Titanic Leadership Lessons
By David Sweet

The recent blockbuster movie about the unsinkable Titanic stands today as number two of the all-time greatest grossing movies and is threatening to take the number one position.  Displayed with excellence on the big screen, this movie costing countless millions of dollars about the April 14th, 1912 disaster that took 1,513 lives, leaves one with a sense of questioning scorn.  Why did a well-equipped, adequately staffed, state of the art vessel such as the British luxury liner Titanic end up at the bottom of the ocean on her maiden voyage?  How could an experienced leadership team fail so miserably at handling the emergency?  While watching the movie, I helplessly observed as mistake after mistake was made: errors which, even if made today in leadership circles, would spell disaster if not corrected in a timely fashion.  With the movie fresh in my mind, I'd like to share a few of the lessons I picked out - no doubt you'll even discover some others should you decide to view it again, or even for the first time.

Don't Rely on Technology to Save You!
The year 2000 problem should be at least a slight wake up call.  The more dependent we become on technology, the less vigilant we are as leaders. Captain Edward J. Smith ordered the engines to full throttle hoping to get to New York a day early in order to impress the world. This was not a novice captain: he'd spent his life at sea. But it seems the seduction of an unsinkable piece of technology was too great to be ignored, for him. Losing all sense of propriety, Smith disregarded the fact that the sea was calm (making it difficult to spot an iceberg), sped ahead knowing icebergs were plenteous at that time of year and failed to supply his lookouts with even the basic, traditional tools: binoculars.

Never Sacrifice Common Sense for Notoriety or Pressure!
In the corporate world, and today especially, with the necessity for many of us to market ourselves for future opportunities, care must be taken to avoid the temptation of making an unwise decision for the sake of promotion.  Captain Smith knew that traveling at twenty-two knots in the North Atlantic at that time of year was fool-hardy at best but the allure of notoriety and the pressure from his boss proved more compelling than his professional nautical training.  As leaders, we must take time to think and be bold (if we're confident we're right) especially when the decision could bring harm to many.

It is Not a Lack of Confidence to Have a Backup Plan!
Some of the lifeboats (an element of what should be a ship's effective backup plan) left the ship with less than 20% of their capacity.  People died because the crew was either ignorant of, or ignored, protocol and procedure when it came time to launch the lifeboats.  The lesson here is that, when mapping out a plan for the future, whether corporate or personal, we must ask ourselves the what if questions.  What if the market dips drastically?  What if my competitor begins to buy their raw materials from our supplier?  What if our management team is involved in an accident while on retreat?  What if we hit an iceberg?  It is not pessimistic thinking or a view toward failure to have a contingency plan.

Keep Your Head!
Whether we are acting as a leader in a crisis situation or not, we have a role to play.  It could be simply to motivate others with us but it certainly involves maintaining a mindset that will make us most useful.  Walking away with glazed eyes because of a mess we may find ourselves in, helps no one!  Differing people need differing methods to regain control in a critical situation - know what yours is.  Maybe it's a splash of cold water on your brow, deep breathing exercises or perhaps prayer can help.  Whatever the case, I'm convinced that if we can work ourselves into a frenzy, we can manage ourselves out of one.  If you are one of the fortunate people who gain more clarity of mind when an emergency happens, congratulations!  However, it is highly recommended that you have some reliable comrades around to catch you when you go into after-shock crash and burn.

Don't Let the Band Play!
Sure we don't want to create panic in an emergency but we also don't want to encourage complacency.  Having the band play to give an illusion that there is no crisis is far from the most effective strategy for the orderliness in an evacuation to safety. Certainly, the captain should have an air of confidence, as mentioned earlier.
He must radiate the calm required rather than get into temporary face-saving tactics. Take action! Gather the best people, ask for opinions, collect data and work out a recovery plan no matter how limited the detail. In an emergency, whether of  the magnitude of Titanic or a manufacturing line that has collapsed, the best way to create energy is to follow the football strategy and huddle. 

Use All Your Resources - Think Creatively!
There is probably nothing worse than viewing the aftermath of a tragedy and knowing that there were options within arms reach that were never used.  History records that the Carpathia arrived at the site of the sinking one and a half hour after the Titanic went under.  Could they have used the engines while they functioned to come and lots of freshwater to hose in some flat surfaces.  The bow anchors were not used and they certainly could have been snugged onto the berg to buy a few more precious minutes of buoyancy.  Could they have assembled the crew or a group of passengers to lash together several large rafts of wood furniture this would also have kept them busy thus reducing the panic.  In a crisis, we must ensure that all resources are stewarded with great care.  From time to talent to dollars, are you getting the most of all the resources available to you?

Titanic was, by all measures, a disaster whose history we cannot change.  We can, however, honour those who perished in the cold, briny waters of the North Atlantic by learning the many lessons Titanic offers. It may never be from death that we save those we lead, but saving from financial or emotional loss is nonetheless important.