It’s Your Ship – Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy

In this book, former Navy Captain D. Michael Abrashoff boils down the management and leadership techniques that helped his ship, the Benfold, become “the best damn ship in the Navy.” His 11 fundamentals are equally applicable in the business world.

1.  Take Command

  • How can I ensure that my eventual departure won’t be met with relief?
  • Will I be, or am I now respected, trusted, and effective?
  • Are there better ways to do the things we do?
  • Do I hold myself accountable for my team’s performance?
  • Can we become the best damn ship in the Navy?

2.  Lead By Example

  • It’s funny how often the problem is you. As an example, when a task is not completed, whose fault is it?

    • “Never again, I promised myself, would I give an order without clearly articulating the goal, providing the time and resources to get it done, and ensuring that my crew had the proper training to do it right.”

  • Never forget your effect on people.

    • “Mediocre leaders don’t even take the trouble to know their people”

3.  Listen Aggressively

  • “Shortly after I took command of the Benfold, I vowed to treat every encounter with every person on the ship as the most important thing at that moment. It wasn’t easy for me, and I didn’t do it perfectly, but my crew’s enthusiasm and smart ideas kept me going.”
  • See the ship through the crew’s eyes.
    • “I decided that my job was to listen aggressively and to pick up every good idea the crew had for improving the ship’s operation. Some traditionalists might consider this heresy, but it’s actually just common sense. After all, the people who do the nuts-and-bolts work on a ship constantly see things that officers don’t. It seemed to me only prudent for the captain to work hard at seeing the ship through the crew’s eyes. My first step was trying to learn the names of everyone aboard. It wasn’t easy. Try attaching 310 names to 310 faces in one month.”
  • “I tried to establish a personal relationship with each crew member. I wanted to link our goals, so that they would see my priority of improving the Benfold as an opportunity for them to apply their talents and give their jobs a real purpose.”

4.  Communicate Purpose and Meaning

  • “The whole secret of leading a ship or managing a company is to articulate a common goal that inspires a diverse group of people to work hard together.”
  • “It finally hit me that people were just showing up to collect a paycheck every two weeks. They were locking their passion and enthusiasm inside their cars in the parking lot and just bringing their bodies to work. I wanted them to be energized when they came aboard. I realized what was missing: No one had ever thought to give them a compelling vision of their work, a good reason to believe it was important.”
  • Make your crew think “We can do anything”.
  • Communicate communicate communicate
    • “The antidote is obvious: Keep talking. Tell everyone personally what’s in store for him or her—new goals, new work descriptions, new organizational structure, and yes, job losses, if that’s the case. Explain why the company is making the changes. People can absorb anything if they are not deceived or treated arrogantly. Lies and arrogance create an us-versus-them atmosphere that poisons productivity.”
    • “No matter how fantastic your message is, if no one is receiving it, you aren’t communicating. You must have mastery of all means of communication, along with the willingness to use them—otherwise, you’re just talking to yourself.”

5.  Create a Climate of Trust

  • “The best way to keep a ship—or any organization—on course for success is to give the troops all the responsibility they can handle and then stand back. Trust is a human marvel—it not only sustains the social contract, it’s the growth hormone that turns green sailors into seasoned shipmates and troubled companies into dynamic organizations.”
  • “Trust is like a bank account—you have got to keep making deposits if you want it to grow. On occasion, things will go wrong, and you will have to make a withdrawal. Meanwhile it is sitting in the bank earning interest.”
  • Deal out punishment strictly but fairly.

    • “I wanted people who screwed up on my ship to know two things: First, they will be appropriately punished; second, they will get another chance.

6.  Look for results, not salutes.

  • “The best way to accomplish this was not to order it from the top, which is demoralizing and squashes initiative. I wanted sailors to open their minds, use their imaginations, and find better ways of doing everything.”
  • “I had to encourage the crew to take initiative—and make sure the officers welcomed it. And that meant they would have to get to know one another as people. They would have to respect one another, and from that would come trust.”
  • Let your crew feel free to speak up.
    • “I was determined to create a culture where everyone on board felt comfortable enough to say to me, “Captain, have you thought of this?” or “Captain, I’m worried about something,” or even “Captain, I think you’re dead wrong and here’s why.” Yes-people are a cancer in any organization, and dangerous to boot.”

7.  Take Calculated Risks

  • “An organization that aims to stay alive and strong should make sure to praise and promote risk-takers, even if they fail once in a while. Unfortunately, organizations all too often promote only those who have never made a mistake. Show me someone who has never made a mistake, and I will show you someone who is not doing anything to improve your organization.”
  • “All managers should nurture the freedom to fail.”

8.  Go Beyond Standard Procedure

  • If a rule doesn’t make sense, question it.

  • “Innovation and progress are achieved by those who venture beyond standard operating procedure. You have to think imaginatively, but realistically, about what may lie ahead, and prepare to meet it. You have to look for new ways to handle old tasks and fresh approaches to new problems. As my friends at NASA would say, you have to push the envelope. And it’s never easy.”

9.  Build Up Your People

  • “Leadership, as I have said is mostly the art of doing simple things very well.”
  • “Show me a manager who ignores the art of praise, and I will show you a lousy manager. Praise is infinitely more productive than punishment – could anything be clearer?”
  • Little things make big successes.
    • “For example, I ordered a big supply of greeting cards that read, “The Officers and Crew of the USS Benfold Wish You a Happy Birthday. “Each month my ship’s office gave a birthday list of my sailors’ spouses. I would write, say, “Dear Marie” at the top and sign it “Love, Mike.” Every card included my P.S. saying “Your husband or wife is doing a great job,”
    • “The payoff in morale was palpable. I’m absolutely convinced that positive, personal reinforcement is the essence of effective leadership. Yet some leaders seem to be moving away from it. They stay connected electronically with e-mail and cell phones, but they’re disconnected personally, and many leaders almost never leave their offices.”
  • Trust people. They usually prove you’re right.

  • Expect the best from your crew. You will get it.

    • “How much brainpower does the Navy—or any organization, for that matter—waste because those in charge don’t recognize the full potential hiding at the low end of the hierarchy?”

  • Build a strong, deep bench.

  • Counsel continuously – and honestly.

    • “More than anything else, your people appreciate honesty from you. Even if they’re doing something poorly, it’s better to get it on the table early in the process so they have time to fix it. That’s the key to being a good leader: ongoing counseling and consistent honesty”

  • “All managers must be ready to shed poor performers, but only after you have given them a chance; you must be open and honest with them, clarify their deficiencies and how they can overcome them. And finally, you must spell out the stick: what will happen if they don’t address those problems in a timely manner.”

10.  Generate Unity

  • “One of the toughest things for organizations to accomplish is to get people to set aside personal differences and work for the good of everyone involved.”
  • “Forget diversity, train for unity.”

11. Improve Your People’s Quality of Life

  • Fun with your friends makes a happy ship.

    • “The point was that having fun with your friends creates infinitely more social glue for any organization than stock options and bonuses will ever provide.”
  • In heavy times, lighten up.

  • The secret of good work? Good play.


“My approach to leadership on a Navy ship began as an experiment, born of necessity, but I have since found that it is far from unique. In all sorts of thriving businesses, the managerial role has changed from order-giver to people-developer, from authoritarian boss to talent cultivator.”

 “Nowadays, the most effective managers work hard at showing people how to find their own solutions, and then get out of their way.

Given my responsibility for the very lives of my sailors, I could never go quite that far.”

 “But this book confirms how surprisingly far I was able to push navy leadership in that direction.”

 The reason was simple: It works!!


About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
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2 Responses to It’s Your Ship – Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy

  1. Anonymous says:

    Excellent summary, thanks for sharing!

  2. Pingback: The best damn ship | Management Briefs

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