Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Psychological PPE: The price of dysfunctional leadership

By James Rychard   


This column’s leadership lessons come straight from the sea. Photo credit: © Philip Steury / Adobe Stock

I deeply appreciate and share great leadership lessons when I find them, and some of those recent lessons came from a book I stumbled upon in a bookstore called “It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy,” written by D. Michael Abrashoff, a navy captain. This book is a leadership manifesto of how to deliver high performance. It has everything to do with people, the work environment, and being a leader who does the right thing. 

As the former commander of the US Naval Ship Arleigh-Burke class destroyer, USS Benfold, Abrashoff took one of the lowest performing ships in the entire Navy, one riddled with exceptionally low morale and a low retention rate of sailors, to one of the best ships, one winning a prestigious award that dates back to the early 1900s. 

Faced with his biggest responsibility — being commander of his own ship — and the fact that he inherited one of the worst performing ones in the entire Navy, Abrashoff knew ‘leadership’ in general needed to change. The traditional ways of doing business were not going to cut it! 

The Navy is entrenched with tradition, very similar to the fire service. Sometimes tradition needs to be re-examined to reach a level of excellence. You can order staff to do things, but you cannot order excellence. To develop excellence, you need the right environment. That means the environment needs to be one that inspires change, not one that rests on the laurels of tradition. For Abrashoff, his recipe was simple: “…invest in your people; create a work environment where you would want your own family to be a part of and fix the things you as a leader would be embarrassed about.” To that end, he needed to engage his sailors and empower them via ownership. When sailors [employees] take ownership because they are respected, there’s more pride for the job being done; this being one of the top reasons to prevent an employee from leaving a company.

A global management consulting company, McKinsey & Company, identified the top five reasons why people leave an organization. They are (in order): Workers felt they were not respected in the workplace; workers felt they were not listened to by management; workers felt lack of support to climb the corporate ladder; workers felt they were not getting the proper training and workers felt they were not being paid enough. 

By taking all those factors into account, Abrashoff knew what he needed to do — focus on the worker (his sailors). Like a ship not being able to turn 180 degrees in one motion, small degree turns are needed to make set the course. Slowly and incrementally, he began to witness changes and progressions on Benfold. In less than two-years time, his retention rate went from eight per cent to 100 per cent, he promoted more staff to higher ranks, helped staff obtain higher education and managed to do it all on 75 per cent of his operating budget. 

“Being a leader is not about being liked; it is about driving results,” he wrote. In other words, to reach service excellence, Abrashoff had to apply simple and easy techniques, ones that were unconventional and against Navy traditions. Abrashoff got out from behind his desk and walked the ship. He talked with the sailors, listening aggressively to what they had to say and began to empower them increasingly with ownership. What these small actions did was build confidence in the crew and encourage others to step forward with ideas as well.

The fire service, like the military, was founded on the traditions of the past. We often hear the infamous trope “two hundred years of tradition, unimpeded by progress.” Must we not only respect our traditions, but cling to them myopically? Some fire departments/organizations experience high turnover rates coupled with long-term absences due to stress-related health issues and are asked to do more with less under the confines of decreasing operating budgets. Regardless of the changes we are seeing in the fire service, there are variables that leaders can influence and some they cannot. 

Famous leadership and business speaker Simon Sinek said that “Great leaders don’t blame the tools they are given. Great leaders work to sharpen them.” Abrashoff’s lessons are vital for organizational success, and they are simple to implement. The fire service is a paramilitary system and what works in the military can be applicable to the fire service. When looking to try and turn a dysfunctional organization into a functional one, consider the leadership style. Working on the simple things is the way to go. By choosing to focus on our staff, which is our most valuable and costly budget item, leaders in turn improve the entire organization.

In addition to being a firefighter and R2MR Instructor from the City of Burlington, Ont., James Rychard is an advocate for mental and behavioural health in the fire service, sitting on multiple association committees. He can be reached at

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