It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy
by Michael Abrashoff (2002; Business Plus)
This book isn’t really classic material. In ten years, I’m sure it will be forgotten. But it’s worth reading for a few aspects that make it unique.
It’s written by a former Captain in the US Navy. He commanded the USS Benfold in the late 90s and he had quite a few noteworthy successes.
I think it’s important to seek out people who’ve overcome situations that are markedly different than yours because if something works and you recognize it, it’s probably as close to a universal principle as you’ll see, and you should remember it, or; it’s a solution that’s never been seen in your field before and you should remember it because novel solutions are where it’s at.
In the beginning of the book, Abrashoff outlines the big problems he’s dealing with; the stifling bureaucracy of the Navy, 70% turnover after one tour of duty, and rampant inefficiency. In addition, there is extensive stratification between the servicepeople and the officers, and a culture in which it’s easy to take no chances, do the minimum and bide your time until promotion. (Not even retirement! Promotion!) Initiative is not encouraged, and depending on your superior’s particular philosophy, might even be punished.
Now, does that description sound too different from any aged and respectable corporation? It actually reminds me of an article on the construction trade I read. The business owner who’d been interviewed said that he didn’t mind an economic slowdown because it weeded out the herd and encouraged him to cut the fat wherever it had developed over the prosperous years.
The author also spends a bit of time talking about the type of leader he wanted to be. It’s illustrative to see his evolution; there are many places where he could have turned off the path and played the same game everyone else was playing.
But the story really gets started when he takes command of his own ship. The man he replaced is jeered off the ship, and he admits that his first thought was not compassion, but the awkward hope that he won’t receive the same treatment when his time comes.
Who should read this book?
Anyone who’s ever had to manage a hostile workforce will appreciate Abrashoff’s dilemma, and if you already manage people but have never come across this particular malaise, reading this might help you nip it in the bud, as his initiatives to improve morale demonstrate true leadership, in my opinion.
To a lesser extent, it’s just a great read to see what creativity in leadership looks like. It might not change your life, but what else were you going to do with your time, right? Read a Dean Koontz novel?
How much of my life will I give up to read it?
It’s about 200 pages, and it’s a pretty light read; light enough to be read before bed. Not because the lessons are lightweight, but because they’re encased within such engaging stories.
The thing that most struck me about the book was that Abrashoff had to work with exactly what he had and no more. He couldn’t just fire the people who weren’t working out and rehire people that matched ‘the culture’.
In comparison to how many books emphasize how important “building the right team” is, Abrashoff’s crew was very, very ordinary. More than half were there to take advantage of the GI bill. Most of the rest were there because it was the only way out of their neighborhood, city, or homelife that they could see.
In other words, he did not have “the best and the brightest” that everyone supposedly looks for in their company. Nobody on that ship had any real stake in the future of the Navy, or their future in the Navy. In fact, the whole thing was a straightforward transaction; give Uncle Sam a few years of your time and he’ll see you get a college education.
And then you see what he did with them.
That’s real leadership.
The Bottom Line
Like I said, it’s not really a classic, but if you’re tired of cookie-cutter leadership manuals and you want to read something a bit different, I would look up this book. It’s just the sort of thing I like to read; insight into another world and a different culture, a reflective narrative about what happened and the thought process that went into the author’s actions, and a series of takeaways that might be fruitfully applied to my own problems.