Grassroots Leadership Principles – It is Your Ship

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

Be Humble. Being in power is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t. –Margaret Thatcher

At the age of thirty-six, Michael Abrashoff was chosen to become Commander of the USS Benfold at the time, the most junior commanding officer in the Pacific Fleet. The immediate challenges were staggering: Exceptionally low morale with unacceptably high turnover. Few thought that this ship could improve. The Benfold was an extreme example of the same problems facing organizations today.

As the new head of his command, Michael only became more resolved. In my induction ceremony, my predecessor left to cheers. The crew was clapping as he and his family left. I knew then that command-and-control leadership was dead.

People do whatever it takes to secure the next promotion. All I wanted to do in the navy was command a ship. I did not care if I got promoted. 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, my people created the results that ensured my next promotion.

The solution was to set up a system of beliefs that Michael calls Grassroots Leadership, a process of replacing command and control with commitment and cohesion by engaging workers' hearts, minds, and loyalties.

In his book, it is Your Ship: Management Techniques from The Best Damn Ship in the Navy, Michael states that the most important thing a captain can do is to see the ship through the eyes of the crew.

To Michael, this meant interviewing every 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, Michael addressed one of the crew's most demoralizing roles: relentless chipping and painting had always been a standard task for a ship’s youngest sailors, the individuals whom Michael most wanted to connect with. One of these sailors suggested replacing the rusting hardware with stainless-steel nuts and bolts.

Michael commented that Air took our credit card and bought the stainless-steel hardware that day. Those guys did not 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 Grassroots efforts.

Grassroots Leadership is a philosophy that empowers everyone to share the responsibility of achieving excellence. Grassroots Leadership has as its core tenets:

Lead by Example - Grassroots Leaders know they must first change their attitude and behaviors before expecting their crew to change.

Listen Aggressively - Grassroots Leaders do not simply listen; they hear what their people are telling them. They know that those on the front lines are the most familiar with how operations can be more effective.

Communicate Purpose and Meaning Grassroots Leaders help their crew understand (collectively and individually) how their work contributes to the success of the overall mission, as well as understand how that work supports the personal goals they have for themselves.

Create a Climate of Trust - Grassroots Leaders trust and cultivate trust from their crew. Without faith, the barriers that prevent excellent performance will never be lowered.

Look for Results, Not Salutes - Grassroots Leaders maximize performance by making their people grow. They succeed only where their people succeed and thrive.

Take Calculated Risks - Grassroots Leaders know that taking prudent, calculated risks is instrumental in maximizing performance.

Go Beyond Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) - Grassroots Leaders look at the standard operating procedure as a guideline because SOP does not change as rapidly as the environment and competition. Therefore, they foster a climate that encourages people to devise better and more innovative ways to conduct their mission.

Strengthen Others/Build Up Your People - Grassroots Leaders focus on making their people grow and creating an environment where everyone can win, thereby strengthening the entire team.

Generate Unity - Grassroots Leaders work to not only change undesirable behaviors but to alter the underlying attitudes. By working toward mutual respect for everyone, they level the playing field, allowing everyone to perform at their highest level.

Cultivate Quality of Life - Grassroots Leaders actively integrate fun into the work experience. They want their crew to have as much pleasure from 9 to 5 as they do at home from 5 to 9, thereby gaining the passion, enthusiasm, and creativity they usually lock in their car in the parking lot each morning.

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.

His first book, it is Your Ship, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal Best Seller. While receiving accolades from such business-minded entities as Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and others, the greatest testament to Micha Michaelis' worship style is represented by one of his crew, who published the following review of Its Your Ship on

Reviewer: EW3 Holly (Davis) Simpson from Louisville, KY, D December 11, 2003

I am a plank owner* of the Benfold and admired Capt. Abrashoff’s leadership. His superior leadership brought the morale of our ship from just ordinary shipboard life to a ship that many in the fleet wanted to become a part of. Our ship was a showpiece, and we were proud to conduct his orders.

What could have been a lonely six months on deployment, including the holidays spent in the Gulf in 97-98, turned into a memorable experience for all, thanks to Capt. Abrashoff even made UnRep a grand event! We learned from him that although we had an essential job to conduct, we were rewarded with pride in our accomplishments. Capt. Abrashoff was a very approachable Commanding Officer, an experience I had never met in the military and has been rare while employed with the state government. He tried to see that his crew did their jobs exceptionally well and that we enjoyed the festivities he supported the ship while in port.

I have read his fantastic book, reliving all the memories of my Benfold life, and have used his leadership knowledge to become a successful professional in the "civilian" world. To the readers who feel Capt. Abrashoff is "arrogant" in his leadership style; if you had as great a ship as the Benfold to be a part of, you would be incredibly proud of it and the leadership that made it such a fine place to spend years of your life.

What makes a bad leader? What is the opposite of Captain Abrashoff?

There are too many leaders out there (mostly in big corporations) that are lost in the shuffle because so many people do not have their boots on the ground, don't understand the processes, and can't process all the information coming to them. They refuse to listen to those that work” underneath" them. These leaders lead with willful blindness, the ones that know just enough to be very damaging to the company, and the leaders that associates/employees will leave in droves. High performers, top talent, and enthusiasm about them do not leave a company but because of the leadership. Leadership that will say sorry, be vulnerable, and learn what needs to be learned from the boots on the ground is essential these days. Anything less is being a lousy leader.

The old way of doing things, the middle muddle, having positions in middle management to have roles in middle management, and having leaders that are not as skilled as those below them is an anchor holding companies down. Leaders must rethink their org charts; if there is too much information in one area, there is an off-balance of work and skill sets; maybe that person needs to move up into a new position to lead that part of the team more efficiently and effectively. A general who does not know how to lead a gang is dangerous. Sometimes the leader comes from within that team itself in companies these days need to start thinking differently about the term leadership, what makes a good leader, and why a position is a starting position.

Companies have a process, a hardnosed HR mandate, and drive this information to leaders so that they know they manage the way they lead. There must be a process in place that salaries, way of life, future opportunities, and more depend on whether their teams excel, feel listened to know their leader, and that leader goes the distance. The worst thing a company can do is let a leader who does not have any form of understanding of what they are leading keep leading that. That is the basic definition of mismanagement. You want to be a leader that is informed, cares, and is honest and holistic in the approach of being a heart-focused human and caring for the humans on the ground that does what you ask them to do. 

Great leaders will let go of immense talent, ask them to excel, ask for promotions, and ask for them to move forward because any elevation of a team is the elevation of a team. Too often, leaders get into a survival mode, protecting themselves, not their team. Put that definition in the field of war or any other scenario, and you can see how if a coach does not care about the players, that team will not win many games. You need a coach that cares, and if there is a skillful player with an eye for coaching, a great coach would train them, elevate them to an assistant coach, and set them up for future success. When associates feel like they do not have opportunities, they will look elsewhere for those opportunities. It is human nature. Emotional intelligence is the beginning of any good leader.