I visited Titanic – The Exhibition recently – you may have caught it when it was in your part of the world.
While the exhibition was quite a moving experience, I couldn’t help but think that the people in leadership positions – the White Star Line (WSL) Board and their faithful servant Capt. Edward J Smith – who sent the ship out on its ill fated maiden voyage, have a lot to answer for. More to the point, someone like me shouldn’t be standing there 103 years later reading through the names of the 1514 people who perished on that dark April night.
What went wrong? Well, fundamentally the leadership group let technology get ahead of them and didn’t follow basic governance processes.
One hundred years ago a fortune was to made from plying people and things back and forth between Europe and the US by sea. So shipping companies would throw big dollars at larger, faster and grander ships.
The WSL was no exception and went for the top end of the market and concentrated of what would appeal to this demographic – speed, opulence and, of all things, safety. To get this group’s attention, they decided to build the biggest, most luxurious, fastest, technologically advanced and safest liner the world had seen. To beat all others it had a system of water tight compartments enabling them to claim that the Titanic was UNSINKABLE.
Strategically it looked like the WSL had made a brilliant move. And they didn’t skimp on the resources, investing over $400 million in today’s dollars.
But as the plan became a reality the Board stepped beyond the bounds of good governance – they got involved in operational matters. For instance, they ordered that lifeboats be removed from the First Class deck so the millionaire passengers would have more space to promenade – got to keep the customers happy at all costs. Also the Managing Director of the WSL, J.Bruce Ismay, was handed a radio message while on the voyage from another ship in the area warning of ice flows ahead which he screwed up and placed in his pocket – can’t set a speed record if we slow down, besides we are unsinkable.
Capt Smith, of course was as culpable as the Board. He had a long and very safe history with the WSL. But with this he seems to have develop complacency and an almost abdication to technology. In fact a few years before the Titanic was launched he is quoted as saying:
“I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that”
This blind faith in technology plus a total subservience to the Board seems to have caused Capt. Smith to not only agree to removing the life boats, but he only bothered to ensure that one officer and four crew members were trained on how to deploy the remaining lifeboats and he allowed the ice lookouts that to man their stations without the aid of binoculars.
Seems to me that a failure to understand that state of the art technology doesn’t replace good leadership lead to this calamity. There was an air of arrogance which caused people and processes to be overlooked. Leaders who follow in WSL’s footsteps will surely be placing their organisations at the risk of similar icebergs.
As an ironic postscript: Ismay made it aboard one of the first life boats and lived till 1937. Capt. Smith went down with his ship.
By Chris Gandy – Founder and a Director of Cause & Effective