Read time: 5 minutes

Leadership is about understanding yourself first and then using that knowledge to shape anything else you create.

Welcome, friends, to a captivating journey of leadership demonstrated by Michael Abrashoff and his quest to turn the worst ship in the Navy into the very best. Strap yourselves in for an exhilarating exploration of leadership lessons that will leave you inspired and empowered.

Picture this: Michael Abrashoff, a man in his prime, assumes command of the USS Benfold, a guided missile destroyer notorious for its dismal performance. The ship harbored a crew that despised their service, eagerly anticipating their escape from the Navy’s clutches. Yet, in less than three years, something extraordinary happened—Benfold soared to unprecedented heights, becoming the highest-performing vessel with an astonishing retention rate.

What’s truly remarkable is that Abrashoff achieved this feat without replacing a single member of the crew. He unearthed a profound truth: organizations must reward risk-takers, even if they stumble along the way. Innovators and pioneers should be celebrated, while those who fear controversy and resist improvement must be challenged. It’s a philosophy that breathes new life into organizations and propels them towards greatness.

Drawing from the wisdom of Confucius, who proclaimed that true knowledge is knowing the extent of one’s ignorance, Abrashoff identifies self-understanding as the key to leadership. By plumbing the depths of their thoughts and emotions, leaders undergo a transformative process. This introspective voyage alters their perspective on all interactions and enables them to approach leadership from an entirely different place. Their choices become untethered from fear, ego, and habit, radiating authenticity that resonates with others. People respond to these leaders with unwavering loyalty, finding gratification and purpose in the culture they create.

Yes, organizations have pragmatic goals, be it war for my ship or profit for your company. However, commanding individuals to conform to our desires is a flawed approach that yields short-term benefits at best and catastrophic consequences at worst. Instead, we must embrace the idea that individuals thrive when they are freed to express their talents to the fullest. 

But what drives people to leave an organization? Contrary to popular belief, it’s rarely monetary concerns. Respect and dignity top the list, followed closely by the desire to make a meaningful impact, cultivate meaningful relationships, the need to be heard, and the hunger for greater responsibility.

These insights led Abrashoff to a powerful realization: seeing the world through the eyes of the crew. Stepping into their shoes allowed him to identify the flaws and empower them to take ownership and effect change.

Micromanagement plagues many organizations, inhibiting the intelligence and skills of the workforce. Command-and-control is an inefficient approach that stifles creativity and stifles autonomy.

The truly exceptional organizations are those in which employees embrace ownership. They surpass their competitors, driven by a deep sense of accountability and autonomy. Initiative becomes the norm, not the exception.

In the pursuit of lasting change, Abrashoff dismantled the reign of rules and policies, replacing them with principles that allowed for exceptions and judgment. This liberation unleashed the power of individual thought and decision-making, training people to think critically and make informed choices. Autonomy became their lifeblood, and bureaucracy no longer impeded progress.

Gone are the days of being mere tenants in our organizations. Ownership, my friends, is the catalyst for success. Find the right people, provide direction, and grant them the autonomy they crave. The details will be handled, and success will be inevitable. When passion and autonomy converge, true ownership emerges.

As we conclude our expedition into the lessons of leadership, let’s remember that trust, accountability, and commitment are the cornerstones of an exceptional organization. Michael Abrashoff’s journey on the USS Benfold teaches us that transformation begins within ourselves. By seeing the world through the eyes of others, embracing ownership, and fostering autonomy, we can create organizations that thrive and endure.

Remember, my friends, that leadership is a lifelong pursuit—a journey of self-discovery and growth. Embrace it, and may your endeavors be marked by inspiration and success.