The Five Habits at Sea

The Five Habits at Sea

The Five Practices

When Navy Commander Mike Abrashoff took over the USS Benfold in 1997, he was not taking on an easy task. Ranked as the 3rd worst ship in the Navy, his new command was plagued with low morale, high turnover, and a complete lack of trust. Crew members did their time on the ship and then departed, often leaving not just the ship but exiting the Navy. While this may seem like the norm for a volunteer force, the backbone of the military relies on tenured mid-level officers and non-commissioned officers to lead day-to-day operations. Not retaining crew members in these positions meant that staff replacement costs on the Benfold had grown exponentially.

Commander Abrashoff knew that if he wanted a level of excellence above and beyond what the Navy had experienced in the past, he had to start doing things from a different perspective in the future. To achieve the excellence he was looking for, he fully employed The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®.

One of the first things he did was Enable Others to Act by freeing his crew from “top-down-itis”, the idea that all good ideas come from senior officers. Setting out to get his crew to “own Benfold” (e.g., to take personal responsibility for and to take pride in the ship), he Modeled the Way as he focused on developing trusting relationships with his staff and Inspiring a Shared Vision. Instead of eating with the officers, as tradition dictated, Commander Abrashoff ate with the enlisted men and women. He walked the deck asking sailors how they thought the ship could improve. As he continually Challenged the Process, he would try anything as long as 1) it did not put someone at risk of death and 2) he could find a way to put it into his budget. And when things did not go as planned, he made sure that the crew learned from their mistakes. He encouraged calculated risk taking and constantly asked for new ideas, welcoming input from everyone at every rank.

A Tale of Challenging the Process
One of the most demotivating tasks for new sailors was painting the ship, which involved a team starting at the front and painting toward the rear. In all, it took a full month. And since every Navy ship at sea was painted every other month, the new crew of sailors was rewarded for their efforts by having to do it all over again the very next month! That is until one of Commander Abrashoff’s sailors Challenged the Process by asking, “Why do we use ferrous metals in every bolt, nut, and screw used to connect the steel on the outside of the boat to the structure?” As it happens, ferrous metals rust, especially when exposed to saltwater. As a result, the bolts were constantly rusting and dripping down the side of the ship, creating further corrosion. But with one sailor Challenging the Process by asking a simple question, “Have you heard of stainless steel?” Commander Abrashoff went on the hunt for stainless steel parts. He invested $25,000 in retrofitting the Benfold and reduced the required painting to once per year.

Inspired by this initial “small win”, another sailor suggested a new method for baking the metal of the ship’s deck to remove impurities and then painting it with rust-inhibiting paint. A fairly simple change but one that delivered a great result: the crew never had to paint the ship again during their tour.

With the extra time provided by these initiatives, sailors had more freedom to take college courses, and had more training time to help increase their readiness scores. In addition, after a few high-profile successes, the ideas came pouring in. Commander Abrashoff’s response was always the same: “It’s your ship.” By giving his crew the freedom to choose how they did their work, encouraging calculated risks, and supporting the decisions his staff made, he increased morale, lowered turnover and, in the end, was the recipient of the Spokane Award for being the best ship in the Pacific Fleet.

Our Role as Leaders
While most of us will never command a destroyer, many of us will lead others who have insight into how we can improve. As our leadership roles become more complex, we often lose touch with daily operations. We forget the challenges line employees face and with limited perspective cannot accurately identify, let alone solve, the ever-growing list of challenges. Creating an environment of trust, effectively listening to staff, and giving people freedom to solve their challenges enables our teams to grow and improve, and moves our organizations forward to a more competitive place in the future.


Michael Curtis
, a Certified Master-in-Training of The Leadership Challenge®, has 30+ years in public service including a stint in the United States Air Force. A member of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services for over 20 years, he currently supervises a team of highly motivated trainers for Adult Protective Services and can be reached at michael.curtis@dfps.state.tx.us

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