Leadership Cancers #7: Hubris and the Titanic

by Gary Monti on April 27, 2010

In Greek mythology those who had hubris (powerful people with over-reaching, extreme arrogance) were visited by the goddess Nemesis, who restored balance in a vengeful, remorseless manner. The story of the Titanic is a good example. Nemesis’ message was clear. Over 1500 people were lost and engineering, even beyond nautical engineering, was set back on its heels for several years.

Apparent Unending Successes

In the 19th Century technology reigned supreme. There seemed to be no limit to what could be accomplished and no downside was expected. The rapid pace of triumph was shown in the ocean liner industry where the size of ships quadrupled in a few short decades.

The Illusion of Safety

At that time, the Titanic had the highest concentration of wealth ever in one spot. The captain, Edward Smith, was called the “Millionaire’s Captain” because many of the rich would only travel with him. Combined with the belief that the ship was unsinkable there was a rush to be on the maiden voyage with no worry for safety.

The Reality

The destruction caused by an overly proud group of individuals played out in a very small, pivotal way. It is what would be called a tipping point today. The stage was set for the arrival of Nemesis by the creation of a perfect storm between two engineering decisions and a material flaw:

  • Only 16 lifeboats were present when 48 were needed. Bruce Ismay, the Chairman of the White Star Line wanted the millionaires to have an uncompromising view of the sea and horizon.  It was felt lifeboats weren’t needed but the Board of Trade had to be kept happy so the minimum of 16 were installed.
  • The bulkheads (walls) for many of the watertight compartments were lowered in height to accommodate a larger, more opulent grand staircase.  This resulted in water spilling between compartments and the ship sank in 2 hours.
  • Lower cost and -quality #3 wrought iron was used for rivets when #4 was required. The heads popped off when the iceberg was struck and the steel plates peeled back like a zipper. Water entered at the rate of 400 tons/minute.

The Trickle Down Effect

Beyond the technical errors there was a deeper issue – leadership and the impact of hubris. Specifically, the focus on social status and wealth affected the crew’s performance.

Wireless operators had two functions – track weather reports and transmit messages for the rich. They made their money from the latter. On April 14, 1912, another ship, the California, continually sent wireless messages to the Titanic that a large iceberg (one million tons) was in Titanic’s path.

Receiving these messages annoyed the operator trying to get messages out for their rich patrons. The Titanic operator demanded the California stop bothering him. They did and turned off their wireless. The messages never made it to the Captain.

The Solution

Everything is simple. When working with the US Navy on risk management I asked what the solution was. The answer was, “Rather than ask, ‘What is the probability of sinking?’ ask, ‘What do we do when the ship sinks?’” Nemesis brought this home very clearly.

Share your comments! I’d like to know what you think. In addition to commenting on this blog you can also send a response via e-mail to gwmonti@mac.com or visit www.ctrchg.com.

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