It’s Your Ship | Book Review


We remember stories. Captain D. Michael Abrashoff narrates his inspiring command journey, via the USS Benfold, defining and aligning (via his actions) with his Personal Leadership Philosophy (PLP) using effective techniques similar to those in several Academy Leadership workshops.


During assignments prior to commanding Benfold, Abrashoff detected leadership shortcomings similar to civilian observations, such as a Gallup study, which found that when people leave their companies, 65 percent of them are actually leaving their managers (p. 3).

Abrashoff deduced that leadership effectiveness depends on three variables: the leader’s needs, the organization’s atmosphere, and the crew’s potential competence (p. 3). As our Energize2Lead (E2L) profiles teach us, real leadership is about understanding oneself first, then creating a superb organization (p. 4). He didn’t fire or replace anyone, rather he tapped the potential that had never been recognized (p. 5), ultimately realizing “The more control I gave up, the more command I got (p. 6),” hence the delegation-based title It’s Your Ship (p. 6).

In business, as in the Navy, there is a general understanding that “they” don’t want rules to be questioned or challenged. For employees, the “they” is the managers; for managers, the “they” is the executive cadre…

“They” is “us.” (p. 7)

By the end of the book, Abrashoff reveals his own growth (p. 217), learning to celebrate his successor “Good for him.” He came to understand the greatest satisfaction comes from helping others reach their potential (p. 217), that the managerial role has changed from order-taker to people-developer, from authoritarian boss to talent cultivator (pp. 218-219), that victory will go to, as it did then, to the forces with the greatest horizontal leadership, the ones imbued with small-unit daring and initiative.

Management and Leadership

Dr. William Perry served as mentor and inspiration for Abrashoff. On page 33 Abrashoff realizes the difference between individual contribution and real leadership, and that some never make this jump, especially when unable to delegate technical details. Or, that he had learned to think like his bosses (p. 36); that his job was to make sure the secretary’s mind was free to think about the big problems, and his role was to create the conditions in which the policy makers could do their work (p. 40).

Living a Leadership Philosophy

While taking command of Benfolds crew, Abrashoff points out we’re in a different communication and expectations age. Never before had employees felt so free to tell their bosses what they thought of them (p. 12).

Searching for reasons why the crew was demotivated, Abrashoff assumed low pay would be the first reason people were leaving, but in fact it was the fifth. The top reason was not being treated with respect or dignity (p. 13). He resolved the key to being a successful skipper (p. 13) is to see the ship through the eyes of the crew (think of Ron Fournier in Love That Boy). Abrashoff retells a terrific story (pp. 13-14) about the US Navy applauding empowerment in theory but actually rejecting it in practice, spreading false notions of initiative.

Contrary to naval traditions, Abrashoff believed the crew’s insights might be more profound (p. 15) than even the captains (think of Stanley McChrystal in Team of Teams), and eventually the crew thought he cared more about performance and about them than about his next promotion (p. 19). Aboard the Albert David (before commanding Benfold), Abrashoff experienced poor leadership or old-fashioned command-and-control; a skipper barking orders and micromanaging everything (p. 22). He resolved not to give up on people until exhausting every opportunity to train them and help them grow (p. 23).

As in business, no one person can stay on top of it all. What’s needed is a dramatic way of inspiring people to excel while things are happening at lightning speed (p. 25). Think of your PLP. Abrashoff offers a terrific example of a normative behavioral statement (for decision making and initiative): Whenever the consequences of a decision had the potential to kill or injure someone, waste taxpayer’s money, or damage the ship, I had to be consulted (p. 27). This led to an environment of relaxed discipline, creativity, humor, and pride (p. 28).

Abrashoff reflects upon clear communication (p. 43):
Did I clearly articulate the goals?
Did I give people enough time and resources to accomplish the task?
Did I give them enough training?

And realizes:

“It’s Funny How Often the Problem is You.” (p. 43)

He shares that we as leaders need to understand how profoundly we affect people, how optimism and pessimism are equally infectious (p. 45), and that no one follows a leader who lies (p. 48), a common leadership philosophy non-negotiable.

Core Values Alignment

Abrashoff found what works best is a staff that works together and backstops each other (p. 182). Piercing a popular shibboleth:

“Forget Diversity. Train for Unity.” (p. 182)

Abrashoff began by recognizing common interests (p. 183), and did not delegate this vital task. To him, diversity training had merely made people more aware of their differences: “Our unity training focused on common interests and positive reasons to value others instead of a top-down prohibition against devaluing them (p. 186).”

In Abrashoff’s view, the prevailing zero-defect mentality is a cancer spreading throughout too many organizations, including the military (p. 192). He shares a terrific and candid story about integrated women in the Navy (pp. 192-198), which serves as a great example for any organization:

“How is it that twenty-two-year-old Gussie Jones, standing her second watch, had the good judgment and common sense to bring those sailors out of the rain when the officers on the other ship did not?” (p. 198)

A Leadership Toolbox

Chapters 4, 5, 6, 7 & 9 and 8 align with Academy Leadership’s E2L, Feedback, Motivation, Goal Setting and Effective Decision Making workshops, respectively, forming a powerful toolkit.

Abrashoff realized Dr. Perry was loved and admired because of the way he listened (p. 54); yet, like most organizations, the Navy seemed to put managers in a transmitting mode, which minimized their receptivity (p. 55).

An example of learning by listening to his crew, Abrashoff compiled two lists of all the tasks performed on the ship. List A was mission-critical tasks, List B all non-value added chores. He tackled list B with gusto (p. 58). He also learned the power of language to affect morale (p. 61) and decided Benfold was going to be the best damn ship in the Navy.

Abrashoff’s leadership cadre used every possible means of communication; including private email to key superiors, daily newsletters for the crew, and his own cheerleading for good ideas and walking around the ship chatting (p 64). He kept talking, telling everyone personally what’s in store for him or her – new goals, new work descriptions, new organizational structure, and yes, job losses, if that was the case (p. 65).

Recognizing even a broken clock (the U.S. Army) is right twice a day, Abrashoff’s crew enthusiastically utilized After Action Reviews (AARs - p. 71), recalling “When people saw me open myself up to criticism, they opened themselves up (p 72) and when they feel they own an organization, they perform with greater care and devotion (p. 73).”

Abrashoff found trust is a kind of jujitsu: You have to earn it, and you only earn trust by giving it (p. 74). He walked the talk, sharing a story offering a second chance for the junior officer – “He knew more than some of my department heads, yet he was only twenty-three and barely out of the Naval Academy (p. 77).” Acting as Superboss, Abrashoff encouraged the crew to take initiative – and made sure the officers welcomed it, compelling his staff to know one another as people (p. 94).

The Captain shares his “wake up call,” his decision that any ship under his command would be battle-ready and manned by the most highly prepared, motivated and respected sailors in the Navy (p. 133). With an overarching priority, goal setting and training flowed naturally. The point is to be sure to take responsibility as the Commanding Officer (CO), because how well the crew is prepared and how well it performs typically is a reflection of how well the CO leads (p. 137). After soliciting performance improvement feedback, Abrashoff implemented the lower deck’s ideas on how to improve the way they did business, the ship’s energy began heating up (p. 139).

Abrashoff observes leaders often think new ideas aren’t innovative or cool or complex enough, or that others have considered and discarded them. That’s a big mistake (p. 142): “We can do this better, we can help the shipyard. We can show them how to dovetail all these jobs so that nothing ever has to be redone, and the whole project gets finished on schedule, if not sooner.” (p. 144)

“Bet on the People Who Think for Themselves.” (p. 117)

“It’s crucial to practice often so that you become proficient, and also to make sure that when your junior officers become commanders, they won’t be afraid of refueling their ships (p. 118).” Abrashoff observed that many companies have cut back so much that they are only one-deep in critical positions, leaving no margin for error. He saw this as a prescription for disaster, instead committing to cross-train in every critical area (p. 119).


Eventually, Abrashoff believed his job in life was to turn kids into grown-ups who would make Edward Benfold, the ship’s namesake, proud (p. 153): “I’m absolutely convinced that positive, personal reinforcement is the essence of effective leadership (p. 156),” or put more simply, good coaching. He reminds us that people seem to think that if you send somebody a compliment online, it’s as good as the human touch: “It is not. It’s easier, but much less effective. Social interaction is getting lost in a digital world… (p. 156).”

Abrashoff shares a great on-boarding idea. “Every sailor (p. 162) who reports to us is someone’s son or daughter. We owe it to them to treat their kids well. It is our duty.”  Imagine how powerful such a statement would be in a leadership philosophy. This led to his realization that nothing was more useful – and moving – than learning why a kid had joined the Navy, and whether he or she had dreams or was just drifting (p. 171).

Are you continuously coaching, providing, and receiving feedback?  Abrashoff found the key to a successful evaluation is whether or not your people are surprised the day you give them their grades (p. 176). His was the offbeat ship that wasn’t afraid to loosen up, make the best of what had to be done, and shared fun with everyone (p. 210). Benfold taught Abrashoff the secret of good work is good play (p. 211).

Overall, this is an outstanding series of authentic leadership stories, with great relevance for any organization, and highly recommended for opening discussions in an executive retreat.

Note: Michael Abrashoff generously provided a copy of his book for review.

JE | May 2016