The Sinking of the Titanic: An Analogy of Failed Leadership

“We have struck iceberg . . . sinking fast . . . come to our assistance.”  Those words pierced the airwaves on a cold evening in 1912.  Before they tapped the last bit of Morse Code, they became the epitaph for the lives of the 1200 people lost that night on the Titanic.  The ship was doomed and slowly sliding into its watery grave.  Why did the largest, most advanced ship of the century sink?

Those of us who have studied the Titanic or at least saw the movie may know.  It wasn’t the iceberg that caused the disaster, but something else.  Clear in my mind is the real reason that mighty ship went down — leadership had failed.

The Titanic rests on the bottom of the ocean, but we can resurrect the truth.  The lessons we learn can have a positive impact on our ability to lead others.

Leadership is Always Responsible Leadership is more than a figurehead.  Leadership is not simply a position, a job title or in this case, being the captain of the ship.  Leadership is not just about power, ego and pride; it is both science and art.  Leadership needs to be engaged, involved, motivating, talking, checking, removing obstacles, training and looking over the horizon for new opportunities.

This was Captain E.J. Smith’s retirement trip.  He was headed for the easy life.  All he had to do was get to New York.  No one is sure why he ignored seven iceberg warnings from his crew and other ships.  Responsibility can’t be delegated.  Leadership is responsible for everything the organization does or fails to do.

Biggest Is Not Always the Best — The larger an organization becomes, the greater its inflexibility.  It can become more difficult and cumbersome to steer, to adapt and to change courses.  It  becomes a bureaucracy where rules, regulations, policies, procedures and “I need permission to make a decision” becomes the norm.  Today’s business world must change course quickly.  Once they saw the iceberg, it took too long for the ship to react and steer away.

Rank Has It’s Privileges? A good organization builds trust and a sense of equality among all the people who work there.  Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not, organizations create a culture making people feel less valued because of their rank, status, education level or other forms of classification.  This can be detrimental if you are in a business that must react to change and innovation.  Ranking people limits potential.   Whether it is simply reserved parking spaces, blue collar, white collar, temporary, part-time, those with cubicles, those with offices etc., the results are the same.  Clear the lines of communication and make everyone feel they are rowing in the same direction for the same purpose.  In a disaster everyone is equal.

The Truth Changes — The Titanic was unsinkable. . .so they thought.  So confident were they, life boats were available for only half the passengers.  Dee Hock said, “The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get the old ones out.”

Technology Is Not a Substitute for True Leadership — Someone said, “The danger is not that computers will replace us.  The real danger is when we start acting like computers.”  When technology fails, leadership must prevail.   Captain E.J. Smith said years before the Titanic’s voyage, “I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to flounder.  Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”  Many businesses invest and put more reliance in technology than their people.  If you don’t have good leadership, the best technology will not save you from a disaster.

Leadership Focuses on Training — As the stern of the Titanic lifted out of the water, the crew and passengers struggled with the lifeboats.  There were no drills, no rehearsals and the crew stood unfamiliar with their responsibilities.  The boats were improperly loaded and only one tried to go back and recover survivors.  Everyone must continuously learn new skills and upgrade their knowledge to stay competitive in the global marketplace.

Leadership Looks Below the Surface The greatest dangers as well as the greatest opportunities lie below the surface or just beyond the horizon.  The ocean was as smooth as glass, deceptively dangerous.  The biggest part of the iceberg lay below . . . unseen.  Like steel fangs, it ripped 300 feet of the Titanic’s hull.  Those below, the “crew and steerage,” felt and saw the damage first.  Like a gasping breath, the steam billowed above as chaos reigned below.  Those who know what’s wrong with your “ship” are those who are below, those who work on the front-line.  Furthermore, they usually have the best ideas and remedies to your problems.  Start looking toward those on the front-line for ideas and solutions.  Do it before you hit the icebergs.

Leadership Looks Beyond the HorizonThe lifespan of a business is getting shorter.  Only the most innovative will survive.  Success often gets an organization in trouble.  A good “Captain” is on the lookout for changing trends, changing needs, storms and icebergs.  Sam Walton identified the need and other retailers did not.  Apple has overtaken Sony in their ability to create consumer demand and new devices.  Mary Kay Ash saw it and others didn’t.  Get the picture?  Be out there and keep a steadfast lookout for the next change coming your way.

The Moral of the Story — None of us were alive when the Titanic sank, but all of us lost something that night.  Hopefully, we recognize the lessons learned and will chart your course toward the right direction.