Thursday, September 16, 2010

Failed Leadership Sank the Titanic

Yesterday, over dinner, a few of us (well, four of us) talked about the subject of failed leadership. Of course invariably, the conversation turned to HICT – I remember as far back as June 30 last year, I had highlighted this issue in this very blog, but things are still the same, if they are not getting worse. Anyway, I have no intention of talking about this organization anymore, but this article "The Sinking of the Titanic: An Analogy of Failed Leadership" by Gregory P Smith (Webpage that I happen to chance upon, makes great reading on this same subject. I reproduce it in its entirety:

“We have struck iceberg . . .sinking fast . . .come to our assistance.” On a cold evening in 1912 that message came blistering across the airwaves. Before they tapped the last bit of Morse code, those words became the epitaph over the lives of the 1200 people lost on the Titanic. The ship was doomed as it slowly sank into its watery grave. Why did the largest, most advanced ship of the time fail?

Those of us who study history or remember the movie may know why. It wasn’t the iceberg that caused the disaster, but something else. Clear in my mind was the real cause – failed leadership.

The Titanic still rests on the bottom of the ocean, but we can resurrect the truth and apply a few lessons learned to help us become better leaders.

Leadership is Always Responsible. Leadership is responsible for everything the organization does or fails to do. Leadership is more than a wooden figurehead. A leader is not a position, job title, or in this case, the captain of the ship. Leadership is not about power, ego, or pride. Leadership is ever present, touching, motivating, talking, and checking, removing barriers, training, preparing, breathing, and 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 disregarded seven iceberg warnings from his crew and other ships.

Biggest Is Not the Best. Today’s businesses must change course quickly. It took over 30 seconds before the Titanic turned away from the iceberg . . .but it was too late. The larger an organization becomes, the greater its inflexibility. The more difficult and cumbersome it is to steer, to direct, and to change. Large businesses soon grow into huge bureaucracies where rules, regulations, policies, procedures, and “I need permission to make a decision” become the norm.

Rank Has It’s Privileges? Ranking is good for command and control, but not good for change and innovation. Ranking people limits their potential. Today, businesses rank and classify people--sometimes unintentionally. Whether it is reserved parking spaces for the privileged, or being categorized as blue collar, white collar, temporary, part-time, those with cubicles, those with offices etc, the results are the same. Clear the lines between the classes and make everyone feel they are rowing in the same direction, for the same purpose. In a disaster, everyone is equal.

The Truth Changes All the Time. The Titanic was unsinkable, so they thought. They were so confident in their ship they only had enough life boats for half the passengers. The thinking that made us successful yesterday will cause us to fail tomorrow. Our unlearning curve must be greater than our learning curve if we are going to succeed.

Good Technology is Never a Substitute for Bad Leadership. When technology fails, leadership must prevail. Captain 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 placed the wrong people in charge. They are not leaders, but managers. So – when disaster strikes, who is going to step up and lead or will your technology pull you under?

Leadership is About Training and Development. As the stern of the Titanic lifted out of the water; the crew and passengers struggled with the lifeboats. There were no drills, no rehearsals, and the crew stood unfamiliar with their responsibilities. The boats were improperly loaded and only one boat went back to try to recover survivors. A good leader helps people improve their skills so they can become more productive.

What Lies Below Is More Destructive Than What Is On Top. The greatest dangers lie unseen below the surface. That night in 1912 was smooth like glass – deceptively dangerous. The iceberg lurked below. Like steel fangs, it tore at the rivets along 300 feet of the Titanic’s hull. Those below, the “crew and steerage,” felt and saw the damage first. Like a gasping breath, the steam billowed above as chaos reigned below. Then and now, those who know what’s wrong with your “ship” are those below decks. Those people on the front-line usually have the best ideas and solutions to your problems. Consider asking them for their ideas and suggestions before catastrophe strikes.

Leadership Looks Beyond the Horizon. A good “Captain” is on the lookout for shifting trends, changing needs, storms, and icebergs. Sam Walton identified and met a need while other retailers did not. Apple saw the need for the Ipod while others were still happy with CD players. The vision of the Sony Walkman existed in Akio Morita’s mind way before the competition. Get the picture? Be on the look out scanning the horizon for the next wave of change instead of waiting for it to hit you in the face.

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