‘We Swedes like to regard the Vasa as the most successful failure in our country’s history’. This was the closing comment from the witty guide who was showing myself and a group of international business leaders around the Vasa museum in Stockholm. The evening trip was a welcome break from the intense second day of a ‘next level leader’ programme in a global IT company. The story of the 17th century sinking and 20th century restoration of the Vasa boat proved to be fascinating and full of metaphors for the FACTS coaching model.
First came the courageous goal. King Gustavus of Sweden wanted to build a boat with seventy two guns on board, a feat that had never been achieved before. This warship would be the pride of the nation. It was the King’s dream. Then came the ‘elephant in the room’ – the truth that dare not speak its name. For to accommodate an extra gun deck the boat was built too narrow and too high. This uncomfortable fact was known by the Captain who relayed his fears to the Admiral but the Admiral could not bring himself to enter the zone of uncomfortable debate (zoud) with the powerful King and so kept quiet about the fatal design flaw.
On Sunday 10th August, 1628 the Vasa set sail from Stockholm harbour with the city’s population watching excitedly from the shoreline. Twenty five minutes into its maiden voyage the ill-conceived boat caught a breeze from the south and keeled over to its port side. Water entered the gun holes and the ship sank with the loss of thirty eight lives. An unmitigated disaster.
Or was it?
Complex systems work in magical and mysterious ways. One can never know the long term impacts of isolated events and actions. In this case, it was to be three hundred and thirty three years before the next chapter in the story was written. In 1961, the wreck of the Vasa was salvaged and the reconstructed vessel, 98 per cent original, now sits majestically in the Vasa museum. The museum has become Sweden’s most successful tourist destination attracting over one million visitors each year.
Little did King Gustavus know back in 1628 that his courageous goal would become a historical marvel. The Admiral who did not face the FACTS created the conditions for short term failure yet sowed the seeds for a surprising long term success. This story makes you wonder as to the nature of our own most successful failures. It invites us to step into the unintended consequences of the systems thinking world. To suspend judgement, at least for a short while. For who knows into what future perspective today’s failures will unfold? Who knows what sunken treasures lie in the clay and the grime of our imperfect pasts?