Leadership Styles

Grassroots Leadership Principles â€" a Review of It’s Your Ship

Terence R Traut asked:

At the age of 36, Michael Abrashoff was selected to become Commander of the USS Benfold — at the time, the most junior commanding officer in the Pacific Fleet. The immediate challenges that faced him were staggering: Exceptionally low morale with unacceptably high turnover. Few thought that this ship could improve. In many ways, the Benfold was actually an extreme example of the same problems facing many organizations today.

As the new head of his own command Michael only became more resolved. “In my induction ceremony, my predecessor left to cheers. The crew was actually clapping as he and his family departed. I knew then that command and control leadership was dead.”

“A lot of people do whatever it takes to secure the next promotion. All I ever wanted to do in the navy was to command a ship. I did not care if I ever got promoted again. And that attitude enabled me to do the right things for my people instead of doing the right things for my career. Along the way, it was my people that created the results that ensured my next promotion.”

The solution was to establish a system of beliefs that Michael calls GrassRoots Leadership — a process of replacing command and control with commitment and cohesion by engaging the hearts, minds, and loyalties of workers.

In his book, It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from The Best Damn Ship in the Navy, Michael states that, “The most important thing that a captain can do is to see the ship through the eyes of the crew.”

To Michael, this meant interviewing every single person on his ship, from the most senior officer to the newest recruit — an experience that began to generate the most invaluable ideas, often from the most unexpected sources. For example, through one of these meetings Michael was able to address one of the most demoralizing roles of the crew: relentless chipping and painting had always been a standard task for a ship’s youngest sailors, the individuals that Michael most wanted to connect with. One of these sailors simply suggested replacing the rusting hardware with stainless-steel nuts and bolts.

“I took our credit card and bought the stainless steel hardware that day,” Michael commented. “Those guys didn’t pick up a paintbrush the rest of the time I was on board.” Today, the entire navy uses that process — a solution that began from GrassRoots efforts.

GrassRoots Leadership is a philosophy that empowers every individual to share the responsibility of achieving excellence. GrassRoots Leadership has as its core tenets:

• Lead by Example — GrassRoots Leaders know they must first change their own attitudes and behaviors before expecting their crew to change.

• Listen Aggressively — GrassRoots Leaders don’t simply listen, they hear what their people are telling them. They know that those on the front lines are the most familiar with how operations can be more effective.

• Communicate Purpose and Meaning — GrassRoots Leaders help their crew understand (collectively and individually) how their work contributes to the success of the overall mission, as well as understand how that work supports the personal goals they have for themselves.

• Create a Climate of Trust — GrassRoots Leaders trust and cultivate trust from their crew. Without trust, the barriers that prevent excellent performance will never be lowered.

• Look for Results, Not Salutes — GrassRoots Leaders maximize performance by making their people grow. They succeed only where their people succeed.

• Take Calculated Risks — GrassRoots Leaders know that taking prudent, calculated risks is instrumental in maximizing performance.

• Go Beyond Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) — GrassRoots Leaders look at standard operating procedure as a guideline, because SOP doesn’t change as rapidly as the environment and competition. Therefore, they foster a climate that encourages people to come up with better and more innovative ways to accomplish their mission.

• Strengthen Others/Build Up Your People — GrassRoots Leaders focus on making their people grow and creating an environment where everyone can win, thereby making the entire team stronger.

• Generate Unity — GrassRoots Leaders work to not only change undesirable behaviors but to alter the underlying attitudes. By working toward a mutual respect for everyone, they level the playing field, permitting everyone to perform at their highest level.

• Cultivate Quality of Life — GrassRoots Leaders actively integrate fun into the work experience. They want their crew to have as much fun from 9 to 5 as they do at home from 5 to 9; thereby, gaining the passion, enthusiasm and creativity that they usually lock in their car in the parking lot each morning.

By every measure, these principles were able to achieve breakthrough results. Personnel turnover decreased to an unprecedented 1%. The rate of military promotions tripled, and operating expenses were slashed by 25%. USS Benfold became regarded as the finest ship in the Pacific Fleet, winning the prestigious Spokane Trophy for having the highest degree of combat readiness.

His first book, It’s Your Ship, has sold over hundreds of thousands of copies and is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal Best Seller. While receiving accolades from such business-minded entities as Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and others, perhaps the greatest testament to Michael’s leadership style is represented by one of his crew, who published the following review of It’s Your Ship on

Reviewer: EW3 Holly (Davis) Simpson from Louisville, KY December 11, 2003

I am a plankowner* of the Benfold and admired Capt. Abrashoff’s leadership. His superior leadership brought the morale of our ship from just ordinary shipboard life to a ship that many in the fleet wanted to become a part of. Our ship was a show-piece and we were proud to carry out his orders.

What could have been a horribly desolate six months on deployment, including the holidays spent in the Gulf in 97-98, turned into a memorable experience for all, thanks to Capt. Abrashoff who even made UnRep a grand event! We learned from him that although we had a VERY important job to conduct, we were rewarded with pride in our accomplishments. Capt. Abrashoff was a very approachable Commanding Officer, an experience I had never encountered in the military and has been rare while employed with state government. He made an effort to see that his crew not only did their jobs exceptionally well, but that we enjoyed the festivities he provided for the ship while in port.

I have read his fantastic book, reliving all the memories of my Benfold life and have used his leadership knowledge to become a successful professional in the “civilian” world. To the readers who feel Capt. Abrashoff is “arrogant” in his leadership style–I think if you had as awesome a ship as the Benfold to be a part of, you would be extremely proud of it and the leadership that made it such a fine place to spend a few years of your life.

*a plankowner is a member of the crew of a ship when it’s first commissioned

Michael Abrashoff is originally from Altoona, Pennsylvania and is a 1982 graduate of the Naval Academy in Annapolis. He currently resides in Arlington, Virginia and has recently published his second book, Get Your Ship Together.

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