Organizations are shadows of their leaders. . . that’s the good news and the bad news.
Several years ago we took a short holiday trip to Stockholm. A fascinating mixture of old and new, great seafood, and one very interesting museum. In the harbour region of town is the Vasa Museum, housing a reconstructed 17th century warship, the 64-gun Vasa that sank on her maiden voyage in 1628. Not only is the ship enormous and ornate, but the story of her demise illustrates an excellent business and leadership principle.
Basically, the ship was built on the orders of King Gustavus Adolphus (1594–1632) to impress more than be functional and seaworthy. One of the key design requirements by the king was for the ship to be tall and imposing, symbolizing the might of the Swedish armada in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). He also wanted lots of cannon on board and in this case it was arguably the most powerful warship of the time with a combined weight of shot that could be fired from the cannon of one side as 588 pounds (267 kg). However, there were two major design flaws. The ship was definitely top-heavy with a shallow draft, and it carried insufficient ballast.
Here is where the story gets interesting and instructive. Gustav wanted the ship built quickly so it could support the war and as such he kept pressuring the architects and builders. They knew the ship was top-heavy and couldn’t carry enough ballast, but were not willing to confront the king or tell him the bad news; they just kept trying workarounds. Finally the king ordered the ship to sail and just outside the harbour, less than a nautical mile into its maiden voyage, it rolled over and sank after encountering its first strong winds.
To me this illustrates several key business principles.
First is a culture which keeps people from speaking up and bringing “bad news” (otherwise known as the truth) to the leader (CEO or senior executives). We have a saying in our strategy execution work when referring to metrics and KPIs that are classified as RED (way off target as opposed to GREEN which is on target). The saying is “RED is GOOD”, meaning that we have found a problem, everyone clearly knows it, and we can get on with finding a solution. But when problems are either watered down, minimized or hidden, they linger on and eventually create even bigger problems. A culture of open and honest communication and celebrating problems is a culture where things get fixed, not swept under the rug.
Second, is the principle of balance. As my mentor, Thomas D. Willhite used to say, “balance is the key to power”. In the case of a ship, top-heavy without adequate ballast is definitely out of balance, with disastrous results. In the case of a leadership team, ballast refers to Values and Guiding Principles which drive healthy behaviour and values-based business decisions. And the top-heavy analogy is pretty clear. If too many decisions are made by top management, then a culture of lack of accountability grows among middle management.
Next time you go sailing, or if you ever visit the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, think about the principles of ballast, balance and healthy cultures. You might be able to avert a disaster.
Tight Lines . . .
John R Childress