30 May, 2016
When I mentioned an interest in leadership, one of the super-cool people I follow on Google+ recommended this book. He suggested it might be interesting because I the military is likely quite different than the game industry. (That’s actually a fairly deep topic, something that I might write about in the future. Let’s just say that there were two former military people at my last job, and they fit in just fine.)
Anyway, I ordered the book on Amazon and read it. I’ll give it a review on here for those who are interested. As an aside, this is one of the first books I’ve read about leadership, so I’m judging it based on my personal experience rather than how it stacks up to other books.
What the book is about
The book is written by a former Navy Captain assigned to a ship, the USS Benfold. He notices that when the former commander of the ship leaves that people don’t see all that upset to see him go. The author worries about his own legacy, and decides he wants to be a better leader. He sets an audacious goal: to be the best ship in the U.S. Navy. During is 2 year tour, he implements a lot of changes that improve morale on the ship and greatly improves performance. He then writes a book about the secrets of his success and offers it as suggestions that could work in the corporate world.
When I first heard the title, I took it in context of “you’re the leader, take control of your ship!” Instead, the title is a catch-phrase that Abrashoff used when talking to others, “It’s your ship” so make suggestions on how to improve it and do what is needed to make get it done.
Obviously the book is well-regarded if someone recommended it to me. The author also went on to be a noted public speaker and authored a few other books related to management lessons learned from the navy. In general, I found the book easy to read and easy to pick up and leave off when needed. The summary of the lessons are also the titles of each chapter, which makes for great quick reference later.
The good parts
I got a lot out of the book, although it felt more like confirming what I already have observed (although mostly in the negative sense, as in “the alternative doesn’t work.”) I don’t think there was any major thing that shifted how I thought about leadership, but it’s sometimes nice just to get some confirmation that these concepts actually did work in at least once circumstance.
One of the major themes of the book is knowing when to break the rules, how to break the rules, and when the rules need to be followed. Obviously in the military, there’s a strict hierarchy that needs to be followed, particularly in combat situations. So, knowing where and when to bend or break the rules makes sense, because sometimes you just have to let people be people, or break the rules when the rules are too inflexible for the specific situation you find yourself in.
The focus on listening is also great advice. Actively, even aggressively, listening to others is something I see missing in a lot of game industry leaders. Sometimes people get wrapped up in their own worlds and don’t really listen to others much. Or they will discount the words of people who are perceived as lower on the hierarchy. As a leader, sometimes the people who are doing the work directly have some insight that you might be overlooking. Or, they might have some problem they don’t even realize is a problem until you talk to them.
I also really like the idea of building people up. Abrashoff talks about how he took extra time to deal with some problems, including a few disciplinary problems. While it would have been easy enough to “fire” the person, he felt it was his responsibility to get the best out of the person. By taking the time and providing some guidance, Abrashoff turned some troublemakers into star performers. I’ve done some mentoring of junior team members in the past, and I’ve always worked to make sure they have an opportunity to grow. Promoting myself instead of helping them is just harmful and dishonest. A leader who fails to help someone be at their maximum potential is a leader who is failing that person.
Another great lesson was looking for success rather than meaningless deference. This chapter talked about the need to balance tradition and regulation with the need to get stuff done. Abrashoff didn’t want people to salute to his face then not care when his back was turned. He wanted people to treat him as someone who would help them get stuff done. I think this is important in the game industry, as some leaders seem more interested in feeding their own egos rather than actually getting good work done. I also liked the concept of “nurture the freedom to fail”, which I think is important in creating new types of fun games.
The best lesson to me was “Create a climate of trust”. This was about getting people confident enough to come to the leader with suggestions. knowing they won’t be mocked or criticized. I think you can even take this a step further and learn from Google’s research, where they mention that a positive feeling of “psychological safety” tended to indicate which groups did the best at Google. (That article is a great read, too.)
The less good parts
To be honest, a lot of the advice seemed obvious on the face of it. This is partially because the book feels like it deals in platitudes more than practical advice you can immediately turn around and use. Well, that’s not entirely fair, as there are examples peppered into the the text, but they happened in a very specific context. Maybe this obviousness is supposed to be the grand reveal of the book: that listening to others and ignoring formalities when required is a bolt from the blue for some leaders. Why is this?
Perhaps the Navy (and the business world) is too hidebound to tradition. Perhaps too many leaders are more interested in their own promotion rather than advancing others. Perhaps many leaders are just generally too self-absorbed to realize they have some amazing talent working for them that they only need to empower in order to get amazing results.
I think the reality is that most people in leadership positions simply aren’t ready for leadership. As a whole, we tend to see leadership as a reward for good work, and promotions to leadership positions as the natural progression for someone who demonstrates a lot of ability. And the person who signs the checks gets to be leader by default, even if they have a terrible management style. The reality is that sometimes you have people who do amazing work but who simply don’t have leadership potential. Or people who bring money to a project, then make terrible decisions that waste that money. These are the people who perhaps need to be told, “hey, sometimes the people who report to you have good ideas, too!”
I also felt that the chapter talking about diversity and unity felt a bit abbreviated, even tacked on. He takes pains to mention that the USS Benfold had both male and female crew members aboard, and that the Navy (who has had to deal with several sexism scandals) were scornful of that fact thinking it put the ship at a disadvantage. Abrashoff writes that the mixed crew was an advantage, but doesn’t offer many specific examples. I did like the idea of focusing on unity rather than diversity to build the team; focusing on similarities helps people feel more connected than focusing on differences. More examples here would have been welcome, especially on given the time frame that Abrashoff commanded the ship.
Where I wanted more
There’s a cognitive fallacy that most people fall prey to called “survivorship bias”. We look at successes and draw conclusions from those successes. The classic example is judging music from your childhood. People who praise the music of their childhood as being better than the “garbage” on the (internet) radio today have some selective memories about what music was like when they were younger. Another consequence of this bias is that we tend to laud people who take risks and succeed, but we criticize people who take the same risks and fail; in both cases we comment on the individual’s “foresight” even though the outcome was not guaranteed one way or another.
I felt the book fell prey to this a bit, in that it focused on what went right and had scarce mention of what went wrong. I find it hard to believe that for someone going against a lot of Navy tradition that he had smooth sailing, particularly at the beginning. Once he demonstrated successes, I can believe that people were more accepting. But, reading how to deal with failure in the short term would have been very useful. I think it might have also been useful to hear about the times when people made suggestions that sounded reasonable but were infeasible. How do you deal with that one guy who keeps harping on his pet idea despite it being obvious it would never work?
I also think the book focused almost too much on managing people under you, but less about how to deal with people above you. Some of the examples in the book deal with how Abrashoff had to argue against his superiors, but with almost no detail. Instead, he talks about how he used losing his arguments with superiors in a way to show that he went to bat for his crew.
He gives some platitudes about how he focused on doing a good job to support his superiors without necessarily needing to grab all the credit, but this was another area where it felt more like platitudes than actual useful advice to follow. Doing some of my own searching around, this concept of managing your superiors is called “managing up”, and something I plan to do some research on. Given that the game industry is filled with sometimes fragile egos at all levels, this sounds like a super useful skill to have.
Finally, I think it’s worth understanding the context of the book. As Abrashoff mentions several times in the book, many people in the military are there because they felt it was the least worst thing they could do with their lives. Escaping gang violence or poverty pushed some of those people into the Navy, and someone taking time to listen to them was probably a unique experience for them. And, as mentioned before, the Navy has a strict hierarchy like most military organizations. Directly translating some of these lessons to another context, particularly a highly creative industry with “interesting personalities” (to put it politely) is likely a challenge.
Overall, though, I liked the book. I’m looking forward to reading other leadership books and starting to develop my own leadership tool chest. I’d love to hear your thoughts!