Serendipitous Success On “The Best Damn Ship In The Navy”

Serendipitous Success
Being in the right place at the right time to just by chance
benefit from someone else’s success

This is post #2 of 5 USS Benfold posts to help you understand
how one type of success sparks other types of success.

Captain D. Michael Abrashoff was commander of the Navy guided missile destroyer USS Benfold for two years. During those two years Benfold set records in combat readiness and effectiveness and invented processes adopted by the entire Navy. Captain Abrashoff’s recipe for serendipitous success included three ingredients:

310 parts respect

310 parts freedom

310 parts support


Respect the talents of all 310 members of the Benfold crew.

Adjust the respect to the individual when necessary.

Captain Abrashoff showed general respect for his crew daily by:

Going to the end of the food line behind even the lowest sailors.

Seating the Master Chief to his immediate left during meetings.

Listening to ideas from any crew member because “talent knows no rank”.


Sprinkle freedom in every section of the ship.

When appropriate, sprinkle freedom at Navy bases and related locations.

Captain Abrashoff gave the crew a variety of freedoms:

Taking responsibility for making decisions and using their own ideas.

Assigning the tasks of senior grade officers to junior grade officers.

Questioning any rule and critiquing any other member of the crew. This included the freedom to tell Captain Abrashoff he hadn’t done his job very well on a particular day.

Acting a little crazy.

Having a life on the Navy’s time.

Captain Abrashoff did put limits on the freedoms he gave the crew. Any decisions with the potential of killing or injuring people, wasting taxes, or damaging the ship were Captain Abrashoff’s responsibility. Every other decision was the responsibility of the crew.


Add support as necessary.

Captain Abrashoff supported his crew in a variety of ways:

Bringing good ideas to the attention of senior Navy officials no matter what the rank.

Protecting crew from abusive senior officers.

Assigning a 20 year old Fireman who had completed the Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist training to give a tour of the entire ship to a four star general.

Following up when any sailor asked him to compliment another sailor’s job well done.

Playing cards with two sailors who had created trouble but who had responded well to mentoring.

Walking through the galley frequently to express appreciation for the cooks’ hard work.

Captain Abrashoff added support as he saw the need for support.

The Serendipitous Success Captain Abrashoff’s Recipe
Created for Others

While at its base in San Diego, Benfold with its culinary school graduates became “a lunchtime mecca” for sailors from other ships on base.

During the 1997 Persian Gulf Crisis, Captain Abrashoff’s respectfully listened to Radioman First Class John Rafalko’s idea about ending a communications crisis. A communications backlog meant that “at any given time, as many as 7,000 operational messages might go astray of just stop moving”. Radioman Rafalko was the only person who had read all the technical manuals for a new satellite system for voice communication and rapid data transmission. He figured out how to end the backlog and explained it to Captain Abrashoff.

Captain Abrashoff supported Rafalko by contacting a two star admiral’s chief of staff. When the chief of staff paid no attention, Captain Abrashoff went over the chief of staff straight to the admiral. The admiral paid attention and Rafalko trained personnel on every ship in the gulf. The system “worked perfectly” and the backlog problem disappeared “virtually overnight”.

Captain Abrashoff happened to be on the bridge one day during the 1997 Persian Gulf crisis when all of the other officers on the bridge ignored a suggestion from Fire Controlman Derrick Thomas. The United Nations had ordered inspections of all ships entering or leaving Iraq. The U.N. wanted to prevent embargoed oil from getting out and prohibited materials from getting in. The U.N. required paperwork was “excruciatingly time-consuming and tedious” with more than 100 questions. Communication between ships during inspections had to cope with some cases of “very poor English”.

Petty Officer Thomas suggested a database to speed things up. Captain Abrashoff was the only officer on the bridge who even acknowledged that that Petty Officer Thomas had said anything. Captain Abrashoff asked Thomas to explain. Fifty or sixty of the questions were the same with every inspection, and the answers were always the same. By creating a database, inspection time could be cut in half. Captain Abrashoff told Thomas to create the database for the more than 150 ships that needed inspecting. Commodore Duffy, in charge of the inspections in the Gulf, was impressed. He passed a copy of the database to every ship doing inspections in the Gulf. That database is still in use. The inspections had been tediously going on for six years until Captain Abrashoff respected Petty Officer Thomas by listening to him.

When the Pentagon “imposed strict new requirements for arming and firing” Tomahawk missiles, Benfold sailors read through training manuals (which they did together) to learn how the equipment worked. They knew they had the freedom to take responsibility, so they thought up knew ways to meet the requirements and sent a memo to other ships in the Gulf. The entire Navy adopted the methods devised by Benfold‘s sailors as standard operating procedure.

When one sailor suggested using stainless steel bolts and nuts to replace the ones that left rust streaks, Captain Abrashoff listened. He supported the sailor’s idea by shopping at Home Depot. He then had a civilian company treat all metal susceptible to corrosion to make them last longer (the Navy had begun doing this on a very small scale). The schedule for painting the ship went from every two months to every five years. This process saved taxpayer money and gave the crew more time to become combat ready.

When a teenage sailor told Captain Abrashoff that he would rather help children in foster care have better experiences than he had in foster care, Captain Abrashoff listened. He told the sailor to find an elementary school in San Diego that the crew could adopt. A group of sailors went to the school every time Benfold was in San Diego. First, they painted the school. After school hours, the sailors mentored, coached, and tutored the students. In foreign countries, 40 to 50 sailors would “go off and find an orphanage or hospital that could use a few helping hands.”

A senior officer task on Naval ships is officer of the deck. Captain Abrashoff gave officer of the deck responsibilities to his junior officers. The officer of the deck is in charge of the quarterdeck when the ship is in port. Responsibilities include security, logging in visitors, keeping track of anything leaving or entering the ship, and creating a good impression of the ship. Captain Abrashoff made sure the junior officers were scheduled during the day instead of just at night. Benfold‘s junior officers handled officer of the deck responsibilities so well that other ships began giving officer of the deck responsibilities to junior officers. This freed senior officers to handle other responsibilities on ship.

Crews on other ships,
the entire U.S. Navy,
all U.S. civilians,
schools, orphanages, and hospitals in the U.S. and in other counties
benefited because they were in the right place at the right time
to just by chance benefit from
the Benfold crew’s multiple successes.

The 3rd USS Benfold post will explain how Captain Abrashoff practiced smart success.

It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy
Captain D. Michael Abrashoff
Time Warner Books Group, New York: 2002
Quotes on pages 15, 16, 56, 57, 58, 96, 98, 128, 157, and 158


Paula M. Kramer
© 2015 to the present
All rights reserved.

Posts on this blog alternate with posts at the link below. Posts for both blogs are published on Wednesdays as they are ready to be published. Time between posts could be weeks or months.

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A web host transfer made some posts disappear. Luckily, I copied each post and emailed it to myself. Since I alternated success and failure posts, I will have to remove posts and republish them in success and failure order. I will do this as I have time. Apologies.