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Lessons on Leadership: Michael Abrashoff on Turning the Worst Ship in the Navy into the Best

“Organizations should reward risk-takers, even if they fall short once in a while. Let them know that promotions and glory go to innovators and pioneers, not to stand-patters who fear controversy and avoid trying to improve anything.”


Michael Abrashoff was in his mid-thirties when he took command of the USS Benfold, a guided missile destroyer and one of the worst performing ships in the navy. Despite her potency, the “dysfunctional ship had a sullen crew that resented being there and could not wait to get out of the Navy.” By the time he left, less than three years later, Benfold had become the highest-performing ship and retention was amazing.

As he recounts in It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy the opportunity wasn’t without its irony.

Our military has spent a lot of time and money preparing for tomorrow’s battles with antiquated methods. We continue to invest in the latest technologies and systems, but, as we all know, technology is nothing but a facilitator. The people operating the equipment are who give us the fighting edge, and we seem to have lost our way when it comes to helping them grow.

Echoing Confucius who said “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance,” Abrashoff believes the key to leadership is about understanding yourself first and then using that knowledge to shape the organization.

Leaders must free their subordinates to fulfill their talents to the utmost. However, most obstacles that limit people’s potential are set in motion by the leader and are rooted in his or her own fears, ego needs, and unproductive habits. When leaders explore deep within their thoughts and feelings in order to understand themselves, a transformation can take shape.

That understanding shifts the leader’s perspective on all of the interactions in life, and he or she approaches leadership from a completely different place. As a result, the leader’s choices are different from those he or she made when blinded by fear, ego, and habit. More important, others perceive the person as more authentic, which in turn reinforces the new behavior. This can vastly improve how people respond to their leaders and makes their loyalty to the source of gratification more likely: my ship, your company, their peers, the culture that gives their lives meaning and purpose.

To be sure, your organization has a pragmatic goal, and obviously, it isn’t to be a therapeutic shelter. My ship’s job was war; your company’s purpose is profit. But we will achieve neither by ordering people to perform as we wish. Even if doing so produces short-term benefits, the consequences can prove devastating.

Adding to this later and expanding on how so many people lead, he writes:

Leaders must be willing to put the ship’s performance ahead of their egos.


The command-and-control approach is far from the most efficient way to tap people’s intelligence and skills.


Show me an organization in which employees take ownership, and I will show you one that beats its competitors.

Highlighting the divisiveness that so many organizations experience, he writes:

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. I worked hard at convincing my crew that I did want the rules to be questioned and challenged, and that “they” is “us.” One of the ways I demonstrated my commitment was to question and challenge rules to my bosses. In the end, both the bosses and my crew listened.

In a world that is always moving, staying still is near-certain death.

Organizations should reward risk-takers, even if they fall short once in a while. Let them know that promotions and glory go to innovators and pioneers, not to stand-patters who fear controversy and avoid trying to improve anything. To me, that’s the key to keeping an organization young, vital, growing, and successful. Stasis is death to any organization. Evolve or die: It’s the law of life. Rules that made sense when they were written may well be obsolete. Make them extinct, too.

The primary reasons that people leave an organization have nothing to do with money.

However the economy is doing, a challenge for leaders in the twenty-first century is attracting and retaining not just employees, but the best employees— and more important, how to motivate them so that they work with passion, energy, and enthusiasm. But very few people with brains, skills, and initiative appear. The timeless challenge in the real world is to help less-talented people transcend their limitations.

Pondering all this in the context of my post as the new captain of Benfold, I read some exit surveys, interviews conducted by the military to find out why people are leaving. I assumed that low pay would be the first reason, but in fact it was fifth. The top reason was not being treated with respect or dignity; second was being prevented from making an impact on the organization; third, not being listened to; and fourth, not being rewarded with more responsibility.

Thus Abrashoff came to the conclusion that the best thing he could do was see the ship through the eyes of the crew. This makes it much easier to find out what’s wrong and help people empower themselves to fix it. Most systems reward micromanagement which only disempowers subordinates and removes ownership and accountability.

Officers are told to delegate authority and empower subordinates, but in reality they are expected never to utter the words “I don’t know.” So they are on constant alert, riding herd on every detail. In short, the system rewards micromanagement by superiors— at the cost of disempowering those below.

Organizations commanded by a micromanager create a sub-culture of micromanagement. Individual initiative is the exception not the norm and the people who exhibit it get beaten down quickly and either quit or become cynical.

I began with the idea that there is always a better way to do things, and that, contrary to tradition, the crew’s insights might be more profound than even the captain’s. Accordingly, we spent several months analyzing every process on the ship. I asked everyone, “Is there a better way to do what you do?” Time after time, the answer was yes, and many of the answers were revelations to me.

My second assumption was that the secret to lasting change is to implement processes that people will enjoy carrying out. To that end, I focused my leadership efforts on encouraging people not only to find better ways to do their jobs, but also to have fun as they did them. And sometimes— actually, a lot of times— I encouraged them to have fun for fun’s sake.


No one is capable of making every decision. While there are as many ways to approach this as there are organizations, most seem to create an ineffective system of rules and policies that attempt to prepare for every possible contingency. Over time, people working in these organizations have no ownership — they simply follow the rules. Great organizations, on the other hand, use principles and allow for exceptions. They train people to think and make judgments on their own.

It’s Your Ship goes on to detail the ideas and techniques that Abrashoff used to win trust, create an environment where people felt accountable, and gain commitment.