Leadership Lessons from the Sinking of the Titanic

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The RMS Titanic was considered as the finest vessel of it's time. Crafted with care by an army of engineers, ship builders and workers, she was the largest ocean liner afloat during her time. Unfortunately, her sinking a century ago on 15 April 2012 left an indelible mark in the collective consciousness of millions around the world. More than 1,500 perished in the freezing North Atlantic waters in the largest maritime disaster in history. 

Imagine for a second that we're surviving management consultants on that ill-fated liner built in Belfast, Ireland. Taking that first person perspective, what could we have shared about the mistakes leading to it's downfall, dragging numerous passengers to their icy graves?

First, decisive leadership was lacking during the time of crisis. Captain E.J. Smith, the guy responsible for steering the ship and bringing it from Southampton to New York, was a retiree. He wasn't trained to handle a crisis or emergency. Perhaps he was under a lot of pressure to succeed in this maiden voyage across the North Atlantic, where so much was at stake. Records showed that he ignored the warnings from his crew until it became too late to avoid them. By avoiding the sordid facts, he led his crew and the entire ship to an almost inevitable collision course.

Instead of grabbing the bull by the horns, the leadership of the ship chose to plaster over the problem. I recalled a scene from the movie "Titanic" where the musicians were told to continue playing even though it was clear that the ship has hit something. Pretending that nothing has happened may be a comfortable course of action, especially for the rich and famous on that ship, but it isn't a wise move when the ship was doomed for failure. Ignorance isn't bliss.

It was also obvious that size does matter - although unfortunately so in a negative fashion. Being the bloated organisation that it was, complete with the various layers of hierarchy, the Titanic couldn't respond quickly to an emergency. Rules, policies, procedures, protocols needed to be followed. By the time messages got from the bottom to the top or vice versa, it was too late for any corrective action to be taken.

Because of the complex web of bureaucracy in the Titanic, warning signs from the ground crew failed to convince the top early enough until disaster became imminent. Crisis management and communications was probably absent as everybody ate, drank and made merry, dancing to the tunes of minstrels specially engaged for the occasion. Without a systematic approach of relaying messages from danger points to decision makers, preventive action couldn't be taken early enough.

The Titanic also lacked the right capabilities and competencies to succeed in its mission. If you look at the composition of its employees, very few of them were actual sailors or seamen. The gargantuan vessel had almost 900 staff with 66 crew on Deck (Officers, Masters at arms, Storemasters and able bodied seamen), 325 in Engine (Engineers, Boilermen, Firemen and Electricians), and 494 in the Victualling department (Stewards, Galley, Restaurant, Musicians and Post). Many of them were probably inadequately trained or equipped to handle such an emergency.

An overconfidence in technology may have also led to the ship's downfall. With a who's who list of experts behind the architecture, engineering, design and building of the Titanic, everybody had confidence that the ship could not sink. This management stupor led to the underprovision of life boats which everybody knows led to the inevitable death of many of its passengers.

Similarly, this lack of detailed preparation led the leadership and management of the ship to ignore what laid below the surface. With the lack of expertise on board, they could not discern that the bulk of the iceberg was hidden beneath the ocean surface. This led to the infamous ripping apart of the ship's hull as it grazed and crashed through the hard and razor sharp claws of ice that fateful night.

What other lessons could we discern from the Titanic?

To relive the experience of being on board the "ship that could never sink", do check out James Cameron's wonderful movie "Titanic" (now in 3D) as well as the brilliantly designed "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition" at the Art-Science Museum. Both shows are ending soon so do hurry!

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