THE YEAR WAS 1628 , and the Swedish warship Vasa was to make her maiden voyage to join the other Swedish warships in the Thirty Years’ War. An incredible 64-gun warship, the Vasa was larger than just about anything else found on the waters of Scandinavia in the seventeenth century.
The Vasa had everything necessary to be a truly remarkable vessel with a truly remarkable story . But as I learned when I visited the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, the story had a much less remarkable ending. In a rush to get the Vasa into battle as quickly as possible, Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus gave orders for the ship to set sail on a specific date. Unfortunately, the design of the ship, with its impressive cannon decks, was built top heavy and required additional ballast to be added to the hull of the ship. The king’s subordinates, not wanting to upset the king, failed to communicate that message and cut corners to get the ship to sea on the king’s aggressive schedule. As the Vasa left Stockholm harbor and raised its mighty sails to catch the wind, the boat began to list, and water came pouring in the gun doors. The ship sank, killing many of the crew. Less than one nautical mile into her maiden voyage, the Vasa now rested on the floor of the sea.
I have been fortunate to visit Sweden many times and work with leaders all across the Nordic countries. I was excited to visit the Vasa Museum to learn of this remarkable Swedish warship and all its great victories at sea. Instead, I found another example of how “remarkable” can be missed when leaders economize and allow their pride to move them past what they know to be good and true. What was meant to be majestic and awe inspiring became mediocre and a failure. What was meant to bring glory to a king and his country became an example of what not to do when remarkable is your goal.
Another Time and Another Ship
The year was 1997, and the naval warship U.S.S. Benfold was labeled one of the worst ships in the navy. By worst, it is said that the ship and crew were dysfunctional and unprepared to go to war. “The dysfunctional ship had a sullen crew that resented being there and could not wait to get out of the Navy,” was how Captain D. Michael Abrashoff described the situation in his book titled It’s Your Ship.
In the 20 months that Captain Abrashoff was captain of the U.S.S. Benfold, he and the crew were able to take the ship from worst in the navy to first in the navy —and have their performance in naval exercises and war be described as remarkable. Captain Abrashoff learned early that his success in delivering remarkable performances would be heavily dependent on his skill as a leader and his ability to inspire his crew. He immediately began to set a tone of being more interested in achieving results than getting salutes. Traditional military command and control leadership was not what the Benfold needed. Abrashoff realized that his crew was closest to the action and procedures on the ship, and they therefore needed to feel that everything on the ship was their responsibility . This is how the Benfold watchword (and the title of the book) became It’s Your Ship.
A Message from the Vasa and Benfold
The differences between the Vasa and the Benfold are startling . In this comparison, there are many lessons for us to apply when it comes to delivering and leading remarkable performances. As a leader, the message we want to embrace is:
1. Focus on purpose. On the Vasa, the crew was focused on pleasing the king; on the Benfold, the crew was focused on executing the mission at sea.
2. Trust your crew. On the Vasa, everything was viewed through the eyes of the leader (the king); on the Benfold, everything was viewed through the eyes of the crew.
3. Lead by example. On the Vasa, the king would dictate and manipulate; on the Benfold, the captain would collaborate and motivate.
4. Never settle for “good enough.” On the Vasa, speed was of the essence, and “good enough” had to do; on the Benfold, the crew was inspired to go beyond standard procedure and minimum code and take ownership of every detail.
5. Focus on results, not salutes. On the Vasa, it was salute and stay mute; on the Benfold, crewmen were encouraged to speak up and right any wrongs.
The line between being remarkable and being a shipwreck is a very fine line for sure. It is so fine, in fact, that it is often undetectable. Rather than slipping into autopilot and doing things “the way they have always been done”— thus defaulting into repeating bad behaviors— we actually need to make conscious choices in order to change and achieve remarkable.
[Except taken from my book, Repeat the Remarkable: How Strong Leaders Overcome Business Challenges to Take Their Performance to the Next Level. McGraw-Hill. Copyright 2014.]
Photo Credit – Perry Holley, from the Vasa Museum, Stockholm, Sweden