ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

March 1998


Teaching An Organization To Learn

Scenario Planning

The Sinking Of The Titanic

Through Rain, Sleet And New Quality Initiatives

Striving To Deliver Excellence

Not Your Typical Oil Change


Reality: What A Concept
by Peter Block

Reflections On The Baldrige Winners
by Cathy Kramer


Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Book Review


The Sinking Of
The Titanic
An Analogy of Leaderhsip
that Failed

For 85 years the story of the fabled Titanic has filled the pages of history books, captured the hearts of young and old, and played the starring role in countless metaphors. The recent big screen success (at last count box office sales have exceeded $920 million) has ignited a flurry of renewed interest in a story that greatly influenced the culture of America over three quarters of a century ago. While the implications of that historic event have been studied, analyzed, told and retold, one can't help but think the learning is not yet complete. One such person is Gregory P. Smith, president of Chart Your Course International, Conyers, Ga.. He speaks at conferences on workplace trends, change, leadership and innovation. He is the author of the book, "The New Leader: Bringing Creativity and Innovation to the Workplace" and Navigator Newsletter. The following is his account of how the lessons learned from the Titanic disaster can be applied to organizational leadership today.

The Sinking of the Titanic: An Analogy of Leadership that Failed
"We have struck iceberg. . .sinking fast. . . come to our assistance." Burning the airwaves came those words late in the evening in 1912. Before they tapped the last bit of Morse code, those words became the epitaph over the lives of the 1500 people lost on the Titanic. The ship was doomed and it was slowly sliding into its watery grave. Why did the largest, most advanced ship of the century sink?
Those of us who studied the Titanic or at least saw the movie may know why. It wasn't the iceberg that caused the disaster. It was something else. Clear in my mind was the real cause - leadership had failed. The Titanic still rests on the bottom of the ocean, but we can still resurrect the truth. The lessons we learn can help our businesses and ability to lead others.

Leadership is Always Responsible
Leadership is more than a wooden figurehead. Leadership is not a position, a job title or in this case, merely the captain of the ship. Leadership is not just power, ego and pride. Leadership is both science and art. Leadership is ever-present, touching, motivating, talking, checking, barrier removing, training, preparing, breathing, active, moving about. 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. God only knows why he ignored the facts, 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 the Best
The larger an organization becomes, the greater its inflexibility - the more difficult and cumbersome to steer, to direct and to change. It soon becomes a bureaucracy where rules, regulations, policies, procedures and "I need permission to make a decision" becomes the norm. Today's businesses must change course quickly. It took over a half minute before the Titanic turned away from the iceberg, but then it was too late.

Rank Has its Privileges?
Ranking is good for command and control, not good for change and innovation. Ranking people limits potential. Today, businesses rank and classify people-sometimes unintentionally. However, the results are the same. Whether it is simply reserved parking spaces, blue collar, white collar, temporary, part-time, those with cubicles, those with desks etc., ask yourself, when the ship sinks, who gets in the lifeboats first? Who gets severance pay, a bonus, stock options or a country club membership. Clear the lines between the classes and make everyone feel they are rowing in the same direction.

The Truth Changes
The Titanic was unsinkable, so they thought. So confident were they, that they only had enough life boats for half the passengers. The thinking that made us successful yesterday is the very same thinking that will cause us to fail tomorrow. Our unlearning curve must be greater than our learning curve.

Technology is Never
a Substitute for 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 founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that." Many businesses today have replaced their leaders with technicians, their brains with a hard drive. So-when disaster strikes who is going to lead and will your technology pull you under?

Leadership is Always Training
As the Titanic lifted out of the water, the crew and passengers struggled with the lifeboats. There were no drills, no rehearsals and the crews stood unfamiliar with their responsibilities. The boats were improperly loaded and only one boat went back to try to recover survivors. Everyone in business today must be a trainer, not just the training department.

Leadership Looks Below the Surface
The greatest danger as well as the greatest opportunities lie below. The ocean in 1912 was like glass, deceptively dangerous. The biggest part of an iceberg lies below. . .unseen. Like steel fangs, it ripped 300 feet of the Titanic's hull. Those below, the "crew and steerage" saw the damage first. Like a gasping breath, the steam billowed above as chaos reigned below. Just like then and now, those who know what's wrong with your "ship" are those below. Furthermore, those below usually have the best ideas and solutions to your problems. Start looking below for the ideas, problems and solutions. Do it before you hit the icebergs.

The Moral of the Story
Few of us were alive when the Titanic sank, but all of us lost something that night. Hopefully, we recognize the lessons learned and chart our course toward the right direction. Let's not make the same mistakes so we can avoid our own Titanics.

March '98 News for a Change | Email Editor
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