All leaders face people challenges.  Best-selling author and internationally acclaimed leadership expert Mike Abrashoff shares simple, practical principles for you to get the best results with people.   

In this episode, you’ll learn: 

  • What great leadership is really about 
  • The key attribute leaders need to develop to be effective 
  • The critical shift in perspective that that the best leaders make 
  • The number one assumption you need to make about your people 



Explore more insights regarding developing your people.


The Transcript

 Brad Wolff: 00:00   

Welcome to, it is about you today. I’m honored to have as my guest, Mike Abrashoff. Mike is a partner at ages performance group. He’s the author of the bestselling book. It’s your ship management techniques from the best damn ship in the navy. Mike, Welcome to the show.

Mike Abrashoff: 00:29                    

Happy to be here. Brad. Thanks for having me.

Brad Wolff: 00:32                    

Now, would you please share a little bit about yourself and what you do to help leaders excel?

Mike Abrashoff: 00:38                    

Well I went to the Naval Academy and came up through the ranks in, got command of a destroyer in the navy. And at the time it wasn’t the worst performing ship but low morale, low retention highest one of the highest accident rates of any ship in the navy. And so, you know, I take command on focused on the things I can’t influence. And I was allowing that to distract me. And then I said, you know, screw it. I’m gonna focus on the things I can influence. And I realize what I can influence was myself in having the self awareness as to how I show up to my crew and then focus on them and create a great culture that I would be proud to have my son or daughter be a part of. And sometimes we make culture too darn difficult. Would you want your son or daughter to come work for you and see you in action every day?

Mike Abrashoff: 01:30                    

And if you’re proud, you’re on the right track. If you’re embarrassed, fix it. And I decided to fix everything I was embarrassed about. And what happened in 15 months, we get the trophy furbish ship in the Pacific Fleet in years three and four after I left, they got the award for best ship in the entire navy. So what we created was something that was sustainable that didn’t depend on me. And so since I get out of the Navy, I’ve, you know, written, it’s your ship. And it has sold over 1.1 million copies. The publisher thought I might sell 20,000 at the beginning and it’s caught on. And what I do now with the Egis performance group is help leaders have, you know, the self awareness of what they need to do to improve and, and help them drive performance in their organizations. And and it’s been a pretty good ride.

Brad Wolff: 02:21                    

Awesome. Now tell me, you told me a little bit about the journey that brought you to where you are today. So tell me what excites you most about what you do with leaders?

Mike Abrashoff: 02:34                    

Well, what I hate the most is getting on an airplane. I’ve flown 4 million miles on American Airlines alone since I got out of the Navy 19 years ago. But what helps, what excites me is when people have that Aha moment and say, you know, I can do this because you know what, I’m no different than anybody out there either in the corporate world or government or in the nonprofit sector. You know, we all started out, you know, most of this humble beginnings. And what I’d like to do is when people get it and say, yes, I can do this and and get the results and the feedback and in my own little way I feel like I’m helping, you know, drive to the economic performance of this country.

Brad Wolff: 03:18                    

Absolutely. Now you talked a little bit about self awareness and the importance of that for leadership effectiveness. Can you expand, expand a little bit on what self-awareness is and why it’s such a big deal?

Mike Abrashoff:  03:36                    

I never thought about it to be honest with you. Until the day I took command of the ship and in the navy when there’s a change of command ceremony, it’s a big deal. You know, work stops a month prior crew paints the ship from top to bottom. The admiral comes and gives a long winded speech about how great the outgoing guy, his whole ceremony takes about 90 minutes. At the end of the ceremony as my predecessor was leaving the ship for the final time with his parents and his wife and his kids, and as his departure was announced on the public address system, my new crew stood and cheered. At the fact that he was leaving. And I was horrified. I had never heard of or seen such a blatant sign of disrespect. And, and then I took a step back and I thought as I came up through the ranks, I wonder how many of my sailors secretly cheered whenever I got transferred.

Mike Abrashoff: 04:27                    

And you know what, I didn’t know the answer to the question. And so, because I didn’t know the answer, I didn’t have the self awareness needed to become a better leader. So that started me on my journey. Two have an appreciation for how I’m being perceived by the people I’m trying to influence. And instead of coming across with a sense of ego come across with a sense of humility and that we’re all in this together. And, and so I think that has what put me in a position to, to, to be a better leader.

Brad Wolff:  05:05                    

I want to highlight this Mike, Cause I, one thing that stands out to me about what you said is when a group of people are not perceiving you positively, we, I think we have two choices. One, something’s wrong with them. I’m, I’m frustrated, I’m angry with them, or there must be something I’m doing that’s causing that. And, and I think often people take the first choice, which is what’s wrong with them? I am going to take action because of their insubordination or disrespect,

Mike Abrashoff:  05:37                    

Right? So we’ve all had a role model in our lives that inspired us and helped us to become better. And mine was the secretary of defense. His name was William Perry and he chose me to be his number two assistant for 27 months. And the last day I worked for him prior to getting commanded the ship. He brought me into his office and sat me down and said, Mike, no matter how hard you try, your ship is never going to be perfect. He said, you’re going to have disappointments every day. He said, whenever you’re disappointed in an outcome, I want you to remember one thing. He said, assume your crew wanted to do a great job. And if you don’t get the results you’re looking for, don’t blame them first, but instead look inward and ask yourself what you could have done differently. Did you clearly communicate the goals too?

Mike Abrashoff:  06:31                    

Did you give them the training necessary to be successful? Did you give them the resources to do a great job? Did you, did the process support them delivering the results you were looking for? So my mentor beat into my head, assume your crew wants to do a good job and if you’re disappointed, look inward first before blaming them. You know what? I think as leaders, we’re always either causing, contributing to our, tolerating the behaviors we don’t want. So it still comes back to us. Sure. So, and in addition, two, the self-awareness being key, what else might do you see as the keys to leadership effectiveness? I bet you a 50 or 60% of my day was spent either listening to my crew and officers or communicating back to them where we’re going, why it’s in the organization’s best interest and therefore why it’s in their own best interests.

Mike Abrashoff: 07:36                    

So we’re, I see leaders failing is that critical communications piece and getting people onboard and getting them aligned. And I bet you a 50 or 60% of my day was spent either listening or communicating back in their language about where we’re going and why it’s in their own best interest. And people are absolutely horrified at the as to how to deal with millennials today. And you know, what? Our parents complained about us. It’s common for the older generations to complain about the new generations. Millennials expect more from us. And whereas when we came up we put up with it, millennials want to know why. They want to know, you know, what’s in it for them. And so with millennials we have to do an even better job of communicating and making sure it makes sense to them. And gone are the days where we tell people what to do because that’s the way we’ve always done it. Or we’re doing it because I said so we have to have, we impaired called an iron logic. If you have iron logic on your side, people will get on board. And that’s what we as leaders have to do, is to communicate that logic to millennials and they will get onboard. So sounds like essentially

Brad Wolff:  08:56                    

Lineals are doing what we wish we would’ve done. We didn’t have the courage or the, are they even the awareness that we could do that?

Mike Abrashoff: 09:02                    

Well, and I think a lot of it has to do with social awareness that we didn’t have because we didn’t have social media and now everybody knows what’s going on in other organizations. You know, I’ve visited Google headquarters in New York City, they have eight restaurants in their building and it’s like, and they’re all free for the workers. And so like, once everybody understands, boy, that person’s getting that over there, you know, why don’t we get it? And not everybody can put eight restaurants in their building, but that person is treated with respect. That person, you know, is listened to. Why, why aren’t I getting that in my workplace? So the difference is the access to social media and having, you know, the awareness of what’s going on around us and people then start questioning, why don’t I get that here?

Brad Wolff:  09:52                    

And what I’m, what I’m interpreting from what you’re saying too, is it’s a shift from the people are there for the leaders to the opposite. The leaders are there for the people. And that’s such a big shift. I wonder if you can comment a little on that.

Mike Abrashoff: 10:09                    

Well, when I left the ship for the final time, instead of the crew saluting me, isolated that, and so you’re, you’re absolutely right. I am here to help them get their jobs done better. I am here to remove obstacles and barricades that, that have traditionally held us back. I’m also here to help set a vision, but I viewed my role as supporting them instead of them supporting me. And that’s what I tried to get across in, in my leadership development programs and whatnot.

Brad Wolff:  10:44                    

Right? So forget that the leaders are somehow a superior species that are the exact same where the exact, we’re the exact same species as the lowest level people. Exactly. Right. So, and what we talked about, to me with my experiences, the things you’re talking about are one of the hardest, most difficult things for leaders to do. Self-Awareness, humility, turning around the paradigm from they’re here to serve me to the other way around. What are the ways that you help leaders develop in these areas to do that?

Mike Abrashoff: 11:19                    

So I’m convinced that leaders don’t wake up in the morning and say, I’m going to be a bad leader. But I do know that many leaders are insecure because nobody is a perfect leader and nobody is a born leader. And so because leaders are insecure they lead with a sense of ego instead of a sense of humility and serving our people. And so through self awareness and in getting more confidence in our leadership skills, people lead less with ego and more with genuineness and authenticity. And at the end of the day, our people don’t expect us to be perfect, but they want us to know that we’re trying to improve and if they realize that we’re making the effort, they’ll support us.

Brad Wolff:  12:17                    

Interesting. And the, the, I think the research supports that when we’re imperfect and admit to it, we get more trust and respect and support than it were. This powerful all knowing. Follow me. I know the way

Mike Abrashoff: 12:33                    

Type of person. So my weakness in the navy was engineering because I grew up as an operator and as a weapons guy. And so w I was probably pretty technically competent on the weapons side and the operation side. But engineering was my weak point since I’d never had any opportunity to, to work in the engineering plant. And it just so happened that engineering was the weakest department on the ship. And so I didn’t go down there and try to bark orders and tell them what to do, but I would get down and sit, you know, after dinner I would take my inbox in basket and I’d go down and sit in the engineering control room and I just monitor things. And I would go out on a patrol with, you know, the sounding security that’s checking to make sure, you know, nothing is flooding on the space.

Mike Abrashoff: 13:25                    

Or I’d go out with the rover to make sure that all the engineering systems were operating within parameters. And I’d ask questions, why I’m out there. I’m doing this with an e three, you know, one of the most junior people on the ship. And, and they’re teaching me and in this, and in the same token, I’m showing an interest in what they do so they feel, you know, validated. So it doesn’t, all it took was time and and they responded. And they knew then I was weekend engineering as well. And so we grew together. And you know, we never had, we never had a great engineering department, but we had, you know, well above average. But it was a big improvement from where we started. But that was my weakness personally. Technically was, was that, and so that’s what I focused on when I had spare time on the day.

Brad Wolff: 14:30                    

Great Point. I want to highlight this. You know, your strengths, but you don’t ignore your weaknesses cause your weakest point can offset the strengths. And you had the humility to say, I’m going to put the time and effort, I’m going to be uncomfortable because it’s going to be very clear that, you know, I don’t know much about this. And that’s okay because you’re, people are glad to help you learn.

Mike Abrashoff:  14:51                    

Exactly right. Mike, what is your definition of personal development? I think it’s having the realization that there’s no such thing as a perfect leader and it is a lifelong pursuit. I’m still learning. I’m learning from sailors. I had a crew of 310, and I bet you I hear from 200 of them periodically and they are telling me things that they learned on the ship that I’m now applying to my life, into my work as a speaker and with a consulting company. So the key is to realize its continuous lifelong learning and it never be, you know, set in your ways and, and be rigid because no situation is the same. And where people get in trouble is when they become rigid and set in their ways. And I try to have the attitude that it’s a, I’m still learning as I go and and it makes it fun and exciting to continue to expand and I think improve and and have a deeper understanding of how to connect with people.

Mike Abrashoff: 16:07                    

So what do you see as the relationship between leadership development and personal development? It can apply to your personal life as well. And I get emails from pastors, from parents, from school teachers, you know, areas that you wouldn’t traditionally see as leaders. You know, because we’re focused on the corporate world. But parents write me and say, Gee, I can use this to be a better leader to my children. And so, and so instead of telling the children what the answers are, let them develop it and I’ll never forget. One of my nephews got a c minus and calculus one semester calls me at three 30 in the afternoon apoplectic. I said, the mother’s gonna kill me when she gets home at five. What should I do? I said, you meet her at the door. You look her in the eye when you say, mom, I got a c minus in Calculus and here’s my plan to get an a this semester.

Mike Abrashoff: 17:18                    

My sister called me that night in tears. She said, can you believe what you know Craig did? He told me what his plan was to fix it. And she said, how can I be upset? And so on the personal development side, realize that we’re humans and we don’t come up perfect all the time. But understand, you know, if we have a plan as to how to continually improve, that’s where the fun and the learning comes. Is that a constant that we need to be better in our actions both at work but also in home, at home with the people we love.

Brad Wolff: 17:56                    

Yeah. Now, is anyone really not a leader? Is it possible not to be a leader unless you’re in life?

Brad Wolff: 18:06                    

And that you’re influencing people?

Mike Abrashoff:  18:08                    

I’ve got another sister who is absolutely brilliant. She’s a phd in nursing. She wrote the textbook for geriatric nursing that’s used in universities throughout the country. She hates working with people. And she only likes her research. She only likes her writing. She wanted to be chair of her nursing department. And she got it. And She was absolutely miserable. Called me every night crying. I said, well, why did you take the job? She said, it pays $10,000 more a year. I said, go back to what you’re happy with and she’s happy as a Lark, but she is an individualist and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s having the self awareness of knowing what your strength is and what your happiest stat. And a lot of times we put pressure on individualists who are outstanding in their field, so want to become the manager or the supervisor and they end up driving good people out of the organization. And so she’s lousy at working with people, but yet she has raised two wonderful children. One Who just passed her dental boards there’s going to be a dentist and the other one is a phd in biology. So I mean she is a, she was a failure as a leader in the workplace. But she gets an a plus as a leader at home. So you’re correct. No matter what you’re doing you, you are influencing people. And if you’re influencing people, the net means to me you’re a leader.

Brad Wolff: 19:45

Right. And we were leading ourselves. Great. So now what regular practices do you have?

Mike Abrashoff: 19:53

And we can choose to be happy or we can choose to be unhappy. It’s a choice that we make and we choose how we show up to the people we’re influencing. And so, you know, nobody wants to be around people who are negative and downbeat. People want to be around people who are optimistic and upbeat and say, this is what we need to do to get to get better.

Brad Wolff: 20:16

Absolutely. And what regular practices do you have that are most helpful to your own growth and development?

Mike Abrashoff: 20:25

I think it’s the ability to, when I see something to stand back and go, hmm, you know, the think about how that applies to me and how I can use that as a lesson, either it professionally or personally to help me. So it’s the desire to continue to grow. And My mother worked till she was 86 years old. She’s 97 today. She’s never spent a day in the hospital in her life except to have seven kids. But I hope I get that gene from her to be intellectually curious. And she loved teaching. And so she was a school teacher until age 86. And people ask me what I’m going to retire and it’s like, I don’t ever want to retire. You know, cause I love what I do. If I could find a way to avoid getting on an airplane, that would be great. But I love what I do. And so I always look at situations and find a lesson to be learned from it that I can then use, apply to my own life and my own personal development.

Brad Wolff: 21:37

So lifelong learning and a growth mindset, there’s always more I could learn. There’s nothing fixed. Correct. Seems like is what you’re saying. And do you have any particular failure or obstacle that you’ve overcome that’s been pivotal to your success?

Mike Abrashoff: 21:53

Listening? I was told by somebody very close to me that I don’t listen.

Brad Wolff: 22:02


Mike Abrashoff: 22:02

And it ended a relationship as a result. And so I was mad at her for, for months and then one day I thought, you know what? I don’t listen. And as we get older and get more experienced, we think we know it all. And we tell people what the answer is before they’re finished with their sentence. And I didn’t realize I was doing that with people telling them what the answer was before they ever, you know, got their thought out. And so once I realized that I was not a good listener, it was something that I had to work on. And so now instead of interrupting people and telling them what the answer is, I let them, you know, try to get their thought out and maybe get them to think maybe they’re not articulating the problem, but by listening to them, I call it listening aggressively. You can get to the bottom of what the problem is and then figure out how to improve it. But listening is not something I was wired for naturally. And it’s something I have to work at each and every day.

Brad Wolff: 23:11

And interesting. You didn’t, you didn’t just say, well, I’m just not a good listener. You said, I’m not a good listener and I’m going to change that. Correct. Some people just accept, well, I’m just not good a good listener and I don’t, I don’t buy that myself. I’m not naturally a good listener and I’ve learned to be better and it’s a lifelong processes. It’s never done. Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t discussed that you think is, would be really helpful to the listeners?

Mike Abrashoff: 23:37

So leadership is not about being liked. Nowhere in my job description was it said did say you have to be liked what was in my [inaudible] job description is that you have to keep people safe. And so I realized I couldn’t order excellent sitting in the captain’s chair and that in order to be safe, in order to control our own destiny, I was going to have to get everybody engaged in everybody involved in driving performance. We’re in a very shaky economy right now. You know, the world economy isn’t done all that well right now and nobody’s survival is guaranteed and no organization’s survival was guaranteed. And if you want to put yourself in a position to control your own destiny, I think it’s time to go from the command and control leadership style to one where you engaged your people better. And you do this collectively as a team, collaborating across all departments so that you are in control of your own destiny. And that’s what leadership is about, is about driving performance and putting yourself in control of your own destiny.

Brad Wolff: 24:51

Absolutely. And your control isn’t trying to control people. You have your control of your destiny is more by not trying to control people.

Mike Abrashoff: 24:59

I found that the more control I gave up, the greater command I got over the organization.

Brad Wolff: 25:04

Yeah, that’s what I want to highlight that because it’s counterintuitive. When we feel insecure or fearful, we want to grab the controls and say, Oh, let me take it. And we, we actually have the opposite effect to what we want. Exactly. Right. So Mike is any books, books, or websites that you’d like to tell the audience about? Cause I think you have a tremendous amount to offer that people can benefit from.

Mike Abrashoff: 25:27

My website is APG That stands for the Egis performance group. And I’ve got a great partner, Stacy Cunningham and and I do you know, keynotes around the country actually around the world. And just this morning I got an email from a newspaper in Manchester, England, you know, the, that wants to do an article about what we’re doing. And so and there’s a lot of great people out there in this industry, you know, you yourself and it’s helping people get that self awareness to, to, to drive performance and, and that’s where the satisfaction comes from. And so it’s been an honor to be, you know, on your program and and I hope you get good feedback from your listeners.

Brad Wolff: 26:13

Thank you, Mike. Mike, it’s been an absolute honor and a privilege to have you on the show and anytime I can help you with anything, let me know and uncertainly audience, I encourage you to reach out to Mike for any questions or anything that he can do to help you. Thank you very much for being on the show. Mike.

Mike Abrashoff: 26:33

Got It, Brad. Thank you.