It's Your Ship

Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy


By Captain D. Michael Abrashoff

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The legendary New York Times bestselling tale of top-down change for anyone trying to navigate today’s uncertain business seas.

When Captain Abrashoff took over as commander of USS Benfold, it was like a business that had all the latest technology but only some of the productivity. Knowing that responsibility for improving performance rested with him, he realized he had to improve his own leadership skills before he could improve his ship. Within months, he created a crew of confident and inspired problem-solvers eager to take the initiative and responsibility for their actions. The slogan on board became “It’s your ship,” and Benfold was soon recognized far and wide as a model of naval efficiency. How did Abrashoff do it? Against the backdrop of today’s United States Navy, Abrashoff shares his secrets of successful management including:

  • See the ship through the eyes of the crew: By soliciting a sailor’s suggestions, Abrashoff drastically reduced tedious chores that provided little additional value.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate: The more Abrashoff communicated the plan, the better the crew’s performance. His crew eventually started calling him “Megaphone Mike,” since they heard from him so often.
  • Create discipline by focusing on purpose: Discipline skyrocketed when Abrashoff’s crew believed that what they were doing was important.
  • Listen aggressively: After learning that many sailors wanted to use the GI Bill, Abrashoff brought a test official aboard the ship-and held the SATs forty miles off the Iraqi coast.
  • From achieving amazing cost savings to winning the highest gunnery score in the Pacific Fleet, Captain Abrashoff’s extraordinary campaign sent shock waves through the U.S. Navy. It can help you change the course of your ship, no matter where your business battles are fought.


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    This book changed my life. In fact, it has created the life I've led since giving up command of my ship, USS Benfold—the once-underperforming destroyer that my crew and I transformed into the best ship in the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet.

    I'll be forever grateful that It's Your Ship has touched so many others' lives as well. It won a place on a couple business best-seller lists, but more important, it has been quietly jumping off bookstore shelves for nearly ten years. All told, it has sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

    Leaving the Navy was a tough decision. When I had to give up Benfold after my two-year rotation in command, I could have had a safe, comfortable career, working to become an admiral. But I had already spent time in the Pentagon, as military aide to Defense Secretary William Perry, the finest leader I've ever known. I knew no other Washington experience could top that, and I had to find something else to do with the rest of my life.

    I had a modest ambition: to share my Benfold experience and to help others become better leaders. I found that I had a knack for public speaking, and that led to a career on the lecture circuit and then to the writing of It's Your Ship. The book and the speaking engagements reinforced each other. I thought the book and my speaking career might have a shelf life of two or three years, but leadership development is a crucial field these days, and it has become my life. I've continued to speak and write, and I'm also consulting with a variety of organizations on executive leadership.

    I've learned a lot since my years on Benfold. If I could do that job over again, I would take a more 360-degree view of the world. My biggest mistake was to focus down the chain of command, trying to improve my ship and my crew, instead of seeing myself as one captain in a battle group. I didn't do enough to collaborate with my fellow captains as a member of a larger team. Instead, Benfold's achievements stood on their own, and as a result the battle group wasn't as strong as it could and should have been.

    I've also learned that my message has become even more important as times have changed. What I'm preaching is the leveraging of human capital—and that's what makes companies creative and innovative—which is the only way to be safe in tough economic times. So my story continues to resonate.

    It's my hope that this new edition, with an added chapter on my time with Secretary Perry (see chapter two) and a few new thoughts on the lessons I've learned since the Navy, will reach even more people and be even more helpful to aspiring leaders. I'm not unique; if I could learn to lead, so can you. Who knows? This book could change your life, too.

    D. Michael Abrashoff
    January 2012


    My story might be called "The Education of USS Benfold," which is a guided missile destroyer that I commanded for twenty months beginning in June 1997. Commissioned in 1996 for duty in the Pacific Fleet, the ship is a beautiful fighting machine: 8,300 tons of armor protecting the Navy's most advanced arsenal of computerized missiles; a radar system that can track a bird-size object from fifty miles away; a highly skilled crew of 310 men and women; and four gas turbine engines capable of driving the ship to thirty-one knots—nearly thirty-five miles an hour—as it speeds into combat, shooting up a huge rooster-tail backwash.

    To be given this spectacular vessel as my first sea command was thrilling, but also ironic. Opportunity had called, but in a troubled industry. 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.

    The statistics are startling. In recent years, nearly 40 percent, or almost 80,000, of the 200,000 people who join the military annually, won't complete their enlistment contract. Although most will leave the service involuntarily, doing so is not a reflection of their character. Of those who do complete their first hitch, a very small percentage will reenlist—not nearly enough to keep our senior billets filled. Worse yet, the best talents are often the first to leave. Since it takes $35,000 to recruit a trainee and tens of thousands more in additional training costs to get new personnel to the basic level of proficiency, the cost of this attrition to the taxpayer is staggering. And that cost is only the beginning, since the dropouts go home and counter-recruit against us, making it even harder to convince others to join.

    We could and should be getting more for our $325 billion a year investment in national defense. In addition to ensuring our safety and security, we should be providing life-forming experiences that shape the characters of young men and women to make them loyal citizens and contributors to this great country.

    Despite her potency, Benfold was not as prepared for the threat of attack as she could have been. The dysfunctional ship had a sullen crew that resented being there and could not wait to get out of the Navy. The achievement in my life of which I am the most proud was turning that crew into a tight-knit, smoothly functioning team that boasted—accurately—that Benfold was the best damn ship in the Navy.

    I offer my experiences, my successes, and my failures not only because they make a good story, though I think they do. I offer them as a practical guide to any leader in any business or organization. Like the Navy, the business community has to figure out how to help people grow. A Gallup study found that when people leave their companies, 65 percent of them are actually leaving their managers. As true in the Navy as it is in business, leaders are failing—and the costs are astounding. Conservative estimates put the cost of losing a trained worker at one and a half times the annual salary of the outgoing employee, as measured by lost productivity and recruiting and training costs for the replacement.

    What all leaders have in common is the challenge of getting the most out of our crew, which depends on three variables: the leader's needs, the organization's atmosphere, and the crew's potential competence. In this book, I describe how the Navy and other organizations often mismatch those variables and damage themselves in the process. I am fervently committed to helping any leader at any level, in business or in the military, create the mix that makes those variables 100 percent effective.

    Exceptional leaders have always been rare, but they can be made as well as born, and the Benfold story is a case in point. But the story also conveys an idea of something far larger than the transformation of one captain and his crew. The terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, triggered a global fear of apocalypse from which the rational world can recover only with the aid of inspired leadership at every level of society—churches, families, schools, hospitals, courts, Congress, the White House. Of these, companies and military units are among the organizations most in need of superb leadership, because they drive and guard economic stability. Gravely wounded, but hardly daunted, Americans in business and in the military must now help revive the world economy and win a planetary war without borders.

    Crisis spawns leaders, as we saw those weeks in September 2001, when death rained from flawless autumn skies and ordinary people became extraordinary. We may now face a series of crises throughout the world, and the need for steady leaders may be as relentless as the crises themselves.

    I hope this book will help anyone suddenly challenged, as I was, with the realization that leadership is earned, not designated.

    In a nutshell, hard experience has taught me that real leadership is about understanding yourself first, then using that to create a superb 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. My experience has shown that helping people realize their full potential can lead to attaining goals that would be impossible to reach under command-and-control.

    While the economy was booming, teeming with high-tech jobs for qualified young people, the Navy was accepting thousands who had thus far been left out of the nation's prosperity. Our job was to turn them into high-tech experts—master operators of state-of-the-art warships costing billions of dollars. Moreover, we had to shape them into self-confident men and women fully able to serve their country in dangerous times and unfamiliar places. We did all this, playing the same hand my predecessor held. We didn't fire or replace anyone. We tapped the potential that had never been recognized.

    That Benfold succeeded to a startling degree is not necessarily a testament to the U.S. Navy, which is still burdened with a very mixed bag of leaders, but rather to the approach I found, and to my shipmates, who more than justified my trust and confidence in them.

    In the chapters that follow, I will detail the ideas and techniques that I used to win my sailors' trust and, eventually, their enthusiastic commitment to our joint goal of making our ship the best in the fleet. The book's structure narrates episodes in Benfold's two-year voyage through uncharted waters of leadership, and is organized around the lessons I learned. A chapter is given to each one: Lead by example; listen aggressively; communicate purpose and meaning; create a climate of trust; look for results, not salutes; take calculated risks; go beyond standard procedure; build up your people's confidence; generate unity; and improve everyone's quality of life as much as possible.

    At the Naval Academy we studied legendary military leaders, from Alexander the Great to Dwight D. Eisenhower, but I sensed that something was missing from those portraits. Biographers described their victories and heroic gestures, but my years in the Navy taught me that the art of leadership lies in simple things—commonsense actions that ensure high morale and increase the odds of winning.

    Leaders must be willing to put the ship's performance ahead of their egos, which for some people is harder than for others. The command-and-control approach is far from the most efficient way to tap people's intelligence and skills. To the contrary, I found that the more control I gave up, the more command I got. In the beginning, people kept asking my permission to do things. Eventually, I told the crew, "It's your ship. You're responsible for it. Make a decision and see what happens." Hence the Benfold watchword was "It's your ship." Every sailor felt that Benfold was his or her responsibility. Show me an organization in which employees take ownership, and I will show you one that beats its competitors.

    Captains need to see the ship from the crew's perspective. They need to make it easy and rewarding for crew members to express themselves and their ideas, and they need to figure out how and when to delegate responsibility.

    I took command realizing that I could take either of two courses. One would be to do nothing for two years, lie low, and take no risks. We have all known cold, timid souls; I may have been one myself as I was coming up through the ranks. The problem—the Navy's biggest—is that had I stayed that way and done nothing for two years, I still would have been promoted.

    The more dangerous course, at least to my career, would be to shake things up, rock the boat to get the truly exceptional performance I felt we needed. And that's what I did. When I came to Benfold, I had been on my Navy leadership journey for sixteen years—and what I suddenly realized was that I had the power to do this all along. I just never had the self-confidence.

    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.

    How did I get away with this approach in the notoriously rigid hierarchy of the Navy? One answer is that the Navy was in so much trouble that the brass were desperate enough to give people latitude to try new things. But equally important, I discovered a way to create change without asking a higher authority's permission. In effect, I put myself in the shoes of my boss, then asked, "What do I want from Abrashoff and Benfold?" What the boss wanted, I decided, was a ship that met all operational commitments and did so under budget, while achieving high morale and a high retention rate. I thought that if I could deliver these things, my boss will leave me alone. He will concentrate on other ships that aren't delivering the same results.

    I also made sure to act in the least threatening manner. None of my actions could possibly bankrupt the company or hurt anyone's career. I took prudent, calculated risks, the kind I thought my boss would want me to take. Never once did I do anything to promote myself, just the organization. That way, no one could ever question my motives.

    Sure enough, when I got the results I was aiming for, my commodore (the operational commander of a six-ship squadron) was amazed. He started sending other commanding officers (COs) over to Benfold to figure out what we were doing so they could implement it on their ships. The results improved the business, and he got the credit, so the risks were clearly in his interest. That's the only way to make good things happen in your organization.

    Many people consider going out on a limb a sure way to endanger your career, but this conventional wisdom is no way for an organization to stay alive and strong. 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.

    Of course, trying something new is never easy. For one thing, there aren't any precedents to guide you. And that can be a very good thing.

    I gave my first speech at a two-day conference sponsored by the magazine Fast Company to one thousand people. I joined Dee Hock, founder of Visa International, and Tom Peters, perhaps best known for his book In Search of Excellence. After I talked about Benfold, the questions began, and I floundered. The worst one was, "What kind of metrics did you use when you were determining where you wanted to go?"

    I stood there like a deer caught in headlights. I was in such a hurry to change the way we did business, I had bypassed conventional business wisdom on how to implement change. The crowd tittered.

    Later, I called my sister Connie, who has an MBA and has worked for major financial institutions all over the country. She said the management committee always wants to see the metrics before they allow you to launch new ideas. Since, by definition, new ideas don't have metrics, the result is that great ideas tend to be stillborn in major companies today.

    I just knew where Benfold was when I arrived, and generally where I wanted us to go from there. If I had been forced to chart a course defined by metrics, the creativity we sparked and the changes we achieved probably could not have happened.

    Still, without metrics, how could I decide whether something new was a good idea? There were no guarantees. Life isn't always tidy, and often unintended consequences result from well-meant actions. In general, however, I decided that on just about everything I did, my standard should be simply whether or not it felt right. You can never go wrong if you do "the right thing."

    How do you define the right thing? As U.S. Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart said about pornography, you know it when you see it. If it feels right, smells right, tastes right, it's almost surely the right thing—and you will be on the right track.

    If that doesn't sound very profound or sophisticated, in the Navy, in business, and in life, it really is as simple as that.

    I hope and believe that this book can help leaders of both large and small companies realize that they have the power to be phenomenal leaders, just as I did for many years before I decided to use it. Hopefully, my story will help you develop the confidence. Though a guided missile destroyer isn't Procter & Gamble, the old-line Navy management policies aren't so different from those that still rule most corporations. As a leader, you can change your piece of the world, just as I was able to change mine.

    After all, it's your ship.



    MY FIRST INKLING OF THE SIZE OF THE JOB CAME AT 1:21 in the afternoon of June 20, 1997, after I formally assumed command of USS Benfold.

    When a Navy ship changes hands, all routine work stops two weeks prior to the event. The crew paints the ship from top to bottom, sets up a big tent on the flight deck, arranges chairs for dignitaries, and unrolls a red carpet for the obligatory admiral, who delivers a speech on the outstanding performance of the ship's departing skipper. A reception follows. Waves of good feeling saturate the event as the former commanding officer is piped ashore.

    My predecessor was accompanied by his mother, wife, and children as he left the ship. And when the public-address system announced his final departure, much of the crew cheered, I am told, but it was not a tribute. They were jeering, blatantly relieved to get rid of him. I had never seen such open disrespect in my entire military career. I was stunned. I can still feel my face flushing with embarrassment.

    Truthfully, my first thought as I watched this spectacle was about myself. How could I keep this from happening to me when I left the ship in two years? I was taking over a very tough crew who hated their captain. By all Navy measures, that feeling was reflected in their performance: The ship ranked near the bottom of the Pacific Fleet. If Benfold had been a business, its managers would have been consulting with restructuring consultants.

    The crew would probably dislike me, too, if for no other reason I represented old-fashioned and perhaps obsolete authority. That was okay; being likable is not high among a ship captain's job requirements. What is essential is to be respected, trusted, and effective. Listening to those raucous jeers, I realized that I had a long way to go before I really took command of Benfold.

    I knew that I would have to come up with a new leadership model, geared to a new era. And this awkward reception underlined for me just how much the workplace had changed in military as well as in civilian life.

    Never before had employees felt so free to tell their bosses what they thought of them. In the long economic boom, people were not afraid of losing their jobs. Other jobs awaited them; even modestly qualified people moved from one company to another in a quest for the perfect position they believed they richly deserved.

    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. Talk about an eye-opener.

    Further research disclosed an unexpected parallel with civilian life. According to a recent survey, low pay is also number five on the list of reasons why private employees jump from one company to another. And the top four reasons are virtually the same as in the military. The inescapable conclusion is that, as leaders, we are all doing the same wrong things.

    Since a ship's captain can't hand out pay raises, much less stock options, I decided that during my two years commanding Benfold, I would concentrate on dealing with the unhappy sailors' top four gripes. My organizing principle was simple: The key to being a successful skipper is to see the ship through the eyes of the crew. Only then can you find out what's really wrong and, in so doing, help the sailors empower themselves to fix it.

    A simple principle, yes, but one the Navy applauds in theory and rejects in practice. 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. This is understandable, given the military's ancient insistence on obedience in the face of chaos, which is essential in battle. Moreover, subordinates may sidestep responsibility by reasoning that their managers are paid to take the rap.

    A ship commanded by a micromanager and his or her hierarchy of sub-micromanagers is no breeding ground for individual initiative. And I was aiming for 310 initiative-takers—a crew ready, able, and willing to make Benfold the top-rated ship in the fleet.

    What I wanted, in fact, was a crew that bore at least a dim resemblance to the ship's namesake, Edward C. Benfold, a Navy hospital corpsman who died in action at the age of twenty-one while tending to two wounded Marines in a foxhole during the Korean War. When several enemy soldiers approached the foxhole, throwing grenades into it, Benfold picked up the grenades and stormed the enemy, killing them and himself in the process. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. (Incidentally, he came from the small town of Audubon, New Jersey, which has two other Medal of Honor winners as well, making it the highest per capita Medal of Honor city in the United States.) I wanted my crew to display courage and step up to the plate just as Edward Benfold had done.

    We had nowhere to go but up. Still, up is not an easy direction. It defies gravity, both cultural and magnetic. So the Benfold story is hardly a hymn to our unalloyed success in converting the heathen. It was tough going.

    At first, my unconventional approach to the job evoked fear and undermined the authoritarian personality that had been imprinted on the ship. But instead of constantly scrutinizing the members of my crew with the presumption that they would screw up, I assumed that they wanted to do well and be the best. I wanted everyone to be involved in the common cause of creating the best ship in the Pacific Fleet. And why stop there? Let's shoot for the best damn ship in the whole damn Navy!

    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.

    Little gestures go a long way. At our base in San Diego, for example, I decided to quit feeding the crew with official Navy rations, and instead used the ship's food budget to buy quality civilian brands that were cheaper as well as tastier. With the saved money, I sent some of our cooks to culinary school. What they learned turned Benfold into a lunchtime mecca for sailors from all over the San Diego base.

    There were also our music videos, courtesy of stealth technology. We have all heard of the stealth bomber. We are now building ships using stealth characteristics to minimize our radar signature so that the enemy cannot easily find us. By using angled decks and radar-absorbing materials on the hull, an enemy's radar beam is either deflected or absorbed. As a result, an 8,300-ton, 505-foot-long destroyer looks no bigger on an enemy's radar screen than a fishing boat. The angled superstructure that stealth technology dictated on the after part of Benfold resembled the screen of an old drive-in movie theater. So one of my more resourceful sailors created outdoor entertainment by projecting music videos on that surface that the refueling crews could enjoy. The shows generated a lot of buzz throughout the fleet and lightened up a tedious and sometimes dangerous job.

    While spending thirty-five interminable autumn days in the scorching Persian Gulf, we acquired a lifeboat full of pumpkins, a fruit alien to the Middle East. Our supply officer pulled off this coup, and I thought it would be micromanaging to ask for an explanation. After we overdosed on pumpkin pie, we distributed scores of unused pumpkins for a jack-o'-lantern carving contest.

    The innovations weren't all lighthearted. On our way from San Diego to the Persian Gulf, for example, our first stop was Honolulu. Benfold accompanied two other ships, USS Gary and USS Harry W. Hill


    On Sale
    Oct 15, 2007
    Page Count
    224 pages

    Captain D. Michael Abrashoff

    About the Author

    Captain D. Michael Abrashoff is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD, and was a military assistant to the former secretary of defense, the Honorable Dr. William J. Perry. Abrashoff left the Navy in 2001 and became the founder and CEO of Grassroots Leadership, Inc., in Boston. You can visit his website at

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