About the Author
D. Michael Abrashoff served for almost twenty years in the U.S. Navy, culminating in a tour of duty as captain of the $1 billion warship USS Benfold. After leaving the navy, he wrote a bestseller about progressive leadership called It’s Your Ship. He lectures to business audiences around the country.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
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 captains chair, as I prepared to take my ship out to sea for the first time.
Benfold was a beautiful fighting machinea destroyer armed with the navys 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 knotsat least thirty-three miles an hoursending 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 wrongyou 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 sonars 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 couldnt 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 dont work, thats ityour 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 Benfolds 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 2003and 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 didnt. 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 captains 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 couldnt 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 Benfolds castoff and departure like a winning leader, I would have behaved very differently. Real leadership is caring so intensely about something under your controla ship, saythat you prepare for its success in both good times and bad. As Benfolds 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 Benfolds readiness for war, peace, or anything in between.
As you may have read in my first book, Its Your Ship, I soon learned how toughand rewardingit 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, Ive 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. Thats 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 hadnt done that. Furthermore, I had forgotten that remedial action should begin with the captainme.
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 wasnt because I wanted that next promotion. I could live without getting promoted, but I couldnt 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 attacksI 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 whitesjust in case.
My sailors sometimes thought I was nuts. The captains 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 couldnt. 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 wasnt 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 were towing a million-dollar array of sonar hydroph...
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