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Leadership Matters: Lessons from the Titanic

December 2017: Vol 40 No 12
Michael Patterson
Leaders cannot take success for granted or be blind to the challenges and obstacles they face.

Sinking of the ocean liner the Titanic witnessed by survivors in lifeboats. As a credit union leader, you are responsible for the wellbeing and success of your institution, employees and members. You are the captain of your ship; while the employees steer the ship, the captain is responsible for steering the course. Leaders cannot take success for granted or be blind to the challenges and obstacles they face. Over 100 years ago, Titanic Captain E.J. Smith fell into that trap, which resulted in one of the greatest disasters of all time. The lessons learned from that sinking can be applied to your credit union as well.

The Leader Is Always Responsible

Leadership expert John Maxwell states “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” The maiden voyage of the Titanic was Capt. E.J. Smith’s retirement trip. His final duty was to pilot the grandest ship ever built into New York Harbor. However, Smith took many safety issues and precautions for granted on the trip. He ignored multiple iceberg warnings from his crew and neighboring ships. Smith ignored safety concerns by pushing the ship to its limits the first time out in the attempt to reach New York two days ahead of schedule.

Leadership is about everything you do, and the things you don’t do. Maxwell says, “Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.” The leader sets the stage and influences others to act; the leader is always present, even when he or she is not there physically. 

Bigger Is Not Always Better

Titanic was the largest ship of its time. It was such a large ship that it took nearly a minute to steer away from the iceberg, and many believe that delay in changing course was the biggest factor in its sinking. As a result, the iceberg ripped a large gash in the ship’s hull.

The bigger the organization, the more difficult it is to steer, direct and change. In large organizations, policies and procedures may sometimes circumvent common sense. How long does it take your credit union to change its course? How many levels does it take to change policy or procedure? Who is empowered to make a decision in the moment to satisfy a member?

Reevaluate Policies and Procedures

A common thought is that those in charge of the Titanic were grossly negligent because there were not enough lifeboats aboard the ship. According to regulations of the time, the requisite number of lifeboats was in direct proportion to the ship’s weight—to a point: The regulation stopped calculating at 10,000 tons, for a maximum of 16 lifeboats. Titanic, at more than 46,000 tons, carried 16 lifeboats.

After Titanic sank, regulations changed to calculate the number of lifeboats according to the number of passengers. As a leader, you should routinely review and reevaluate the policies and procedures of your organization. Be aware of shifts in company culture or focus that warrant a policy change. Just because procedures always worked a certain way does not mean they cannot be done more efficiently or successfully. Be proactive in looking for improvements instead of waiting for problems to occur. Don’t wait until you see an iceberg to start counting lifeboats.

Look for Dangers Hiding Below

“On the night Titanic sunk, because the moon was not out and the water so still, it was very difficult to see the iceberg. Rough waters would have caused breakers around the iceberg, making it easier to see from afar.” - The Discovery Channel. 

Titanic sank due to damage created by the part of the iceberg hidden beneath the water. Is there anything in your credit union’s culture that is a hidden iceberg? Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The culture of your credit union defines the environment in which your employees work. Culture cannot be dictated; it is developed, usually from the collective traits, beliefs and behaviors of the employees. Don’t wait for a culture problem to surface. Leaders should be proactive and look for ways to keep employees engaged, solicit feedback and act on that feedback when permissible. 

Value Structured Training

As Titanic was sinking, crew members struggled with releasing the lifeboats. They did not have the proper training on how to use the lifeboats in the event of an emergency. Deployed lifeboats were loaded with too many or too few passengers, and only one returned to attempt to recover more people.

Effective leaders understand the importance of a structured orientation and training program. Employees are your credit union’s greatest asset and should be afforded opportunities for proper training to develop their skills, which will benefit them, your members and the credit union. If we fail on developing our employees, we fail everyone who depends on our credit union to succeed.

Never Lose Sight of Your Goal

20 years ago, James Cameron was determined to make a movie featuring an exact replica of Titanic and create the most realistic sinking of the ship. The movie cost more to make and longer to shoot than was originally planned. The movie wasn’t going to be ready for its planned July 4 release. Cameron was at odds with the studios financing the film. Critics thought the picture was going to be a disaster. All the while, Cameron never lost sight of his goal. Titanic went on to become the highest grossing picture of all time, holding the top spot until being supplanted by another James Cameron film (Avatar). 

The 21st of John Maxwell’s “Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” is the law of legacy. As a leader, we are making a lasting impact on everything and everyone with who we interact. Do you want to ultimately be remembered as the most esteemed commander of all time, or the person who sank Titanic? 

Michael Patterson is a speaker, trainer, and success coach who has been helping individuals reach their fullest potential since 2000. He is a frequent speaker at credit union events. Visit his website for more information.

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