Blog Feature
Tony D'Amelio

By: Tony D'Amelio on May 8th, 2017

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Motivation | Leadership | Organizational Culture


 In 1999 Fast Company magazine ran an article that got my attention. It featured a Navy captain who took command of a ship that was near the bottom of the performance rankings in just about every category.

Twelve months later – under this new captain - the ship was the best performing ship in the fleet.

How did that happen? Everyone wanted to know.

That article introduced MIKE ABRASHOFF to the world. It also introduced the world to something he called Grassroots Leadership. Founded in common sense ideas for engaging his crew and with the hope to transform the ship’s lowly performance, Mike couldn’t have known the revolution he was about to start. You see, his leadership transformation came from a desperate feeling that he had nothing to lose. He knew that in order for the ship to improve, he needed to find a new set of leadership tools. As he did, an amazing thing happened: the ship started to turn itself around. Mike credits his crew for the transformation of the USS Benfold – and he credits himself for being honest enough to admit he was over his head and he needed to change the way he led.

The story of the transformation of the USS Benfold is the stuff of legends. The case has been written up in the Harvard Business Review and numerous other business journals and magazines. Mike’s gone on to write three books – his first, It’s Your Ship, has sold over a million copies. And he has taken his message about leadership, organizational culture, empowerment, and change management all over the world in nearly 2,000 speeches.  His ideas for employee engagement are at the heart of his philosophy.



Mike’s classic comment about leadership comes framed as a reference from his past, “The most important thing a captain can do is to see they ship through the eyes of the crew.” That captures the essence of his leadership approach.

When I asked Mike if he could write down his three top points for confronting reality in the current business climate he was quick to reply. The lessons he talked about were from his seminal leadership learning experience and his job at the Pentagon.


                       Learning Leadership Skills: MIKE ABRASHOFF - Pentagon Training

Visit His Speech Page


Story 1…Hire The Right People

In the mid-1990s, I was selected by then Secretary of Defense William J. Perry to be his junior military assistant. I wasn't in a leadership role in his office…I was an individual contributor but I knew I was in the presence of a brilliant mind. Around the same time he hired me, he hired a guy by the name of Ash Carter and another guy by the name of Colonel James Mattis. Little did we know at the time that both would someday become secretaries of defense.

After I had been in the office for about a year, I summoned up the courage to ask Secretary Perry why he hired me. He said he didn't hire me. I was deflated. He said the staff recommended me. Unbeknownst to any of the 12 nominees for the job, his staff was evaluating us while we waited to interview with him. He solicited their opinions on the hiring decision as he knew their cooperation would be needed to integrate me onto the team so that I would be successful. As it turns out, I was the only one of the twelve candidates who treated the staff with respect. As a result, they went out of their way to support my hiring and then ensure that I was successful.


Story 2….Think Bigly

I once asked William Perry what his biggest mistake was in business. He said it was the late 1970s. It was after the Vietnam War and he was under secretary of defense for technology. Congress was cutting programs left and right…zeroing out entire programs. Congress zeroed the funding line for a program called GPS. What most people don't realize is…GPS runs off U.S. military satellites. He told me he went up to the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman's office and got down on his knees and begged that funding was restored…and it was. That's why we have GPS today. I asked him how that was a mistake? He said he failed to anticipate what GPS would become and if he had only thought big, he would have figured out a way to charge a user-fee for every transaction. He said he could have funded the DOD budget with GPS user fees. Think about that for a moment. One of the most important features of our smartphones today…is FREE!!!

 Leadership Speaker Mike Abrashoff: Command & Control is Dead 
Mike Abrashoff Speaker page 


Story 3...Lead With A Sense of Humility

An arrogant leader makes it tougher for the troops to do their job. Nobody wants to do business with you or your team if you come across in an arrogant manner. Accidents happen to the arrogant.  William Perry taught me about humility. Go about your job with steely resolve but don't get caught up in your ego. Be more concerned with results and not salutes. Be more concerned about substance than form. I one time wrote out a memo to William Perry on a paper napkin because that was all I had on me at the time. He gave me the confidence to do that and it allowed us to have a nimble, responsive operation as world events evolved before our eyes.


Motivational Keynote Speaker MIKE ABRASHOFF:  It's Your Ship 

Mike Abrashoff's employee engagement ideas can be a springboard for launching innovation and increasing organizational performance.  To learn more about Mike Abrashoff, see below.  

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About Tony D'Amelio

Tony has spent his career putting talented people and audiences together, first in the music business and later representing the world's leading speakers. After concluding 27 years as Executive Vice President of the Washington Speakers Bureau, Tony launched D'Amelio Network, a boutique firm that manages the speaking activities of a select group of experts on business, management, politics and current events. Clients include: Mike Abrashoff, Mariana Atencio, Chris Barton, Lisa Bodell, Geoff Colvin, Daryl Davis, Suneel Gupta, Ron Insana, Katty Kay, Polly LaBarre, Nicole Malachowski, Ken Schmidt, and Bob Woodward.

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