Leadership Lessons From A Sunken Ship

I'm way out west today celebrating my daughter's "ten-year-old" trip, so I'm re-posting one of my past blogs. The story below is one of my favorite accounts of history and a tremendous leadership lesson to boot.  Oh, and by the way, he finished building the boat!  It looks fantastic.

~~~~ REPOST ~~~~

"Proud people breed sad sorrows for themselves." - Emily Bronte


My father-in-law, Rees, is a man of impressive patience. During his retirement, he's taken up the task of building model ships. These aren't the Hobby Lobby-type, kiddie models that you can slap together on a rainy afternoon. The ships take hundreds of hours to make in order to piece together every mast, mooring, and intricate rigging of these historical replicas.

Rees is currently working on his third ship, a Swedish warship, the Vasa, built in the 1600's. The boat looks cool with its double deck of cannons and extravagant golden detailing, but what's more interesting is this ship's story. The Vasa is notorious because on its maiden voyage it sailed less than a nautical mile before being blown over and sinking to the bottom of the Baltic Sea.

Sailing less than one mile is a disaster by any measurement!

As the story goes... apparently the Swedish king was a guy who was a proud, impatient, micro-manager who surrounded himself with a bunch of "suck ups." This is a dangerous combination...be it a Swedish Naval Commander, organization leader, or team boss.

On the surface, the king's plan and intent started out O.K. (They always do, don't they?) The problems set in, though, as the king's decisions out-sailed his competencies.

The king wanted to build a ship both to strengthen the position of his navy and give him additional back up in the Thirty Year War. Adding a ship or two to the fleet was a strategic and, arguably, a smart decision. However, he didn't stop with placing an order for a few more standard-issue boats. Instead, he insisted that the ship be simultaneously: 1) ornate, 2) built according to his exact specifications, and 3) finished very quickly.


While this doesn't sound necessarily problematic, the combination of all of these demands proved disastrous. You can read the Wikipedia article to get more details, but in a nutshell, here's how each of these factors caused the project to fail.

  1. The Pride/Ego Problem - The Vasa was intended to be the showpiece of the king's fleet, but the final product was SO ornate that it ended up being top-heavy and unstable. The first strong crosswind blew it over because the vessel couldn't carry the weight of the decorations!The king's specifications for the length of the ship weren't proportioned correctly, but the king refused to heed the advice (and warning) of the experts and demanded that the extra length be added to his ship.
  2. The Patience Problem - The ship builders rushed to complete the project without having the chance to engineer corrections to the changes that made the ship unstable. They were pushed by the clock, cut corners, ignored the safeties, and forged ahead.
  3. The Isolation Problem -  To top it off, the king's subordinates "lacked the political courage to discuss the ship's structural problems frankly or to have the maiden voyage postponed." No one wanted to contradict the king. Sure, some of the blame belongs to the subordinates. However, the primary problem was with the king who, like every leader, has the chance to either cultivate an environment that welcomes challenge and collaboration or shuts it down.

Today, many organizations have their own "Vasa" problems.

When you are in a leader role, it's easy to struggle with pride, ego, and impatience issues. When you're "in charge," it's tempting to be the sole decision maker and problem solver. Even on the days when you decide correctly, there are perils in owning too much of any process. Eventually, you aren't the expert any more. Trade winds change and demand a different skill set you lack.

For leaders to build "sea-worthy" teams, they must understand the antidote to these ills. Namely:

  1. Ego is your enemy - Humility is the hallmark of effective leaders.Even if you're a brilliant leader, you don't know it all, so depend on experts to strengthen your weaknesses.
  2. Impatience destroys excellence - Train for the marathon, not the sprint. Fast work that fails is always a loss.
  3. Isolation is dangerous - Leaders must have people who can (and do!) challenge them when they are stubborn or flat-out wrong. There is no substitute for the person who will hold you accountable when your pride is getting the better of you.

Do you have a person like that in your life? Don't set sail without them, lest you end up like the Vasa... immortalized as a cautionary tale for generations to come.