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It’s Your (Leader) Ship

As commander of the USS Benfold, he initiated a leadership turnaround that rocked the Navy. Now D. Michael Abrashoff wants to help your company chart a better course. Here, he offers five guiding principles for leaders in tough times.

Business analysts suffer no shortage of bleak analogies to describe today’s economic climate. A burst bubble. A derailed train. A withering rose.

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Captain D. Michael Abrashoff would likely compare today’s struggling companies to the USS Cole — the guided-missile destroyer that was attacked in Yemen on October 12, 2000. Business leaders have suffered a devastating blow. They’re hurting badly. And they’re more determined than ever to regroup, rebuild, and brandish their firepower once again.

Abrashoff can relate. In 1997, he took command of his own sinking ship: the USS Benfold. Though physically unscathed, the Benfold was drowning under the weight of outdated policies, poor morale, and an unimpressive performance record. Within 20 months, Fast Company joined the crowd of Abrashoff admirers when it learned of the ship’s remarkable journey from embarrassment of the fleet to winner of the Spokane Trophy for combat readiness. We called the Benfold “a model of leadership as progressive as any celebrated within the business world.”

Since that article appeared in April 1999, Abrashoff has retired from the Navy and devoted his time to dissecting the leadership principles and tactics that helped him steer the Benfold to victory. As a speaker and private consultant, he has applied his leadership framework to companies and organizations well outside the military scope. Regardless of the setting, Abrashoff says he finds one common trait among the best leaders: the ability to conjure greatness from others.

“There is no rocket science to leadership,” he says today. “Leadership is a collection of seemingly minor things that, taken as a whole, create a climate in which people feel honored and valued. When people feel as if they own their company, they want to do great things to help it and its leaders succeed.”

Simplicity and consistency are key, Abrashoff says in It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy (Warner Books, 2002). In the book, he lays out 10 distinct principles of grassroots leadership that apply on an 8,600-ton vessel or in an eight-person startup.

Recently, Abrashoff sat down with Fast Company to talk about leadership — again. In the following interview, he shares five leadership guidelines that can help managers, presidents, and CEOs withstand the torpedo blasts of 2002.

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The Problem Is You

Whenever I didn’t get the results I was looking for on the Benfold, I tried to look inward before flying off the handle. I asked myself the same three questions each time: Did I clearly articulate the goals I was trying to achieve? Did I give people the time and resources they needed to succeed? Did I give them enough training to get the job done properly? Eighty percent of the time, I found that I was part of the problem and that, through my actions alone, I could have altered the outcome significantly.

By resisting the temptation to place blame, a leader effectively aligns his actions with his words. It creates distrust in an organization when a leader’s actions fly in the face of his vision and advice to others. Today, it creates even more than distrust. It creates disgust, especially now that employees realize their 401(k) plans and job security may be compromised by a leader’s dishonesty. Employees today will not forgive deceit among their leaders.

Question Every Rule

When an officer or sailor came to me for approval or a signature on something, my first question was always, Why do we do it this way? If the answer was, Because this is the way it’s always been done, I would say, That’s not good enough. Find out if there is a better way to do this.

After a while, people began doing their homework before they ever brought issues to me. And they could explain, This is why we do things this way. Or, We’ve thought of a better way to get this accomplished. It drove my officers crazy, but by creating a culture in which we questioned everything, we were training our people to keep their eyes open to new ways of doing business.

Build Trust Through Responsibility

Give people responsibility, train them, and push decision making down the chain of command. When a leader places greater confidence in his people and provides them the training they need to succeed, they will respond by performing at levels higher than what’s expected of them. As they achieve greater results and greater confidence, they will trust that their leader will help them get the training and opportunities they need to succeed.

People will fail. How a leader handles that failure is infinitely important. I disagree with Jack Welch on this point. I don’t think you should follow a policy that gets rid of the bottom 10% of performers every year. While I don’t recommend tolerating poor performance, an arbitrary standard like that eats away at internal trust. It places emphasis on individual performance rather than team or company performance. It pits people against each other. And it doesn’t view failure as a learning experience — an opportunity to sit back, examine the causes of a problem, and devise solutions that will benefit the group. I think that’s important.

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Thank the Messenger

Bad news is going to happen in even the best-run organizations. There’s no way around it. Managers and CEOs need not only to set the vision but also to deal with accidents that happen along the way. They can only do that if people feel comfortable bringing bad news to their attention.

At the end of the day, I want people to be honest with me. That means more to me than anything. But if they think I’m going to shoot the messenger, people will put off those hard conversations until the time when value starts to erode. While I may have been able to construct a solution last week, there’s now a deadline looming, and the best I can do is damage control. That’s bad.

Enron is a classic case of a culture that shot people who brought problems to leaders’ attention. Those people should be thanked and celebrated because they have the courage to bring up bad news. Communication is key in any organization.

Promote Risk Takers

I’ve encountered companies that only promote people who don’t make any mistakes. You show me someone who doesn’t make any mistakes, and I’ll show you someone who’s not doing anything to improve the business. The business climate today demands that we continue to try new things. By promoting people who never fail, organizations are sending a terrible signal to other employees that it’s not worth going out on a limb or making any bold improvements for the company.

Leaders need to resist a zero-defect mentality that says, If you make one mistake, you’re done for. It’s a cancer in the organization. Mistakes are learning opportunities. On the Benfold, we tried never to make the same mistake twice. But we always encouraged crew members to try new things, to brainstorm new solutions. Because we were training at lower and lower levels of the crew, people gained experience, confidence, and accountability. Sure, they screwed up sometimes, but they were thinking for themselves. If all you have is order takers on your crew, then all you have is people who will never take accountability for their actions.

Anni Layne Rodgers (arodgers@fastcompany.com) is the Fast Company senior Web editor. D. Michael Abrashoff (Mike@grassrootsleadership.com) is available via email. It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy is for sale on Amazon.com.