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Leadership Skills Seminar

The idea of leadership development is often plagued by misconceptions and myths. One of the most damaging of these myths is that leadership is an inherent quality that cannot be learned or improved upon. This is absolutely not true: leadership skills can, in fact, be learned, and the purpose of this seminar is to help each of you learn some of the important.

Once, leadership skills were thought to apply only to people in positions high up in the corporate structure. Today, leadership skills are becoming an absolutely crucial part of almost every person’s business skill set. We increasingly work in teams where we must learn to manage the output of others, in both a regular office environment, and in virtual environments. As such, leadership skills are an important part of the skill set of every person in this room.

Today, we’ll be looking at the leadership of United States Navy Commander D. Michael Abrashoff to help illustrate leadership concepts. Abrashoff is the man in charge of the USS Benfold, the $1 billion warship that is won the prestigious Spokane Trophy for the best combat readiness in the fleet. You might expect Abrashoff to be a rigid, military type barking orders in the style of George S. Patton. In reality, Abrashoff’s leadership style is as progressive as any seen in the business world at large. His success begs us to ask: How has he been so successful using innovative leadership skills in such a rigid environment’ Today, we’ll be looking at some of the theories that underlie his success.

The idea of the source of power or authority is important in leadership. Most people are likely the most familiar with the power derived from being an expert in a field. As such, a dentist of doctor draws power from their expert knowledge in a certain area. Abrashoff’s leadership style comes from a few important bases of power. Importantly, he is a warm, attractive person, and likely draws power from this ability to attract and motivate people. This is called referent power. Abrashoff also draws his power from his position of authority in the Navy, and thus uses what is called legitimate power. He also seems to draw on expert power, as his prior experience as military assistant to then-Secretary of Defense William Perry gives him an aura of Leadership style is an important component of leadership. Based on the specific situation, there are four main leadership styles:

1) supportive,

2) participative,

3) directive, and

4) achievement-oriented.

The supportive leader shows concern for subordinates and is friendly.

Abrashoff is clearly a supportive leader, as he has focused on crew needs like education and entertainment. In addition, Abrashoff is also a participative leader. He listens to his subordinates, and considers their suggestions regularly. However, Abrashoff’s leadership style is clearly not that of directive leadership. In the directive leadership style, the leader gives specific guidance about performance. When Abrashoff learned that his ship was due for engineering certification, he kept away from the area, instead of giving specific guidance to his engineering-department head. His approach was successful, as the department passed certification with flying colors. Abrashoff’s leadership style also has elements of achievement-oriented leadership. He sets high standards of competence for his crew and expects them to be followed.

Abrashoff’s leadership on the USS Benfold shows a great deal of what is known as the Transformational Leadership style. This leadership style emphasizes change and the development of subordinates as human begins, and tapping into the knowledge of the group as a whole. Abrashoff clearly focuses on his crew as individuals: he meets with new crew members and tries to learn about their desires and goals. He also values their opinions, referring to his crew as “smart and talented,” and consulting with them about ideas for improving ship operations.

Abrashoff’s leadership can also be assessed in terms of the well- known Blake and Mouton “Managerial Grid.” This grid simply looks at leadership on two different dimensions: a concern for production and a concern for people. Abrashoff is clearly a manager that is concerned for people, and avoids conflicts and tries to establish friendly relationships.

He has gone as far as arranging for AOL accounts to allow crew to communicate with family, and instituting a monthly karaoke happy hour. At the same time, Abrashoff is also focused on production, and is concerned with getting results. He notes that his concern for people ultimately results in gains in production. He notes that his friendly initial interviews set the stage so “people don’t tell me what I want to hear; they tell me the truth about what’s going on in the ship.”

Leadership theory also suggests that effective leaders can act differently depending on the specific situation. Situational factors include the personality of the subordinates, and the characteristics of the environment. For subordinates with an internal locus of control, directive leadership is seen as intrusive and supportive leadership is helpful, while subordinates with an external locus of control the opposite is true. In Abrashoff’s situation, it is perhaps surprising that he used directive leadership with a group of young, new recruits who were likely expecting the army to be a situation where the locus of control was external.

Directive leadership, where the leader gives specific guidance, is not well suited for tasks that are highly structured. Considering that life in the navy is perhaps the most highly structured of all areas, Abrashoff may have done well to avoid directive leadership. Further, the presence of high social support allows for supportive leadership to be highly effective.

This is the case in the USS Benfold, where a crew interacts with each other on a 24-hour basis in a constrained physical environment.