What 3 Things Can You Learn From A Sunken Ship?

I was fortunate enough to enjoy some vacation time in Europe this summer and am constantly amazed with the history and relics on display just about everywhere you go!

One of the many extraordinary sites was the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, Sweden. The museum displays the only, almost fully intact 17th century ship that has ever been salvaged. Vasa was not the largest ship built in this period, nor did she have the most cannon power. What made her perhaps the most powerful warship in the world up to that time was the combined weight of the shot that could be fired from one side of the ship – more than 661 pounds in all. A truly fearsome machine of war!

The kicker … this 64-gun warship sank on her maiden voyage in 1628!

King Gustav II ordered the warship to be built of more than a thousand oak trees with 64 cannon, masts over 50 meters high and hundreds of painted and gilded sculptures. It took almost two years (1626-1627) to build Vasa. After sailing barely 1300 meters, the Vasa sank and sat at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. Amazingly, it was raised almost fully in tact in April of 1961, 333 years later.

As I marveled at the restored ship and learned her story, I naturally wanted to understand WHY the ship sank so quickly. Interestingly, it had all to do with leadership … or lack there-of.

Here are the facts:

  • There was clearly a lack of stability with the ship. The underwater part of the hull was too small and the ballast insufficient in relation to the rig and cannon. The leaders of the inquest believed that the ship was well-built but incorrectly proportioned.
  • Vice Admiral, Klas Fleming, was present before the ship sailed, when the captain demonstrated how unstable the ship was by having 30 men run back and forth across the upper deck. He could clearly see the ship was not balanced properly, chose to do nothing but was simply heard to say that he “wished the king were there.”
  • King Gustav II Adolf ordered a large ship with 64 heavy-caliber cannon, and then approved the ship’s dimensions. Although, not a ship builder … he was the king and leveraged his positional power without having the expertise.
  • Master ship builder, Henrik Hybertsson was a talented shipbuilder who had delivered several successful ships to the navy, but he had too little experience with building ships with two gun decks. Either he didn’t realize he needed to do more research or chose not to seek out help from others with the two gun deck expertise.
  • Captain Söfring Hansson must have thought it important to open all the gunports to show off the massive capabilities of this warship. After all, he was the captain of this one-of-a-kind warship. Since he knew the ship was unstable, you would think he would have closed the lower gunport doors! When the ship began to heel to one side, the water poured into those open gunports and down she went!

So what can the lessons of history teach us leaders?

  1. Be a voice of reason. If you notice something is not right; doesn’t align with your values/vision; bad for the business; harmful to others – speak up! Even if it’s not your ultimate scope of responsibility, keep a watchful eye out for the greater good.
  2. Know your limitations. If you don’t have the right level of expertise, leverage those who do. Ask for and LISTEN to their advice and counsel and get over the org chart hierarchy.
  3. Let go of your ego. Your ego is like those open gun ports and will sink you! Big egos get in the way of acknowledging your limitations, noted in point #2. When you think you know it all, are closed off to others’ opinions and experience and are in LOVE with your own ideas, you best know where the life jackets are because you are GOING DOWN!

I wonder what the captain, ship builder, vice admiral and king would tell us if we were able to ask about their lessons learned?

History is a great teacher … it’s best to take heed and prepare for any rough waters that lie ahead.

 Image Credit – Mike Ancient

Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with PeopleResults. Follow her on Twitter @mduesterhoft or connect via email at mduesterhoft@people-results.com