Photo by Borisb17/iStock / Getty Images

Cafe Central was a good place to rest after taking in over six hundred years of history at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna.  

The former imperial residence serves as a grand reminder of the role that the Habsburg family played in Central European affairs from the 13th century to the conclusion of the First World War in 1918. Watching the tourists take their seats and the black and white clad servers moving quickly between the tables, kitchen, and dessert counter, I wondered how the Habsburgs managed to hold together the multicultural Austro-Hungarian Empire in Central Europe for so long a period.

Six hundred years turned into a blur as I glanced at my smartphone to get a better sense of the events that led to the family’s abdication of the Austro-Hungarian throne in 1919. The Empire ebbed and flowed over time as a result of frequent wars; cultural, economic, and political threats from inside and outside the borders; and occasional weak rulers.  

Photo by Borisb17/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Borisb17/iStock / Getty Images

Could Charles I, crowned Emperor in 1916 during the First World War, have anticipated that his empire was going to be dismantled in three short years and that his family was going to have to leave Austria for what turned out to be permanent exile to multiple countries?  

It’s hard to conceive that Charles didn’t have a sense of the change was coming, but he may not have thought differently since his family had weathered many storms before. With the weight of six centuries on his shoulders, he may not have perceived any other courses of action.

However, it seems that the Emperor’s vision for the future of the Austro-Hungarian Empire differed from the future envisioned by his opponents. Charles believed in a peaceful resolution to the First World War with separate peace’s being proposed with France and Germany.  

Internal ethnic conflict proved divisive and counter to settling a general peace with France and Germany that would have helped to maintain the unity of the Empire. As the various nationalities within the Empire began to declare independence, Charles’s power over his people dissolved which eventually contributed to his exile from Austria in 1919.  

Almost 100 years since the Emperor’s abdication, people, businesses, and governments are more aware of emerging conditions and developing events due to the power of technology and the general view that we are more connected as a civilization.

The speed and flow of information has certainly transformed how we view and manage relationships and lead organizations. Would the leader of an organization today respond in the same manner as Charles? 

The situation is difficult to assess without having a complete understanding of the cultural, economic, social, and political context in which he lived and reigned.   

As events unfold around the world and flood or seep into our awareness, leaders are faced with the choice to react, respond, or do nothing with the information moving towards them.  

To step forward and engage requires strength, awareness, and commitment that is built on a foundation of discipline and patience. Seeing the patterns of change and becoming aware of how one may align or synchronize themselves with an emergent event or thought is critical to organizational success. Through this alignment with the edge’s of one’s awareness or environment, one is able to perceive the small openings that may exist that can lead to the development of new markets or services.  

S. Jancy/Hofburg Interior Stair
S. Jancy/Hofburg Interior Stair

Retrospectively, as Charles was sitting at his desk and thinking of his next steps in November of 1918 prior to his exile, what did he see as he considered the future?  

Although he advocated for peaceful resolution of the war, people did not seem willing to accept the continued existence of the Empire. Autonomy and self-government for its various ethnic groups appeared to be more important than the peaceful intentions of the Emperor.

There appeared to be a divide in how the emperor viewed the Empire and they way his subjects viewed the future. The gap appeared to be insurmountable for both sides.

A modern perspective may not have been of use to Charles due to the burden of his family’s history, but his situation during the First World War and its aftermath is important to consider as businesses and governments struggle to remain legitimate in the eyes of their respective customers and citizens. 

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