Grassroots Leadership: How Leaders Get People To Buy In and Own The Outcome

Michael Abrashoff is a former Navy Commander tasked with turning around the performance of the USS Benfold, a naval warship struggling to meet its performance targets. Abrashoff’s leadership style and strategies led to a significant turnaround in the ship’s performance, and his experience provides valuable lessons for leaders in any industry.

The USS Benfold was suffering from low morale and high turnover and was failing to meet performance targets in areas such as equipment readiness, training, and maintenance. Abrashoff took over command of the ship in 1997 and immediately set out to change the ship’s culture and performance in less than twenty months.

How did he do it? As he himself remarks, he continuously:

  • Asked questions;
  • Listened;
  • Then acted on what he heard.

Almost immediately upon taking command, he had a fifteen to twenty-minute personal interview with each of his staff of three hundred.

He asked each person these three questions:

  • What do you like best about this ship?
  • What do you like least?
  • What would you change if you could?

Abrashoff acted as quickly as he could to implement the ideas that came from these questions. He realized that simply following existing procedures and doing things as they had always been done could no longer be effective.

Abrashoff set the vision and trusted his crew. He helped people take pride in their work.

Abrashoff established a management philosophy he called “The Leadership Roadmap.” The core of his approach replaced command and control leadership with commitment and cohesion. According to Abrashoff, the most important thing that a captain can do is to see the ship through the eyes of the crew; the same holds true for leaders of all types of organizations.

From the book It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy:

I began with the idea that there is always a better way to do things, and that, contrary to tradition, the crew’s insights might be more profound than even the captain’s. Accordingly, we spent several months analyzing every process on the ship. I asked everyone, “Is there a better way to do what you do?” Time after time, the answer was yes, and many of the answers were revelations to me.

My second assumption was that the secret to lasting change is to implement processes that people will enjoy carrying out. To that end, I focused my leadership efforts on encouraging people not only to find better ways to do their jobs, but also to have fun as they did them. And sometimes— actually, a lot of times— I encouraged them to have fun for fun’s sake.

Abrashoff empowered the crew to take ownership of their roles and responsibilities. Abrashoff encouraged crew members to speak up and share their ideas and insights, and he implemented many of their suggestions to improve processes and procedures on the ship. He also created an open-door policy, where crew members could come to him with any issues or concerns they had.

This is grassroots leadership. Working this way you get people to buy in and own the outcome; which is hard work in most organizations.

Here’s another example of how effective this is:


What are the takeaways?

The most important thing that a leader can do is see the business through the eyes of their people. How?

The most important leadership skill is listening; it’s a superpower. It applies to both sides of the business: listening to your employees and customers. You uncover problems, opportunities, and ideas when you listen.

The takeaway is this: talk with 50-100 customers and people in a business and you can uncover everything. But don’t stop there, take action and implement ideas.