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Leadership lessons from Captain Edward J. Smith



(Picture source: Titanic Facts)

Captain Smith was the Titanic’s Captain when it struck an iceberg and sank on 15th April 1912. Smith had about 40 years of experience at sea and one would have to ask how it was possible that a man with so much experience could ignore (or not react) to the iceberg warnings what were being issued in the days preceding the accident and on the fateful day the Titanic sank.

Ice is a seasonal hazard in the winter seas of the North Atlantic. Many ships had reported ice in the exact area into which the Titanic would be sailing. On April 11th, Titanic received 6 warnings from ships stopped in, or passing through heavy ice. 5 more on the 12th, 3 on the 13th, and 7 on the 14th. There is no way that Captain Smith would not have known about the huge ice field that they were going to be sailing into.

Five years prior to the sinking of the Titanic, Captain Smith is reported to have said these words:

“In all my experience, I have never been in any accident of any sort worth speaking about. I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked, nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.”

Had he become his own worst enemy? Putting too much confidence in his experience?

Should the incident that occurred just a year before when he was in charge of the Olympic not have given him reason to check his confidence?

In 1911, Captain Smith was in charge of the Olympic when it collided with the HMS Hawke while leaving the Southampton harbour. The ships didn’t sink but they did incur considerable damage. Then at the start of the Titanic’s maiden voyage, while leaving the Southhampton harbour there was another near miss. The truth was he wasn’t infallible, yet it would seem he thought he was.

On the night of April 14, 1912, Captain Smith decided to leave the bridge to attend a dinner party. He normally took meals in his cabin, but since he was retiring after this particular voyage, a dinner party was being held in his honour, with guests from the cream of the 1912 society. We know from the story, that he left the party early to talk to Charles Lightoller, the second mate, at the bridge, then retired to his cabin at around 9:20pm, again leaving the bridge during an important part of the voyage, at night, and with warnings of ice in place.

We know what happened that fateful night.

Are there any business lessons here? I think so, especially in the light of all the warnings currently being sounded about disruption. Business is currently sailing in treacherous waters.

What kind of leader are you at this time? If you have years of experience are you also filled with over confidence because, to date, you have not steered your business into an “iceberg?”

The truth is every business is eventually going to have a technology element because everything is being digitised. This reminds me of this comment by Francisco Gonzalez (CEO of Spanish and International bank BBVA)

“Some bankers and analysts think that Google, Facebook, Amazon, or the like will not fully enter a highly regulated, low-margin business such as banking. I disagree. What is more, I think banks that are not prepared for such new competitors face certain death” (Banks need to take on Amazon and Google or die)

This can be said for every industry and business model.

Maurice Levy (CEO Publicis Groupe) put it this way:

“We have a situation where the invasion of digital by someone with a clever mind can disrupt any kind of business. I agree the Internet of Things is not about the things, it’s about products. This is changing quite dramatically.”

So how do you navigate your business through the disruption ice field?

Here is a great, brief, description of the process.


Don't let history say that you made the same mistake as Captain Edward J. Smith.


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