Before Captain D. Michael Abrashoff took command in 1997, the USS Benfold seemed to be a sinking ship, plagued by low morale, poor performance and outdated policies. In less than two years under his leadership, it moved from fleet embarrassment to winner of the Spokane Trophy for combat readiness.
In 1999, Fast Company labeled it “a model of leadership as progressive as any celebrated within the business world.”
Since retiring from the Navy, Abrashoff has transferred the leadership principles he applied there to his role as a speaker and consultant for companies and organizations. The best leaders, he says, share a common trait: they have the ability to conjure greatness from others.
“There is no rocket science to leadership,” he says. Instead, it “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.”
He emphasizes pushing decision-making farther down the chain of command, training people and giving them more responsibility. “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,” he believes.
He also recognizes that people will make mistakes, but that’s okay. “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.”
A “zero-defect mentality” is “a cancer in the organization,” Abrashoff believes. Training people at every level and entrusting them with responsibility allows them to gain experience, confidence and accountability, even when they make mistakes.
“Sure, they screwed up sometimes,” he said of his Benfold crew. “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.”
People who are unafraid to make mistakes are risk-takers, he says, and should be celebrated, not discouraged.
No one was lower in the chain of command than the young Israelite slave girl serving in the household of Naaman, a powerful Aramean army commander. Yet she took a risk, spoke up and told Naaman where to go for the help he needed.
To Naaman’s credit, he was the kind of leader who realized that the best ideas and wisest solutions sometimes come from the most unlikely sources. Because he took a risk and followed the advice of someone he normally overlooked, his life was forever changed.
If we can’t sometimes recognize ourselves somewhere in the story of Naaman and the slave girl, shame on us. When we can, we should celebrate. It means we’re doing something right.
Jan Turrentine is managing editor of Acacia Resources.