by V. S. Ravi Elangkoh

Sinking shipOn the night of 13 January 2012, the 114,500-ton Costa Concordia – hailed as one of the largest ships built in Italy – ran aground in Italian waters off the idyllic island of Giglio, Tuscany. By the next day, the ill-fated luxury cruise liner, carrying 4,200 passengers and crew members, had capsized and was practically sinking. As of 22 January 2012, the death toll stood at 13, while 20 people were still unaccounted for.*

At the time of writing this, details of the incident are somewhat murky as on-going investigations have not yet been completed, but one thing appears crystal clear: leadership incompetence.

Analysts agree that while human hubris was responsible for the Titanic tragedy about a century ago, the Costa Concordia catastrophe was due to human error, further aggravated by a lack of readiness to handle crisis – all pointing back to the lack of leadership aboard the ship.

From our perspective, there were four leadership errors that Francesco Schettino, captain of the vessel, had committed.

Being overly optimistic
“… I enjoy moments when something unpredictable happens, when you can diverge a bit from standard procedures … It’s a challenge to face, I enjoy it.”
~ excerpt from an interview with Captain Schettino in 2010

Be careful of what you wish for! It is fine to have a dose of legitimate fun at appropriate times. But when leaders place too much emphasis on pleasure over safety, they are opening a treacherous hatchway to untold danger. Leads from Facebook postings imply that Schettino might have steered the ship dangerously close to shore in what could be interpreted as an act of bravura to salute the family of a crew member living on the island of Giglio.

When people’s lives or livelihood are at stake, it is better for a leader to err on the side of caution. They must never dice with danger just to satisfy their personal penchant for excitement or test how far they can stretch their boundaries.

Good leaders are discerning enough to know that even one so-called small innocent incident, if not restrained or carefully monitored, can spiral into catastrophic proportions beyond control. One might be able to understand human frailty caused by sudden illness, but the Costa Concordia case involved an error arising from the leader’s own foolish assumption that nothing would go wrong amid the unnecessary risks he took.

Covering up with pseudo-chivalry
In an apparent attempt to clutch at straws, Schettino who is currently drowning in criticisms tried to claim credit for saving over 3,000 lives. Should a leader claim credit for what should have been his duty?

More importantly, should chivalry be taken into account when it was that very same leader himself who caused the fatal error in the first place? The many comments from readers after news about the Costa Concordia was published online reflected the public’s incredulity over the captain’s gall to claim gallantry.

Good leaders do not twist facts. They boldly come face-to-face with the facts of the matter.

Abandoning ship prematurely
The captain’s mandate is to remain on board a troubled ship to protect passenger safety. Abandoning ship before ensuring passenger safety breaches the leadership code of ethics.

[Note: The International Convention for the Safety for Life at Sea does not require that the captain be the last man to leave the ship, but maritime laws in countries like Italy, Spain and Greece state that the captain should remain on the ship to evacuate passengers though the law does not a specific time the captain can leave the ship.**]

A poor leader will think of saving his own back first, hence the instinct to abandon ship the instant he feels the heat. On the contrary, credible leaders will brave the storm and see their people through the worst, conscientiously guiding them back to safer conditions.

Creating dubious excuses
The infamous Schettino has defended himself by claiming that fell into a lifeboat when the ship tilted. Naturally, many find that a suspiciously convenient coincidence.

A leader who has made a careless error and yet does not admit it is doubly condemned. It reveals that he has not shown remorse and is thus unable to learn from his mistake. Further creating dubious excuses only serves to hammer the nail in the coffin. What can we expect of the fate of the enterprise if the leader to whom his followers look up to shirks his responsibility in crucial times?

Concluding remarks
Being overly optimistic while undermining risks, covering up one’s errors, giving up when the going gets tough and proffering excuses instead of admitting mistakes – these are among the ingredients of a recipe for leadership disaster. With bad leadership, even the mightiest ship can sink!

Photo credit