Titanic provides training and management lessons for modern business leaders

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RMS Titanic, the world’s newest and greatest ship, steams across the Atlantic on its maiden voyage with many of the world’s elite on board.

The captain's goal, kept private from most of his officers and crew, is to reach America in as fast a time as possible. It is navigating through known iceberg risk areas without extra lookouts or other precautions but, not to worry, as the ship is designed to be unsinkable.

But a crisis did come, and the officers weren't even able to properly get people onto the limited number of lifeboats available.

It doesn't take a business school professor to see the parallel with recent years - whether it is banks becoming overloaded with high-risk sub-prime nasties, or businesses achieving growth and profits by leveraging themselves with huge debts that are only payable on the most optimistic of assumptions.

It is easy to see these analogies with the wisdom of hindsight, yet in 2006 many of the people and organisations that are now pariahs were being lauded by shareholders, employees, politicians and the media for their great achievements.

The crew of the SS Californian has even more analogies for modern business leaders. Its badly led crew failed to correctly warn the Titanic of the icebergs, misinterpreted the signal rockets, missed the distress calls, and misread the limited information they received.

The Californian arrived on the scene too late to make any difference; belatedly realising the Titanic had sunk. Poor training, mis-communication, and inaction were on display - all stemming from the attitude of its captain and officers. When the time came for it to make the big difference in this world it failed lamentably.

How many organisations, despite the rigours imposed through the recession, fall into this category?

These stand in stark contrast to Captain Rostron of the SS Carpathia, the ship which arrived on the scene as quickly as it could and rescued the survivors in the lifeboats (but sadly too late for those in the water).

When it first started to receive worrying information, rather than ignoring ambiguous messages or making complacent assumptions, the Carpathia's captain changed course, and clarified the situation while in motion. Extra lookouts were posted to reflect the speed and all crew members were prepared with tasks and sense of purpose ahead of the rescue, which was executed flawlessly.

It exhibited good leadership, and clear purpose, executed by a well-trained crew. If the Carpathia had been as near to the Titanic as the Californian, the outcome would have been so much different.

The financial crisis has given us lots of iconic corporate Titanics in recent years from the banking sector. The ensuing recession has also sunk lots of corporate Californians, but many have plodded on too, and still survive.

The leadership lessons from the Titanic apply to businesses today as much as they did to the ships at this iconic event.

The question is whether you are the HR director on a corporate Titanic, Californian or Carpathia. If you are on the Carpathia - then great, how can you keep excellence going? More likely you are on a Titanic or Californian whose leaders think it is well run and unsinkable. HR directors need to reflect carefully on their organisation, and what they can be doing to make sure their business has the leadership it needs to ensure survival in these continuing iceberg-ridden economic times.

In Leadership Failures Sink Unsinkable Ship: Business Lessons from the Titanic Jocelyn Davis discusses the fundamental leadership failures that caused the Titanic to sink and how modern businesses can avoid these by attending to three people factors: clarity, unity and agility.

Graham Scrivener, MD, Europe and Middle East, Forum Corporation

 

 

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