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Vol. LIX, No. 13
June 29, 2007

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View from the Bridge
Former Naval Captain Provides Leadership Lessons

  D. Michael Abrashoff
When a new captain takes command of a ship in the U.S. Navy, a ceremony is held. Dignitaries arrive, the crew rolls out a red carpet: in short, it's "a very big deal," explained D. Michael Abrashoff to a packed house in Masur Auditorium recently. But when he arrived for the change-of-command ceremony in which he would become captain of USS Benfold, he couldn't believe what he saw: in a less-than-respectful sendoff for his predecessor, the crew cheered.

He immediately decided that, while his crew may never come to like him, he had to earn their trust so at least they could respect him. But what could he do to make that change?

What he did, the way he actually turned the ship around, is an inspirational lesson in leadership and the reason he came to speak at NIH as part of the Deputy Director for Management Seminar Series.

"There are a lot of leaders in this room with a reputation for excellence," he said about his NIH audience. "But no one is perfect." He suggested that everyone should take time to think about their own "leadership journeys," and to realize that even if you're a successful leader, you can always be better.

  Abrashoff (l) chats with members of the audience following his recent talk in the Deputy Director’s Management Series.
Abrashoff (l) chats with members of the audience following his recent talk in the Deputy Director's Management Series.
Abrashoff's "leadership journey" is a powerful story, one that led him to write the bestseller It's Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy. Published in 2002, the book details Abrashoff's experience in taking a ship with one of the poorest performance records in the Pacific Fleet-with crew morale to match-and making it, true to the title, one of the Navy's best. The book's success led to a sequel, Get Your Ship Together: How Great Leaders Inspire Ownership from the Keel Up. The first book has been recognized as a strong tool for leading any kind of business. One of his biggest sources of pride for the book, Abrashoff said, was when New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, in an interview, cited it as a partial source for improving his leadership skills.

Abrashoff's management lessons can also apply to NIH. Just like supervisors here, he said, in the Navy he had to oversee a group of government workers who needed a strong leader. When he took command of the ship, the crew had a dismal retention rate, and like those in the audience, he said, he "couldn't order people to stay." He had to give his crew a reason to come to work each day. He decided to conduct exit surveys to learn why people were leaving, expecting the prime reason to be the pay rate. Instead, he said, pay was reason number five. People said they didn't want to stay because they weren't being treated with respect, they didn't feel they were making an impact on the organization, they weren't being listened to and they weren't being rewarded with additional responsibility. Abrashoff decided he had to work on changing this.

"Just because we're government workers doesn't mean we're second-class citizens," he said. He walked around the deck every morning, getting to know every person in his crew. He listened to ideas and put them into action, and recognized people for strong performances every chance he had. "I decided I would always put myself in their shoes," he explained. "And if something didn't make sense to them, I knew I had to communicate better."

In his last year overseeing the ship, the retention rate was almost 100 percent.

Still, he noted, no one is a born leader, so it's important to think about leadership role models. His included the namesake of the ship he commanded, Edward Benfold, who became a hero of the Korean War when he saved other Marines by picking up thrown grenades and charging into enemy soldiers, sacrificing his life in the process. "I wanted to lead the crew of the ship named for him with that same integrity," Abrashoff said.

He also suggested looking to one's experiences to form leadership ideas. One event that greatly affected him occurred in 1990: he was on a ship south of Kuwait when Iraq invaded the country. The crew saw on their radar what they believed to be enemy fighters coming toward them, and Abrashoff thought they had a 50 percent chance of shooting them all down. It turned out the planes were not the enemy and changed course, but the idea that his crew could have had just a 50 percent chance of survival hit Abrashoff hard.

"I started thinking about what we could have and should have done differently," he said, adding that in the year before that, the crew had spent more time "fighting among ourselves" than anyone else and they obsessed more about things they had no control over. "I realized we had an opportunity to be our best if we resolved to work together," he said. They could look for things they could change while remembering "the fact that things have always been done a certain way is never an excuse."

On Benfold, Abrashoff put these ideas in action. He overcame the bureaucratic process of awarding medals by personally handing them out whenever he found the occasion: "I never let paperwork prevent me from recognizing someone." He broke 200 years of Navy tradition by getting in the back of the line for lunch just like anyone else and sitting with his crew instead of separating himself as an officer. He started a "Division in the Spotlight" program that looked in-depth at the achievements and issues for each unit of the crew to demonstrate it wasn't "a one-man show, that we have to work together as a team." He set up a distance-learning program and brought on board an SAT counselor to help crew members improve their education.

But most importantly, he listened to individual concerns and took action on valuable ideas. When he asked one sailor what he would change about Benfold, he learned the crew was constantly repainting the ship, primarily because of metal plates, nuts and bolts made of material that rusted. Abrashoff had all of these materials replaced with stainless steel and the crew didn't have to paint again for 10 months, saving a great deal of money and time. Now, stainless steel is used on every ship in the Navy, "all because of a 21-year-old sailor who said something."

Abrashoff also considered ideas for making life on the ship more enjoyable. He bought a stereo system and played jazz every Thursday evening while the crew watched the sun set, creating "a sense of friendship, of community," and a sense of purpose.

As he made these changes, the ship received recognition for its advances, his method of "grassroots leadership" garnered articles in Fast Company and other publications and his crew developed pride in their ship and loyalty to their captain. At Abrashoff's change-of-command ceremony-to which he shipped in lobsters for everyone-he simply said to his crew, "You know how I feel." A crew member told him later that when Abrashoff departed the ship, there wasn't a dry eye on board.

All of these lessons can be applied to leadership at NIH, he said. We can all regard other staff members with respect and dignity, listen to their concerns and treat no one like they're "second-class citizens." Just like "every one of us here," he said, "I'm a lifelong government employee, and we all have a leadership story to write."

He added that though "we've all done well in this room," everyone can look at ways to improve with a constant eye on the bigger picture. "Think about what your change-of-command ceremony will be like," he advised. "Will it be to cheers or tears?" NIH Record Icon

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