Michael Abrashoff’s Journey: Transforming the Navy’s Worst Ship into a Model of Excellence

Transforming a Dysfunctional Ship: Lessons in Leadership from Michael Abrashoff

Michael Abrashoff was a mid-thirties naval captain when he took command of the USS Benfold – a guided missile destroyer known for being one of the worst-performing ships in the navy. Despite her potency, the ship had a disgruntled crew who couldn’t wait to leave the Navy. Within three years of taking over, Abrashoff managed to turn Benfold into the highest-performing ship in the Navy, and the retention rates soared. The remarkable feat was achieved without changing a single crew member.

Understanding Yourself First

Abrashoff believes that true leadership begins with an understanding of oneself first. Once someone comprehends their thoughts and feelings, they can use that knowledge to shape their organization. Leaders should free their subordinates to fulfill their talents to the utmost. However, some leaders set obstacles that limit people’s potential, which are rooted in their ego needs, fears, and unproductive habits. Leaders must explore themselves first to bring about a change in perspective, leading to different choices, and a more authentic persona.

Performance over Ego

Abrashoff warns against the command-and-control approach as it hinders the tapping of people’s intelligence and skills. Organizations that allow employees to develop a sense of ownership and challenge rules are more successful than those who believe in stand-patters. Abrashoff stresses the importance of rewarding risk-takers despite potential short-term failures. Leaders must be willing to prioritize the ship’s performance over their ego. When employees take ownership, they take responsibility and put in their best efforts.

Empowering Subordinates

Organizations need to attract and retain the best employees and motivate them to work passionately. The top reasons why people leave an organization do not relate to money. Instead, they include being disrespected, prevented from making an impact, not being listened to, and not being rewarded with more responsibility. Leaders must try to perceive the world from their subordinates’ perspectives and focus on empowering them instead of micromanaging.

Creating a Culture of Ownership

Abrashoff’s leadership efforts focused not only on finding better ways of doing tasks but also encouraging fun. He empowered his crew to find better ways of doing their jobs and insisted that they have fun while doing it. Instead of creating a rigid system of rules, Abrashoff aimed to create a culture of ownership. He set the direction and gave his crew autonomy to handle the details, as he believed that ownership dramatically increases the odds of success.


Abrashoff’s story provides valuable insights into leadership. Leaders should focus on understanding themselves first, creating a culture of ownership instead of micromanagement, and rewarding risk-takers. Importantly, leaders must empower their subordinates to bring out the best in them and create a sense of ownership. To stay competitive, organizations must continuously evolve and not fear change. By embracing these lessons, leaders can create a high-performing team and organizational success.

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