Get Your Ship Together: How Great Leaders Inspire Ownership from the Keel

Get Your Ship Together: How Great Leaders Inspire Ownership from the Keel

by D. Michael Abrashoff

ISBN: 9781591840749

Publisher Portfolio Hardcover

Published in Calendars/Boats & Ships

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Sample Chapter


MY NEW LIFE AS THE CAPTAIN OF USS BENFOLD BEGAN ON A gleaming day in San Diego Bay. A high sun warmed the salt air to a perfect 73 degrees; the pale blue horizon, flecked with white sails, blended seamlessly into an indigo sea. And there I was on the bridge of a billion-dollar navy warship, a thirty-six-year-old master of the universe lounging casually in the captain's chair, as I prepared to take my ship out to sea for the first time.

Benfold was a beautiful fighting machine-a destroyer armed with the navy's most advanced guided missiles, a radar system that could home in on a bird-sized object fifty miles away, and a presumably superb crew of 310 men and women. With four gas turbine engines at my fingertips, I could push this 8,300-ton leviathan to more than thirty knots-at least thirty-three miles an hour-sending up a massive rooster tail in her wake.

My adrenaline was flowing. The moment I had been waiting for my entire career was at hand. The tugboats were alongside, standing by for the order to guide us away from the pier.

Despite all that power and sophisticated machinery, and no matter how good a ship handler the captain may be, we still need tugboats to help steer us into and out of our berth. Mooring to and getting under way from the pier are two of our most difficult maneuvers. Lots of things can go wrong-you can smash into the wharf or into ships behind you, or run the ship aground. If any of those things were to happen, I could get fired almost on the spot; my head would roll even before the investigation started.

Also, right underneath the bow of the ship is a huge, bulbous sonar dome covered by a black rubber protective device. Think of it as a five-million-dollar steel-belted radial tire. If it scrapes the curb (read pier), you can decrease the sonar's ability to detect submarines. Or, worst case, you can puncture the protective shield and deflate it completely. So prudence dictates that we use tugs to move us away from the pier.

Now, with the engines just whispering at idle speed, their vast stores of power bridled, we prepared to shove off. What a kick. I was bursting with pride. I couldn't wait to hit the open sea and order all engines ahead, flank speed.

I gave the order to take in all lines, directed the tugs to start backing us slowly from the pier, and then, like air whooshing out of a balloon, my ego cruise ended before it ever got under way. Benfold suddenly lost power. Her engines quit turning. In an instant, she became nothing but 8,300 tons of steel likely to run aground or crash into another ship. In the eerie silence, red warning lights blinked everywhere. I dashed into the pilothouse, fumbling for emergency phones, demanding information. At that moment, I was enormously relieved and grateful to have the tugboats hovering nearby like watchful parents running alongside a kid on a new bike. I ordered the tugs to push us back to the pier while we investigated the power failure.

When a ship loses power abruptly, you have four chances to avoid disaster. You can kick-start the engines by shooting a jet of high-pressure air into the turbines. Like an old-fashioned hand crank, the air jolt gets everything spinning and firing up again. If the first attempt fails, you have three flasks of emergency air for three more tries. But if those don't work, that's it-your ship is dead in the water, a useless and dangerous hulk that has to be towed back to port. That is the ultimate disgrace, rare but not unheard of.

Benfold lost power and unmade my day because at least one of the watch standers had not followed procedure. Whenever a ship is under way, the watch standers constantly monitor dials and gauges on the bridge and in the engine room to make sure all the parts of the huge, complex vessel are in sync. If anything goes wrong, they have to react in time to prevent further damage and engine failure. When Benfold's watch standers failed to respond in time, a cascading series of events was set in train-much like the massive power outage on the East Coast in the summer of 2003-and the engines shut down to prevent serious damage. With the ship about to cast off the tugs in the narrow channel, disaster had been only seconds away.

We were lucky. Members of the engineering crew came to the rescue and got the engines up and running again in about fifty seconds. My mind was racing just as fast: I had been taught that a captain must be always alert, prepared for any disaster that could materialize in a given situation. Before backing away from the pier, I should have envisioned every possible scenario and had a preplanned response to deal with it. Whether from youthful inexperience or plain old cockiness, I didn't. We were just lucky the tugboats were still there to save us from disaster. Luck, though, is not a sound strategy for success.

With time I would come to understand that being the captain when times are good is easy. But true leaders must also prepare for what might happen when times are tough. Sometimes you have to steer a big ship near shoal water and that takes extra skill. The captain's biggest challenge is to be able to navigate wisely under any circumstances, expected or not.

Why was I so unready for a thoroughly possible crisis? How should I train myself and my crew for the inevitable next time?

I would soon learn that I could order a mission to be accomplished, but I couldn't order great results. Real leaders lay the cornerstone around which a team comes together to produce superior results. A mission based on luck or hope is not sustainable over the long haul.

Had I been directing Benfold's castoff and departure like a winning leader, I would have behaved very differently. Real leadership is caring so intensely about something under your control-a ship, say-that you prepare for its success in both good times and bad. As Benfold's fledgling captain, I quickly learned the importance of making sure that every sailor on the ship understood that he or she had a stake in guaranteeing Benfold's readiness for war, peace, or anything in between.

As you may have read in my first book, It's Your Ship, I soon learned how tough-and rewarding-it is to turn 310 sailors into teammates who really care about the mission. Not me-firsters, but true collaborators. Winners in any weather. Since leaving the navy almost four years ago, I've learned that the same thing can be accomplished in civilian life if you understand the components needed to ensure success.

First and foremost, you must have a sound business strategy that values technical competence. You may even be able to get by on technical competency alone. But truly great results will only come when all crew members believe not only that what they are doing is important, but also understand that delivering great results every day serves their own best interests. With the right strategy and first-rate leadership, nearly any human enterprise can become a winner. That's why I wrote this book: to share real stories of unsung leadership derived not only from the U.S. military, but from all kinds of fields and organizations, private and public alike.

My own reeducation as a leader began out of disgust at myself, a sharp reaction to my unreadiness when Benfold lost power that beautiful San Diego morning. From then on, I trained and retrained myself for emergencies, those sudden jolts when there is no time to think and you have to switch to autopilot. To make that shift successfully requires a repertoire of reflexes. Forward planning is essential. To minimize damage, you have to anticipate and rehearse the first few steps to be taken in a crisis. I hadn't done that. Furthermore, I had forgotten that remedial action should begin with the captain-me.

For my entire tour as captain, I constantly tried to visualize worst-case scenarios and what I would do in response. Was I compulsive? Absolutely! But it wasn't because I wanted that next promotion. I could live without getting promoted, but I couldn't live with myself if one of my crew members got seriously injured or killed on my watch because of my failure to be prepared. I know that every other military leader in uniform today feels the same way. I hope and pray that our civilian leaders in the Pentagon share that sentiment.

Always preparing for trouble, I became a walking database of contingency plans for everything from a man or woman overboard to World War III. Missiles, plagues, terrorists, heart attacks-I envisioned all those and more. One dawn, I even woke up in a cold sweat after dreaming that terrorists had stolen my dress white uniform, leaving me in my skivvies just as the president of the United States was piped aboard to inspect Benfold. I immediately went out and bought a second set of dress whites-just in case.

My sailors sometimes thought I was nuts. The captain's eyes were peeled for terrorists whenever Benfold pulled into a port in the Middle East, so we manned additional watch stations in port for protection. It was 1997, a year after a terrorist bomb had exploded outside the U.S. portion of the Khobar Towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia, killing nineteen servicemen and wounding hundreds of others, civilians and military personnel alike. Having stood in the four-hundred-foot crater left by the blast, and being ever mindful of the senseless loss of lives, I was determined that we would not be caught unprepared.

Even after receiving an e-mail from a commodore telling me to relax, I couldn't. There was no history of terrorist attacks on a navy ship in port, he reminded me, and no intelligence that would lead the navy to believe an attack was coming. Maybe so, but it wasn't his crew that I was worried about. The deadly attack on USS Cole came three years later.

All this ever ready research did pay off, especially when I asked my ablest sailors how they would handle the nasty situations I imagined. Example: Suppose we're towing a million-dollar array of sonar hydrophones on antisubmarine patrol, and the umbilical line runs too shallow and wraps itself around our propellers. What should we do? The answer: Nothing-it's too late. You must prevent it at all costs. Which means that if you lose power while the array is deployed, you have to race to the stern of the ship and manually reel in the cable, which can be up to a mile long, before it has a chance to wrap around the propellers.

Sometimes the crew had answers I hadn't thought of. Sometimes they came up blank. But I made sure that everyone was planning ahead and training to make the best of the worst. The more they got involved, of course, the greater their stake in the outcome. I could see it happening when certain bellwether sailors lost their uncomfortable smiles and instead began offering insightful comments on the challenge at hand. We weren't buddies and never could be. I was their captain. But my crew began to coalesce into a real team, working together on something beyond themselves.

That was a relief. A navy captain can't induce performance by handing out huge bonuses and stock options. The rewards and incentives at my disposal were mainly intangible-more responsibility, public praise, extra liberty, a medal, respect. Nevertheless, these are highly coveted in the closed world of shipboard culture. A captain who keeps rewarding sailors for excellence, instead of punishing them for mediocrity, can gradually tilt the entire crew in the right direction. That's why I was constantly on the lookout for sailors doing something right that I could reward.

Not that it was easy. I couldn't just order my sailors to become paragons. I was dealing with 310 individuals, and they had their share of screwups. I had to do lots of subtle coaxing, stroking, and plain old politicking.

Take one of my chief problems-Benfold's engineering department. With a few bright exceptions, my engineers were far less skilled than I had assumed they would be when I took over. Before my arrival, the ship had actually flunked its engineering certification, which was virtually unheard of for a top-drawer fighting ship that was practically new. What's more, Benfold had barely passed the recertification test. Had the ship failed again, an already venomous atmosphere would have become even more so.

My ship's weakest link was its engineering department. And to make matters worse, I had never served in the engineering department and did not have much technical expertise to offer. The chief engineer's job is the toughest on the ship. In the best of circumstances, serving in this position aboard a warship is so mentally and physically draining that a rotation normally lasts only eighteen months, at which point the typical chief engineer limps off the ship, shoulders stooped and brain practically fried. But our poor, tormented engineer served on Benfold at a time when the navy was grappling with a severe shortage of engineering officers, causing his tour of duty to be extended to three years. When I first met the man, I saw a chain-smoker with trembling hands and weary eyes. I wasn't entirely sure he would live through the night.

The engineer's main problem, it turned out, was that everyone had long blamed him-unfairly, as I came to realize-for whatever went wrong, notably the inspections that Benfold failed with monotonous regularity. All too often we rush to affix blame instead of fixing the problem. I wanted to fix the problem. Even a cursory examination showed me that the worst trouble lay within a few key positions beneath the chief engineer, staffed by people who lacked the technical skills needed to do their jobs. But he was too fine a leader to pass the blame. He took it squarely on his own shoulders.

Imagine all this rancor multiplied by a factor of ten, which was the state of things when recertification loomed. Because the engineers were busy getting the equipment up to speed, they had no time for cleaning the bilge, a filthy job done in the exceedingly cramped bowels of the ship. But no one gives extra points for difficult maneuvering in a limited space. The bilge must be clean to pass inspection, and that's that. With the engineers otherwise engaged, it fell to the rest of the crew to stop working on their own jobs and lend a hand. They spent several weeks, hating every minute of it. As you might imagine, everyone wound up blaming the chief engineer not only for the first certification failure, but for the agony of preparing for the retest.

Benfold did pass its engineering certification the second time because of heroic work by a few indomitable souls. But the outcome was such a squeaker that the ship's engineering reputation sank even further.


Excerpted from "Get Your Ship Together: How Great Leaders Inspire Ownership from the Keel" by D. Michael Abrashoff. Copyright © 2005 by D. Michael Abrashoff. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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