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A Lesson in Leadership: Charting a New Course for the U.S.S. Benfold

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A Lesson in Leadership: Charting a New Course for the U.S.S. Benfold

While preparing for this paper and batting around the term "leadership" several images immediately came to mind. Iconic examples of perceived "natural-born" leaders, such as John Wayne, George Patton and Lee Iacocca seem to dominate this mental imagery for very different reasons. In one movie, John Wayne transforms a group of young boys fighting over who gets to go first into men thwarting the efforts of rustlers on a cattle drive. George Patton embodies the stereotypical version of the love-hate relationship between subordinates and a stern leader, and the image of Lee Iacocca doing TV ads breaks the mold of the typical corporate mogul, but effectively aids in the successful transformation of companies hovering on the brink to new profitability. The name Mike Abrashoff isn't one that jumps to the forefront as those mentioned earlier, but his efforts aboard the U.S.S. Benfold in turning around the performance and morale of the crew are no less remarkable. Why did he succeed where predecessors failed? Would he be successful using the same leadership model in the corporate world where his total authority over his subordinates may have a much different profile? Is there one single trait over others that Abrashoff used that ensured his success? This paper will attempt to answer those questions by looking at his leadership style and evaluating the organizational climate that may have prevailed at the time of his command, as well as evaluating the applicability in today's business environment.

Setting the Stage

Over the course of time since 1970, the U.S. Navy has endured several different leadership models such as Management by Objectives and Total Quality Leadership (TQL) that never gained the support of the people that had to operate their commands within them (Banghart, 1995, p.1). In 1995 a study by Captain Allen A. Banghart frankly stated that the Navy was "missing something" in its leadership program (Banghart, p. 2), resulting in an excessive expenditure of resources to implement the ineffective programs, reduced command effectiveness and leadership failures directly related to a lack of standards (Banghart, p. 2). Banghart further discovered a distinct disparity in the ability of Naval officers to recall their leadership doctrine at will compared to their Army or Marine Corps counterparts (1995, p. 8). Adding to the lack of focus on any one particular leadership models is the wide-spread misconception held by many senior naval officers that true leaders were born into the role, implying there may not be the need for leadership development programs (Banghart, p. 10). The end result of this type of thinking directly contributed to the much higher availability of such programs for enlisted personnel over the officer ranks. With the apparent lack of direction so prevalent throughout the Navy, it then may be readily concluded that the climate for a successful attempt to turn around an ineffective, poor-performing command with an aggressive, multi-faceted approach was very much present aboard the U.S.S. Benfold. The situation aboard the ship exhibited many of the indicators that Banghart explained in his study (1995, p. 2).

Leadership and Change

The Navy often boasts about the fact that to command at sea is one of the most demanding situations anyone could encounter because of the awesome responsibility that goes with command. Another often-stated perception is command at sea is linked directly to the leadership of the commander, and that they are interchangeable (Hawkins, 2005). It must be stated that command and leadership differ in that command only requires activation of the combat potential to create combat power in order to meet the objective of the mission, where leadership incorporates both the will of the commander and the action of the combat power to succeed at the mission (Hawkins, p. 9). With this in mind, as it relates to the Benfold one may conclude that to merely stand at the helm in the command role is not enough to change the course, but the active participation of the commander in exercising his willful traits to execute the change of course for the command will provide the much more successful outcome.

Situational vs. Transformational Leadership

If one were placed in a situation, such as on the Benfold, one approach that may be utilized is to evaluate the situation, determine how the personal and professional assets of the crew engage with those of the new commander in determining the best approach to successfully accomplish the mission, a form of situational leadership (Bateman & Snell, 2004, chap. 12). But the conditions present at the time of Abrashoff's command indicate the need for a complete evaluation of the root problems within the command. Abrashoff's new style of leadership incorporated many of the traits found in the transformational style of leadership, such as providing individualized attention to his crew by conducting one-on-one interviews (Bateman & Snell, 2004, chap. 12). Abrashoff was able to create a vision, by enabling the crew members to review their own visions within their own career paths, and relating them to the overall mission of the ship. The results



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