Leadership Lessons from the Titanic

“Madam, God himself could not sink this ship.” –A steward on the Titanic

In a discussion about stubborn leaders, I thought about the story of the sinking of the Titanic. Through research, I came across an article by Phil Landesberg called, “Back to the Future – Titanic Lessons in Leadership” (2001).

Titanic’s arrival was a modern marvel. It was “a grand combination of modern technology and luxury built to tame the capriciousness of nature” (Landesberg, 2001, p. 53). With the latest technological and design ingenuity, along with its massive size (the largest moving object at the time), newspapers proclaimed it to be “unsinkable.”

But, the Harland & Wolff Shipyard (builder of the Titanic) and the White Star Line (operator of the Titanic) knew that there were some scenarios that could sink the ship. But, in order to attract customers, both the ship’s maker and its operator went along with the marketing of the Titanic’s unsinkability.

Chosen to navigate the Titanic was a charismatic captain named Captain E. J. Smith, nicknamed “the millionaire’s captain.” Part of his job was to “cater to the expectations of wealthy and influential passengers” (Landesberg, 2001, p. 54).

For the most part, (from the time it set sail on April 10, 1912 to about an hour prior to it colliding with an iceberg) the Titanic’s voyage was pleasant, nothing out of the ordinary. Maybe that was the reason for Captain Smith’s cancellation of a lifeboat drill planned for Sunday April 14th.

Ironically, what made for a romantic setting—calm seas and a moonless night—signaled potential dangers as those conditions made spotting icebergs difficult. However, rather than staying to pilot the ship, Captain Smith instead went to a dinner hosted in his honor. He gave instructions to keep the Titanic on course and maintain speed unless visibility became a factor.

“Less than an hour before Titanic was to collide with an iceberg, Californian’s wireless operator, Cyril Evans, tried to pass along a message from her captain warning that Californian was surrounded by ice and stopped. On board Titanic, Phillips (one of two Titanic wireless operators working for Marconi Company onboard to relay commercial messages) was busily sending commercial messages, and replied, ‘Shut up, shut up, I’m busy….’ Ten minutes before the collision, Evans, noting that Phillips was still busy with commercial messages, shut down his equipment and retired to his cabin” (Landesberg, 2001, p. 54).

Although a large iceberg was spotted by a lookout on the Titanic, its speed and proximity “meant that the efforts of the officer in charge to avoid a collision were doomed to failure. Titanic struck the iceberg on her starboard side, sustaining damage along a 300-foot section of her hull in a mere 10 seconds. Titanic’s design allowed her to take on water in two compartments and remain afloat, but more than four compartments were breached during the collision. Upon assessing the damage, Andrews (one of Titanic’s designer who was onboard) estimated that Titanic would sink in an hour or two” (Landesberg, 2001, p. 54-55).

In an atmosphere of confusion and chaos, women and children were loaded onto lifeboats (per Captain Smith’s order). Unfortunately, without an understanding of and experience with lifeboat procedures, “the lifeboats were only partially loaded before being lowered to the sea. Designed to carry up to 65 passengers, some left with only a dozen people on board. As the lifeboats rowed away from Titanic to avoid being sucked down when she sunk, hundreds of passengers were left screaming and thrashing about in freezing water” (Landesberg, 2001, p. 55).

By early morning on April 15th, only 705 people were still alive, while 1,517 died.


#1 Never Make Assumptions

Captain Smith and many other leaders affiliated to the Titanic assumed that it could never sink.

“I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.” -Captain R. J. Smith, R.M.S. Titanic

#2 Watch for the Calm before the Storm

The quiet seas and a moonless sky made it hard to spot icebergs, making it deceiving that things were ok.

#3 Heed Warnings

There were attempts to warn the Titanic from another ship (the Californian’s Cyril Evans). But those messages were dismissed because Phillips (one of two Titanic wireless operators) was busy sending commercial messages.

#4 Stop Finding the Blame

“[I]f we look for culprits when something goes wrong, we’ll find them. However, holding individuals accountable for results can prevent learning how to improve performance or prevent a problem from recurring” (Landesberg, 2001, p. 56).

#5 Manage the System to Find a Solution

The Senate inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic revealed that Marconi wireless operators (like Jack Phillips who was onboard the Titanic to relay commercial messages) often would refuse “to communicate with wireless operators of ships (such as the Frankfurt) known to use competitor’s equipment. Frankfurt was the first ship to answer Titanic’s distress call and the operator went to consult his captain. When he returned, Phillips, on board Titanic, rudely refused to answer the question posed by Frankfurt’s captain, “What is the matter?” (Landesberg, 2001, p. 56).

The lack of cooperation and collaboration was evident in Landesberg’s (2001) account:

“While there seemed to be a ship relatively close by, the nearest ship responding to Titanic’s SOS distress signal was Carpathia, and she was more than four hours away” (p. 55).

“Leaders must look to cooperate (even while they compete) to improve the systems in which they operate, for the good of all…Had the aim of providing passenger safety been clear to everyone (i.e., Titanic’s officers and crew–including wireless operators and Californian’s officers and crew) there would have been far less confusion, more cooperation, and less loss of life on the evening of April 14, 1912.” (Landesberg, 2001, p. 56-57).


Landesberg, P. (2001). Back to the Future—Titanic Lessons in Leadership. Journal for Quality & Participation, 24(4), 53-57.