Vasa was a Swedish warship built between 1626 and 1628. The ship foundered and sank after sailing less than a nautical mile into her maiden voyage on 10 August 1628.
Despite the involvement of some of the world’s leading maritime engineers Vasa was built top-heavy with insufficient ballast. An obvious lack of stability in port was ignored and she was allowed to set sail, only to capsize and sink a few minutes later when she encountered the first wind stronger than a breeze.
The impulsive move to set sail resulted from a combination of factors:
- No expense had been spared in decorating and equipping the Vasa, one of the largest and most heavily armed warships of her time. She was adorned with hundreds of sculptures, all of them very heavy and painted in vivid colors, which were intended to express the aspirations of Sweden and the glory of King Gustavus Adolphus.
- The quantity and placement of her guns also had more to do with the king’s aspirations than with sound maritime practice.
- The king’s subordinates lacked the political courage to discuss the ship’s structural problems frankly or to have the maiden voyage postponed.
Following the sinking, an inquiry was organized by the Privy Council to find someone responsible for the disaster, but no sentences were handed out.
So, what can 21st century managers learn from the Vasa story?
- 1. Inspirational and aspirational leadership is the Holy Grail for most modern businesses, but there is real danger when this becomes obsessive. The control demonstrated by King Gustavus, and his relentless pursuit of personal aggrandisement, is perhaps extreme by modern standards, but the way in which he ignored the advice of his experts is not an uncommon trait in some business leaders today. So, for those of us who are leaders ………… good leadership involves the ability to reflect on our own performance. How often do we ask ourselves “am I too controlling?” or“I have employed these people because they have the specialist knowledge and skills that we need for success, but do I listen to them?” Why not ask yourself these questions now; you may well be surprised by your own answer.
- 2. As is so often the case, the experts who work with and for an extremely controlling leader seldom have the ability or the motivation to challenge the leader’s obvious errors. All too often they choose to accept horrendous consequences rather than face their nemesis. But, the responsibility of the “expert” does not stop at simply providing sound advice. As uncomfortable as it often is, our responsibility goes much deeper than this. For those of us who are experts in our field ………. don’t give up without a fight. We have a duty to ensure that our specialist knowledge and skills are used effectively, not just provided as a “take-it-or-leave-it” option.
- 3. The blame game. When things go wrong many of us duck for cover in case the finger gets pointed in our direction. A blame culture (which still exists in many organisations) is counter-productive in 2 senses; it de-motivates by creating fear, and it misses a wonderful opportunity to learn from our mistakes.
And so, for every single one of us ………. stop trying to apportion blame when things go wrong. There will certainly have been a cost incurred when things went wrong, but it will be money well spent if we go out of our way avoid blame and focus on learning from our mistakes and making sure that we get it right in future.