When Dysfunction Leads to Disaster

Archduke Franz Ferdinand If the consequences had not been so tragic, the situation would have been laughable.

The project team had been warned that there could be massive problems if they proceeded with their plan, yet the boss insisted on going ahead with the project. Later, when some members of the team wisely decided that a change of course would be advisable and then told the other members of the team, their decision was ignored. Why? Because the people who were supposed to act on the new information spoke a different language and did not understand the newly issued instructions.

This dysfunctional behavior undoubtedly happens more frequently than we would like to admit — especially when working in a rigidly hierarchical organization or across geographies, languages and local cultures.

In the case I have in mind, the head of the team was Archduke Franz Ferdinand (heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne) and the project was a state visit to Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Just before his visit, the rumors of an assassination plot were so prevalent that he was asked to call off the visit. He refused. Then when a bomb thrown at his motorcade exploded under a car behind his and injured his aide, he still refused to cancel the visit. When some members of his team finally agreed to take a route that differed from the previously published route, the driver of his car was oblivious. Why? Because the conversation regarding the new route occurred in German and the Czech driver did not understand German. It was one dysfunctional moment compounded by another.

If the consequences had not been so tragic, the situation would have been laughable.

Ironically, when the Archduke’s entourage finally managed to persuade the driver to turn around, the driver stopped the car right in front of a general store — just as assassin Gavrilo Princip came out of the shop with the sandwich he had bought there. Princip seized the moment, raised his gun and took two shots. Both were lethally successful.

What lessons can the wise manager learn from this pivotal moment in history?

  • Keeping a steady course is admirable. However, persistence in the face of credible threats is foolhardy at best and positively dangerous at worst. Unlike Franz Ferdinand who was bullheaded in following his outdated plan, a wise manager will pause to evaluate threats before committing more resources.
  • If you decide to proceed even in the face of credible threats, make sure you have reasonable protection. Franz Ferdinand owned a bulletproof silk vest that he apparently forgot to wear on that fateful day. According to recent tests, that silk vest might have saved his life.
  • Be aware of the extent to which a leader’s personal character and temperament has an impact on that leader’s team. Franz Ferdinand was said to have an ” impatient, suspicious, almost hysterical temperament.” This is not conducive to a calm, reasoned discussion of threats, opportunities and alternatives. Team members generally will refrain from providing their best advice if the team leader does not consistently demonstrate a willingness to listen to and follow reasonable advice.
  • Failure to communicate happens far too frequently. A team must work hard to address any gaps in understanding that might arise because of cultural or language differences.  Merely issuing a directive is insufficient.  A wise manager will ascertain early whether the message was received and understood as intended.

Exactly one month after Franz Ferdinand’s disastrous state visit, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. By August 4, 1914, the Great Powers were engaged in the First World War.

This clearly was a case in which dysfunction led to disaster. Don’t let that be the epitaph of any of your projects.

[This account is taken in part from a wonderful retelling of Franz Ferdinand’s misbegotten trip, as reported in Robert Siegel’s interview of Christopher Clark (author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914).]

[Photo Credit: forum.alexanderpalace.org]

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