3 Leadership Lessons from the Titanic

Excerpt from e-book, “Leadership Failures Sink Unsinkable Ship: Business Lessons from the Titanic,” by Jocelyn R. Davis.

By Jocelyn R. Davis, EVP, Research and Development, The Forum Corporation

At 11:40 on the bitterly cold night of Sunday, April 14, 1912, the Titanic’s lookout, Frederick Fleet, clanged the warning bell three times from the crow’s nest of the luxury ocean liner and picked up the phone to the bridge. The following conversation ensued:

“What did you see?”

“Iceberg right ahead.”

“Thank you.”

Less than three hours later, the ocean liner had sunk to the bottom of the freezing North Atlantic. Of the 2,223 people on board, only 706 survived.

The Titanicdisaster is one of the most familiar stories there is. It has been called the greatest news story of modern times. One hundred years later, historians are still arguing about what could have or should have been done to prevent the sinking of the “unsinkable” ship and the drowning of more than 1,500 passengers and crew.

The massive investigations that followed the event resulted in a host of new laws and safety improvements to ships, including better hull and rudder design, safety drills for passengers, lifeboat requirements, better exit routes, and radio communications laws. But while all these strategic, technical, and legal improvements undoubtedly saved lives in the years to come, they didn’t address the catastrophe’s fundamental cause—a failure in leadership.

Here’s what happened: J. Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line (the Titanic’s parent company), persuaded Captain Edward J. Smith that it would be a fine achievement to arrive in New York a day early. An early arrival would have been a dramatic conclusion both to the Titanic’s maiden voyage and to Smith’s career, especially because this voyage was planned to be his last command. Smith gave the order to light the last two boilers so the ship would go faster. He didn’t add to the lookouts watching for icebergs.

Consequentially, in the middle of that moonless night, the Titanicwas racing at 22 knots through a known ice field with no increase in trouble-spotting abilities. After the collision, poor judgment, hesitancy, and a lack of alignment among the officers of the Titanicand of the Californian(the nearest ship in the ocean that night and the only one that could have arrived in time to save anyone from drowning) resulted in a lethal combination of inaction and confusion on both ships.

Given that these leaders could neither make good decisions nor mobilize their crew and passengers effectively, it’s doubtful whether a larger rudder or enough lifeboats for all would have made much difference to the outcome. In the end, it was neither weak strategy, nor weak structure, nor weak technology that caused the Titanicto hit an iceberg and 1,500 people to die; it was weak leadership. Or perhaps we should say instead: It was leaders who counted too much on impressive strategy, structure, and technology and so failed to focus on what could have actually made the journey safe and successful—their people.

Much has been written about leadership in a crisis, but our research has looked more generally at the leadership mindsets and skills that are associated with organizations that execute fast and well, whether in a crisis or not. As my co-authors and I show in Strategic Speed: Mobilize People, Accelerate Execution,leaders who drive initiatives rapidly and effectively do not spend most of their time devising brilliant strategies, improving organizational processes and structures, or installing new technologies. Rather, they tend to pay most attention to people factors—three in particular:

  1. Clarity: Creating a shared, clear understanding of the situation and direction
  2. Unity: Achieving wholehearted agreement on the merits of that direction and the need to work together to move ahead
  3. Agility: Inspiring a willingness to turn and adapt quickly while keeping strategic goals in mind

When leaders mobilize their organizations and teams around these three elements, they realize large gains in speed and performance. In “Strategic Speed,”we provide examples of contemporary organizations in which leaders have accelerated strategic initiatives and boosted financial results by using these techniques. The Titanicdisaster is an example from the past in which the ability or non-ability of leaders to create clarity, unity, and agility led not only to effective or ineffective execution, but to life or death.

The actions of leaders on the Carpathia, a steamship about one-eighth the size of the Titanic and much farther away than the Californian, stand in sharp contrast. Upon receiving the distress call, the Carpathia’s captain and officers responded immediately; prepared for rescue operations; and raced across the Atlantic, zigzagging through ice floes and arriving in time to save more than 700 lives. Was it simply because they faced a crisis and felt a sense of urgency? That explanation won’t do. The officers of the Titanicand Californianfaced just such a situation, and in the end—despite numerous examples of heroism that night—they didn’t get the job done.

Just as in organizations that operate on dry land, speed and performance on those three ships depended mostly on people factors. On two of the liners, a complete lack of clarity, unity, and agility led to slow and chaotic execution that resulted in disaster. In one of them, the Carpathia, there was a leader who focused intuitively on those people factors and as a result achieved rapid, fluid, and effective execution that ended up saving lives.

What befell the Titanic, its crew, and its passengers is a result of leaders at all levels failing to align and mobilize people in the months leading up to the crisis and during the crisis itself. Today, and in less disastrous situations, the same factors apply. Ultimately, the speed and success with which your organization executes—on large initiatives and on everyday tasks, in crises and in ordinary times—will come down to the small, often-unnoticed actions and attitudes of each associate, as directed and influenced by each leader.

What Goes Into Clarity, Unity, and Agility

Our research uncovered the nine organizational characteristics that correlate most highly with fast, effective execution of strategies and strategic initiatives. All nine are about people’s beliefs and behaviors. When leaders focus on strengthening these characteristics, strategies are accelerated and results improve.

Clarity

  1. People have a shared understanding of our strategy at a detailed level.
  2. People focus their efforts on a critical few priorities.
  3. Our strategy has been translated into concrete and achievable goals and behaviors.

Unity

  1. We have commitment at all levels to the success of our strategy.
  2. We staff strategic initiatives with team members who are capable and can dedicate sufficient time.
  3. A spirit of teamwork and cross-boundary collaboration is evident throughout the organization.

Agility

  1. People stay open and flexible in the way that goals are met.
  2. People maintain a bias for action while correcting course as needed.
  3. People capture and communicate what they learn from initiatives and projects.

Excerpt from e-book, “Leadership Failures Sink Unsinkable Ship: Business Lessons from the Titanic,” by Jocelyn R. Davis.

Jocelyn R. Davis is executive vice president, Research and Development, for The Forum Corporation. She is also the author of “Leadership Failures Sink Unsinkable Ship: Business Lessons from the Titanic.” For more information about the e-book, visit http://www.forum.com/_assets/download/01c7cb9e-ea66-4d2c-93b9-413ed595b140.pdf.

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