, and to be assertive about this role; all of which feeds directly into the theme and title of the first chapter.

Take Command

            Abrashoff begins this chapter by discussing the dysfunctional environment he inherited when he took over the Benfold. As a new commander he studied the attrition rates of crew members in an effort to determine what it was that kept so many from reenlisting. To his surprise, the rate of pay was far down the list of things that crew members identified as being the cause of their departure. Most pointed out that they were dissatisfied with the way they were treated, and did not feel respected. Abrashoff found that this was also a common factor in civilian organizations. He realized that job satisfaction in any context was directly tied to feeling respected and valuable to an organization. Abrashoff had no ability to offer raises, but he realized that he could improve the other areas that crew members were dissatisfied in, and decided to work on those issues.

Abrashoff decided that it was necessary to see the ship through the eyes of his crew members. He also needed to make each crew member feel empowered and to give each of them a sense of responsibility for their role in the organization and for the overall ship. It was up to him to establish the parameters and boundaries in which each crew member could operate and then set them free to perform their duties. He wanted crew members to unleash their potential, and was determined to establish an environment that allowed them to do that.

Lead by Example

Abrashoff quickly realized that he could not lead simply by telling his crew members what to do. It was up to him to understand not just his role as a leader, but to understand the roles of each crew member and to give them the resources and freedom to perform their functions effectively. Abrashoff decided to ask himself three questions whenever he did not see the results he hoped for or expected from a crew member or situation:

  1. Did I clearly articulate the goals?
  2. Did I give people enough time and resources to accomplish the task?
  3. Did I give them enough training?

If the answer to any of these questions was “no,” Abrashoff realized, then the failure was as much his as it was the crew members’ or the organizations. As he put it, he realized that whenever a problem arose, it was likely that he was a part of the problem. The idea of empowering his crew members to take responsibility for their actions also meant that he had to take responsibility for his role as a leader. He offered a set of guidelines and advice to himself about leadership, reminding himself not to forget his effect on people, to consider the consequences if his actions were held up  to public scrutiny, and to keep in mind the importance of following orders and respecting the chain of command. If he did these things he could more readily expect his crew to do the same.

Listen Aggressively

In this chapter Abrashoff discusses the importance of listening to, and really hearing, what his crew has to say. It is important that leaders are able to see their organizations through the eyes of their employees (or in Abrashoff’s case, their crew), and the only way to do this is through effective communication. Abrashoff makes it clear that a leader must keep the lines of communication open with those he or she leads, and this “aggressive listening” ensures that leaders will understand where their crew or employees are coming from.

Communicate Purpose and Meaning

Although Abrashoff articulates the importance of open communication between leaders and those they lead, he does not forget that the role of leader still comes with certain responsibilities. A leader must effectively communicate tom his or her crew what the overall goals are for the organization, as well s making it clear what expectations the leader has for each individual crew member. By establishing a common goal, the leader inspires each crew member to do his or her part in reaching that goal. Abrashoff believes in sending out messages to the crew that inspire enthusiasm and confidence, in order to prompt each crew member to work as hard as possible to attain the organization’s goals. This belief in optimism inspired Abrashoff to try to instill a sense of optimism in each crew member.

Again, Abrashoff emphasizes the importance of keeping the lines of communication open, asserting that if a line of communication is clogged, a leader must unclog it. It is important that each member of his crew understand that the communication between crew members and leadership is genuine and effective, or they will not attempt to utilize these lines of communication. Abrashoff made it clear that he willing to accept criticism, and this made his crew members more willing to be open and honest, and to also accept criticism when they fell short.

Create a Climate of Trust

            Again Abrashoff emphasizes the importance of setting up the conditions for success then getting out of the way so each member of the crew can succeed. The climate of trust is a part of that, however, as crew members must be willing to take risks and to push themselves while knowing that if they make mistakes it is not the end of the world. Abrashoff believes it is important to let crew members know that if they “screw up” it is still possible to redeem themselves, and that their leadership will not abandon them. Abrashoff also asserts that leaders must welcome bad news, as such news does not improve with age. Although he seeks to empower his crew to deal with problems on their own, he also trains them to recognize when a problem must be brought to the attention of leadership. As long as crew members are doing their best and trying to help the organization meet its common goals, it is important for them to understand that they can bring both good news and bad news to their leadership.

Look for Results, Not Salutes

Abrashoff recognizes the significance of tradition, rules, and regulations in the Navy. At the same time, however, he does not want protocol to get in the way of effective communication or of his crew members’ abilities to do their jobs. He wants his crew to “feel free to speak up” and not be nervous about the differences in rank that might otherwise cause a crew member to remain silent even when a problem arose. Abrashoff recommends getting away from an approach that leans to heavily on a top-down structure. Rather than have a crew member carry out a duty or perform a function simply because he or she was ordered to do so, Abrashoff believes that education and teaching is an important component of leadership, so that crew members understand the significance and importance of their tasks and their role in the organization.

Take Calculated Risks

This may be one of the most challenging positions a leader can take in the context of a military organization. After all, the Navy has strict rules and codes of conduct, and this creates a culture that is much more about following orders than it is about taking risks. As Abrashoff notes, some organizations –such as the military- often only promote those who have never made mistakes. Those who have never made mistakes have never take any risks, however, and Abrashoff values those who are willing to try new things, even at the risk of failure. It is here that the greatest successes in life are found, and Abrashoff encourages the development of an organizational culture that allows crew members to try new ideas.

 

Go Beyond Standard Procedure

In keeping with the theme of the previous chapter, Abrashoff discusses how Standard Operating Procedure dominates the military organizational culture. Abrashoff does not wish to do away with SOP in most instances; after all, these SOPs were developed because they achieved positive, repeatable results. At the same time, strict adherence to SOP does not leave much room for innovation or the development of new ideas. It is always possible that a particular procedure or function could be improved upon, but without the willingness to go beyond standard procedure, such improvements will never be discovered. Abrashoff encourages leaders to create an environment where a measure of risk-taking is allowed and encouraged as a means of driving innovation. Any organization that does not innovate will become stagnant, and as Abrashoff sees it the Navy is no different.

Build Up Your People

This is one of the most important chapters in the book, as the information in it directly supports Abrashoff’s main thesis about giving crew members all the tools they will need for success and then setting them free to succeed. There are a number of ways, both formal and informal, that leaders can “build up” their people. In the informal sense, it is important for leaders to praise their crew members when they perform well, come up with new ideas, or otherwise meet and exceed the expectations set for them. Abrashoff notes that everyone likes to receive praise when it is genuinely earned. It is also clear that the dysfunctional ship he first inherited had crew members who did not feel valued and respected; in turn, they did not offer respect to their leadership.

As Abrashoff continued to unclog the lines of communication, and develop an atmosphere off respect and cordiality, he found that the crew members became more willing to open up to him and discuss problems or issues more openly. This set up a cycle that made communication on the ship increasingly friendly, open, and positive. In such an environment, Abrashoff believes, it is much easier to identify and solve problems, as well as to identify those things that work well and continue to support them. Although it is possible for leaders to communicate through email and other electronic media, Abrashoff emphasizes the importance of personal, face-to-face communication.

It is important to trust each member of the crew. When crew members feel that they have been given the tools they need to perform their jobs, and that leadership trusts them to do those jobs well, it inspires them to perform to the peak of their abilities. Abrashoff stresses the importance of setting high goals for crew members, and for expecting them to perform well. It is necessary to have high expectations of the crew if that crew is actually going to perform well. A leader who has low expectations of his or her crew will get exactly what he or she expects. As he continues to emphasize, it is necessary for a leader to provide the atmosphere in which the crew can succeed and then get out of the way of that success.

The same sort of respect that Abrashoff shows his crew members is offered to his superiors. Abrashoff sees himself as a team player, one who is willing to carry out the orders of his commanding officers with enthusiasm and respect. This is another way in which Abrashoff leads by example. He does not “suck up” to his bosses, but he does do his best to meet and exceed their expectations, just as he expects his crew members to do. In this way Abrashoff continues to foster the kind of environment that promotes success at every level.

Generate Unity

It is important to empower each member of the team to do his or her best, but it is also imperative that the individual members of the team be able to work together effectively. Abrashoff promotes the notion that leaders encourage should encourage organizational unity, and suggests that they “forget diversity, train for unity.” No one, including the leadership of an organization, is exactly equal to anyone else. Rather than try too hard to put everyone on a level playing field, Abrashoff suggests that leaders indentify the individual strengths of their crew members, and develop organizational structures that play to these strengths.

Improve Your People’s Quality of Life

It is imperative that an effective leader creates a positive organizational environment that will help to support all of his or her other efforts to get the most out of a crew. On a Naval ship, Abrashoff notes, that begins with providing the crew with good food. This is just an example, of course, as not every organization is going to feed its employees. It does make the point, however, that a positive environment, where crew members enjoy working, will get the best performances from them. It will underpin productivity and promote organizational unity. This does not mean that a leader should coddle or spoil his or her crew, of course; it simply means that an organizational environment that is pleasant to work in will inspire crew members to do all of the other things Abrashoff discussed, such as keeping lines of communication open, learning how to improve one’s own performance, exceeding expectations, and all the other points made in the book.

 Life after Benfold

In this final chapter Abrashoff considers the matter of his legacy and impact on the organizational environment aboard the U.S.S. Benfold.  The only way to truly measure the impact that any leader has had on the legacy or environment of an organization is to take that measurement after that leader has left the organization. That way it is possible to see what lasting effects remain from the departed leader. It seems clear that Abrashoff had a lasting effect on the organizational culture he inherited on the Benfold, and this book attests to the methods and ideals that guided him as the ship’s leader. The book’s title says everything readers need to know about Abrashoff’s approach to leadership: he could be speaking directly to each crew member, encouraging them to take ownership of their own success. This philosophy served Abrashoff well, and it is a powerful message for those who wish to understand what it takes to make a great leader.

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