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Grass Roots Leadership

Posted by Kath Crossley on 23 September 2019

Grass Roots Leadership: Mike's Story

At the age of 36, Mike Abrashoff was selected to become Commander of USS Benfold, at the time, the most junior commanding officer in the Pacific Fleet.  The immediate challenges that faced him were staggering - exceptionally low morale with unacceptably high turnover.  Few thought that this ship could improve.  In many ways, the Benfold was actually an extreme example of the same problems facing many organisations today.

As the new head of his own command, Mike only became more resolved.

"In my induction ceremony, my predecessor left to cheers.  The crew was actually clapping as he and his family departed.  I knew then that command-and-control leadership was dead.

"A lot of people do whatever it takes to secure the next promotion.  All I ever wanted to do in the navy was to command a ship.  I did not care if I ever got promoted again.  And that attitude enabled me to do the right things for my people instead of doing the right things for my career.  Along the way, it was my people that created the results that ensured my next promotion."

The solution was in establishing a system of beliefs that Mike calls "grass roots leadership" - a process of replacing command and control with commitment and cohesion, by engaging the hearts, minds and loyalties of workers - beliefs that Mike achieves with conviction and humility.

"The most important thing that a captain can do is to see the ship through the eyes of the crew."

To Mike, this meant interviewing every single person on his ship, from the most senior officer to the newest recruit - an experience that began to generate the most invaluable ideas, often from the most unexpected sources.  For example, through one of these meetings Mike was able to address one of the most demoralising roles of the crew - relentless chipping and painting had always been a standard task for a ship's youngest sailors, the individuals that Mike most wanted to connect with.  One of these sailors simply suggested replacing the rusting hardware with stainless-steel nuts and bolts.

"I took our credit card and bought the stainless steel hardware that day," Mike commented.  "Those guys didn't pick up a paintbrush the rest of the time I was on board."

Today, the entire navy uses that process, a solution that began from grass roots efforts.

Grass roots leadership is a principle that empowers every individual to share the responsibility of achieving excellence.

"It's your ship," Mike was known to say.  His former sailors to this day still remind him of it.

By every measure, these principles were able to achieve breakthrough results.  Personnel turnover decreased to an unprecedented 1%.  The rate of military promotions tripled and operating expenses were slashed by 25%.  USS Benfold became regarded as the finest ship in the Pacific Fleet, winning the prestigious Spokane Trophy for having the highest degree of combat readiness.

Mike's leadership skills have been honed through a number of challenging roles.  Prior to commanding USS Benfold, Mike served as the Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, the Honorable Dr William J Perry.  In this demanding role, Mike accompanied the Secretary of Defense throughout the world on critical missions of national security.

Other experiences that have influenced Mike's leadership skills include helping to draft the air defense plan for naval forces in the Persian Gulf in 1990, coinciding with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and serving as the Executive Officer of the Cruiser Shiloh, where he traveled to the Persian Gulf in support of United Nations sanctions against Iraq.

He currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he has just finished his second book, "Get Your Ship Together".

Mike's first book, "It's Your Ship", has sold over 180,000 copies and is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal Best Seller.

Author: Kath Crossley
Tags: Leadership

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