What Leaders Can Learn from The Costa Concordia Tragedy

The Costa Concordia was Europe’s largest-ever cruise ship when it launched in 2006, however, not a lot is being said about that now with the ship being on the rocks.  Considering the age with high tech GPS and mapping systems,it is pretty hard to believe something like this could happen.  Furthermore, it is more than tragic the lives that have been lost in something attributed to human error.  So what could leaders learn from this awful tragedy?

Before we get into that, let’s address one of the major leadership issues of this particular tragedy.  The captain.  What does this captain’s actions after the crash say about the state of leadership today?  It seems with not only this tragedy, but the more recent business “crashes” that gone are the days when leaders/captains stayed with the ship to ensure everyone is taken care of before worrying about themselves.  I would have been ok if he darted from the ship to go for help, but from most estimates, he didn’t even send a mayday call.  What is going on here?  What has happened to the leadership today that whether it be large cruiseships or large companies, no one sends mayday messages or helps their passengers/associates get to safety before bailing themselves?  Now that the soap box is done, let’s talk about some of the lessons.

Lesson 1: Stay the course.  From the reports, we have have learned the captain went off of the normal course and right into a patch of rocks which took the ship to its doom.  So often, leaders get brazen and neglect to follow the standard instruments used to keep the business in the “right lane”.  Of course, there are times when following your gut could lead to tremendous success, but you have to weigh out the costs of those decisions on those on the ship with you.  Unfortunately, there are also times where staying the course, as boring as it may seem, is what needs to be done for the safety of your passengers.

Lesson 2: Be sure to use the mayday signal.  I am not sure whether it is pride or stupidity that prevents a lot of leaders of companies to admit they need help.  A true leader leans on the experience and knowledge of their team and is willing to be open to asking for help when it is needed.  There are a number of resources available to leaders who need help with a particular problem in their company.  Everyone experiences bumps or potholes in the path, the smart thing to do would be to lean on help from those who may have already tracked down a similar path.  Wisdom is often as easy to obtain as learning from the mistakes of others.

Lesson 3: Make sure everyone knows the directions for the lifeboats. If you’ve heard any of the accounts of when the ship went down, you heard the mass chaos which ensued once everyone on the ship was aware of the scale of the tragedy.  As a leader, you must make sure everyone on your ship knows the necessary directions for when trouble arises.  Mass hysteria can add unneeded noise to a tense situation.  If everyone on your team is aware of the “disaster recovery plan,” things will go a lot smoother.  Additionally, if you take the course most commanders do in the army, be sure you have a statement of “commander’s intent.”  As a leader, you cannot possibly be there to help your team think through every single dilemma they experience, but through the use of the CI statement, you can at least arm them with what they need to know.

An example would be Southwest Airline’s “low fare” strategy.  This is  a strategy set forth by executive management, but is known to all employees.  So when a flight planning team is looking at making a major decision, they first weigh in whether this decision would fall in line with Southwest being the “lowest fare” airline.  If the decision does not align properly, they seek another course of action.

Clearly, on the Costa Concordia, there was no CI, mostly because the was no “C” (commander) on the ship so who could know the I (intent)?  Barring from a leader making this tragically stupid mistake, there should have been some type of CI for those workers on the ship to ensure the safety of their passengers.  Clearly, we can make some deductions from the situation based on how the crew acted.  Obviously, one could say the captain was most likely a top down type of leader, one who provides more commands than direction.  How do we know this?  Look how his team responds to a crisis when he is not on the ship. This is an awful tragedy on many levels.  I continue to hope more survivors are found in the short term.

Lesson 4: Even big ships fall victim.  Think about 2008 and the business giants who fell.  Similar to the Costa Concordia, these mega giants veered off of the normal course of business and ran aground, taking many innocent lives with them.  Whether it was investing in mortgage backed securities, or being too aggressive, almost stupid in their assumptions the bubble would not burst.  Generations ago, businesses would not have made such mistakes, rather, they would have used their instruments to navigate safely through the waters.  It seems many of the captains of these monster ships thought their vessel was too big to fail.  Unfortunately, many leaders of large organizations seem to believe the same lie and fall victim to a similar fate.  Last time I checked, doing the same thing over and over is the definition of insanity.  I guess they no longer teach common sense in business schools anymore.

We can all learn from this tragedy and take a moment to reflect on the ship we are the captain of at the moment.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you staying the course?
  • Does your team know the CI for the company?
  • What steps do you need to take today to right the course of your ship to avoid the rocks ahead?

Continue to pray for the lives of those yet recovered and the families of all who are involved.  One tragic misstep a lot of us make is forgetting their are lives involved in the mess.  As a leader, that is one take away I hope you remember.

Trent Cotton has spent a number of years in management and business consulting. After spending some time in the field, he joined the HR department, beginning in recruiting and eventually serving as the Department Head of HR for one of the major lines of business. With such a varied background, he works to bring all of these together to help organizations incorporate best practices into their business to help them succeed. In his free time, he also writes a lot on his other blog, Christian Men, Christian Warrior.

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