5 leadership lessons from the Titanic

There’s more to it than just, ‘Don’t run smack into a big, honking iceberg.’ Essential to your success are policy and training issues.

We recently commemorated the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. There are many businesses and leadership lessons we can learn from that fateful night of April 15, 1912.

The leader is always responsible. The maiden voyage of the Titanic was Capt. E.J. Smith’s retirement trip. His final duty was to pilot the grandest ship ever built into New York Harbor. However, Smith took many safety issues and precautions for granted that trip. He ignored multiple iceberg warnings from his crew and neighboring ships. He ignored safety concerns by pushing the ship to its limits the first time out in the attempt to reach New York two days ahead of schedule.

President Harry S. Truman displayed a sign on his desk reading: The Buck Stops Here. He knew the responsibility assumed in a leadership position. The leader is responsible for everything the organization does, or fails to do. In a disaster, the captain goes down with the ship.

Bigger does not mean better. The bigger the organization, the more difficult it is to steer, direct, and change. In large organizations, policies and procedures may sometimes circumvent common sense. Titanic was such a large ship that it took nearly a minute to steer away from the iceberg, and many believe that delay in changing course was the biggest factor in its sinking. As a result, the iceberg ripped a large gash in the ship’s hull.

Reevaluate policies and procedures. Titanic has been often accused of not having enough lifeboats aboard the ship, but that is somewhat misleading. According to regulations of the time, the requisite number of lifeboats was in direct proportion to the ship’s weight—to a point: The regulation stopped calculating at 10,000 tons, for a maximum of 16 lifeboats. Titanic, at more than 46,000 tons, carried 16 lifeboats.

After Titanic sank, the regulations changed to calculate the number of lifeboats according to the number of passengers. As a leader, you should routinely review and reevaluate the policies and procedures of your organization. Has there been a shift in company culture or focus that warrants a policy change? Just because things always worked a certain way does not mean it cannot be done more efficiently or successfully. Be proactive in looking for improvements instead of waiting for problems to occur.

Technology cannot replace personal intuition. Prior to Titanic’s voyage, Capt. Smith was quoted as saying: “I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”

Computers and other technology are an acceptable way of life. Modern technology enables us to perform our jobs more easily, more quickly, and more efficiently. However, people may rely too much on technology. Titanic’s new Marconi wireless telegraphy system may have been too cutting-edge to be effective. Neighboring ships’ crews were still relying on basic Morse code; they didn’t know how to receive the newer Marconi messages.

The best computer in your company cannot replace the life experiences of employees within the organization. Leaders have the responsibility to make difficult decisions all the time. Decisions are made based on an abundance of information, and modern technology makes obtaining that information quicker and easier than ever before. However, the final decision rests on how the leader interprets that information.

The importance of proper training. As the Titanic was sinking, crew members struggled with releasing the lifeboats. There was no proper training on how to use the lifeboats in the event of an emergency. Deployed lifeboats were improperly loaded with too many or too few passengers, and only one returned to attempt to recover more passengers.

Effective leaders understand the importance of a proper orientation and training program. Employees are a company’s greatest asset and should be afforded opportunities to be properly trained and to develop their skills to be more productive and promotable. If we fail in preparing and developing our employees, we fail our customers and everyone else who depends on our business to succeed.

Michael Patterson is a speaker, trainer, author, and career coach. A version of this article first appeared on his blog.

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