One hundred years ago this month, the RMS Titanic, touted as the largest ship at sea when it first sailed, sank in the North Atlantic Ocean. Its story was romanticized in a 1997 film written and directed by James Cameron. Occasionally, the film gets replayed on television and it engages the viewer in many unforgettable ways, not just through the riveting romance between fictional characters Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater, but also through the many scenes that eerily feel like a prescient social commentary of conditions that were to obtain over the next one hundred years.
For one, the Titanic story antedates the prevalent consciousness among institutions today about risk management. Those who constantly talk about anticipating the worst and preparing for it can take several pages from the Titanic story to illustrate the whys and wherefores of enterprise risk. Why did the ship owners scrimp on lifeboats and provide only a third of what is required by the Titanic’s maximum passenger capacity? Surely, cost control was not in the minds of the ship owners who were determined to build a first-class ship to forge ahead of their aggressive competitors. The obvious reason was intellectual arrogance. Only a hairline separates proprietary pride from the sort of delusional thinking that one’s creation is invincible. The owners of the ship must have felt that the lifeboats were superfluous because the giant Titanic was unsinkable in the first place. But unsinkable the Titanic didn’t turn out to be. And as it sank, two-thirds of its passengers sank to their death. The Titanic is a century-old reminder that size and dominance can dangerously lead to complacency. Again and again, the example of the Titanic has been reinforced by many events of recent vintage. The “sinking” of Research in Motion, a global behemoth that put the popular Blackberry in the hands of over seventy million users worldwide, is one such event.
For leaders and managers, the Titanic is more than just an excellent case study in risk management. The story overflows with nuances of current-day management theory and concepts. Among other things, it is a story about leadership with accountability, about faithful troops who carry out their humble part of the mission, and about admirable professionals who perform till the very end.
The ship captain, Edward John Smith, was the quintessential leader who took full responsibility for the tragedy and dutifully walked into a fate no better than those of his least fortunate followers. In today’s world, Smith’s equivalent would be a leader who says sorry and then repentantly takes the flogging. Rare? The most upbeat statement one can make is that “they don’t produce a lot of ’em these days.” A century later, the world produced the antithesis to Smith: A man named Francesco Schettino, the pathetic ship captain of the ill-fated cruise ship Costa Concordia, which capsized off the coast of Italy. Schettino brazenly disregarded shipwreck protocol by helping himself to one of the lifeboats while many passengers were desperately screaming for attention.
Are today’s captains (of enterprises and governments) Smith-like? To be fair, there are some who fit the mold. But an honest analysis of what brought us to our current state of affairs suggests that the Schettino type of leadership is gaining traction in a world that has become too cynical and indifferent to weigh in.
The luxurious upper decks of the Titanic housed the wealthy and the mighty. These were men with lofty titles and great pedigrees including J. Bruce Ismay, chair of the company that owned the vessel. The scent of power and privilege must have permeated their spacious cabins. Immense power sometimes drives one to intellectual impunity or the sense that one can get away with anything. This affliction, which the fictional character Caledon Hockley obviously had, removes all sense of accountability and chokes the desire to become a better leader, a better follower, and a better professional.
In contrast to the opulence of the upper decks, the bottom of the Titanic teemed with hundreds of sweaty and dirty workers who looked after the ship’s engines. These workers had little access to the escape routes and had the remotest chance of being saved in the event of a shipwreck. It is fair to assume that they perished while faithfully following orders to fix the boiler room as the rest of the passengers fought for slots in the lifeboats. An even more painful thought is that they perished in a tragedy that was not even of their making. Talk about silent heroes in the unlikeliest places.
In the world of business, this would be a classic case of a follower suffering the consequence of his leader’s grave miscalculation. When the erring leader bears the same consequence, the enterprise loses a good drummer but it gains character. It is this character that prepares the company for even tougher challenges in the future. But when the erring leader shields himself from the consequence of his error, the enterprise keeps a cowardly coach and develops a soft belly that will not withstand even the lightest of tests in the future.
It is easy to act professionally while operating in one’s comfort zone. The real test comes when conditions become too threatening. In the Titanic were eight bandsmen who played music to a panic-stricken throng that was anxiously awaiting permission to board the lifeboats. The musicians knew that death was only a short while away. Yet they performed like professionals possessed by their craft. The story of the musicians is not fictional. In the film, the bandleader, after telling his colleagues to fold up their instruments at the end of their performance, calmly declared “gentlemen, it was a pleasure playing with you tonight.” Graceful and tranquil acceptance of an undesired outcome is professionalism of the highest order.
Why the Titanic is not one of the most widely discussed cases in business schools is a wonder. We need not look for recent cases of workplace conflicts and tensions to deepen our understanding of business. As a real-life event, it exposed human folly and frailty. Yet it exposed the strength residing within the same fragile human frame. We need not be disturbed by the fact that we continue to be vulnerable to the same weaknesses today, a hundred years later. All we need is the humility to accept that nothing we create, whether in business or in our personal lives, is unsinkable. This acceptance will evoke a sense of accountability that will make us aim to become better leaders, better followers and better professionals.
(The article reflects the personal opinion of the author and it does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines. The author is chairman of the Maybridge (Asia), Inc. and the MAP President in 2009. Feedback at [email protected]. For previous articles, visit map.org.ph.)