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Three Leadership Lessons from the Sinking of the Titanic

April 12th, 2012 by Steve Barry
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April 15, 2012, marks the centennial of the Titanic disaster. The ship steamed away from Southampton, England, as one of the biggest ships of its time, its passengers and crew eager for the trans-Atlantic journey to New York. What they didn’t know was that the “unsinkable” ship would rest at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean after colliding with an iceberg.

Jocelyn R. Davis, head of our global Research and Development function, has published an e-book, “Leadership Failures Sink Unsinkable Ship: Business Lessons from the Titanic.” She writes that the catastrophe’s fundamental cause was a failure in leadership and shares three lessons business leaders can learn from one of the most memorable events in maritime history.

Q: Why did you write the e-book?

A: When we were doing the research behind our book “Strategic Speed,” a colleague brought the Titanic story to my attention. It turned out to be a perfect illustration of one of the book’s key points: Rapid execution doesn’t come simply from picking up the pace, but rather from skillfully mobilizing people. When you look at the story through that lens, there are a lot of practical lessons for leaders in organizations today. If we heed those lessons, we can move faster (without hitting icebergs).

Q: Why did poor leadership sink the Titanic?

A: On the Titanic, poor leadership trumped impressive design. The captain and officers put their faith in the supposedly unsinkable ship, with all its modern technology, and ignored some basic leadership tenets that might have prevented the disaster or at least made the outcome less terrible. Today, the same thing can happen in businesses; leaders often overlook people factors and fall into one of the following traps:

  • The Brilliant Strategy Trap: Leaders put most of their efforts into researching and devising an ambitious strategy that will, they hope, vault them ahead of the competition. They pay a lot of attention to writing it up. They pay little attention to building the understanding, buy-in and skills that would ensure its execution. As a result, the strategy never bears fruit.
  • The Efficient Process and Structure Trap: Leaders give most of their attention to process reengineering and organization design, thinking, “If we can just get everything lined up in the right order and all sources of waste eliminated, things will run smoothly.” They fail to realize that an efficient business is not necessarily a successful business and, moreover, that people are rarely guided by official process maps.
  • The Sophisticated Technology Trap: Leaders throw technology at problems in the mistaken belief that it’s the strongest, quickest, most lasting lever for changing how a business operates. What they don’t see is that technology is actually a weak, cumbersome and transitory lever unless it’s designed and installed with the explicit intention of helping people be more effective.

Q: What lessons can business leaders learn from the disaster?

A: As in organizations that operate on dry land, it was the ship leaders’ ability or inability to drive clarity, unity and agility that made the difference to speed and performance over the course of the crisis. As our research indicates, it’s these three people factors that correlate most highly with fast, effective execution of strategies and strategic initiatives. When leaders focus on strengthening these characteristics, strategies are accelerated and results improve.

  1. Clarity: People have a shared understanding of our strategy at a detailed level, and they focus their efforts on a critical few priorities. Our strategy has been translated into concrete and achievable goals and behaviors.
  2. Unity: We have commitment at all levels to the success of our strategy, and we staff strategic initiatives with team members who are capable and can dedicate sufficient time. A spirit of teamwork and cross-boundary collaboration is evident throughout the organization.
  3. Agility: People stay open and flexible in the way that goals are met, and they maintain a bias for action while correcting course as needed. People capture and communicate what they learn from initiatives and projects.

To download a copy of Jocelyn’s e-book, click here.


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Steve Barry

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