Great Leaders Never Abandon the ShipSteve Adubato, Ph.D.
There are many leadership lessons we can learn from the Costa Concordia disaster. There are questions of preparation as well as how to handle a crisis in a calm, composed and coordinated fashion. But the biggest lesson in leadership is the most obvious one; that a captain—in this case Captain Francesco Schettino—should never abandon his ship.
While it is obvious that this reference is about a cruise ship, the same thing is true of leaders of any organization. You don’t abandon your ship. You don’t turn your back on the people who depend on you for their safety and well-being—whether we are talking your employees or your most valued stakeholders.
By now, it has been well documented that Captain Schettino got off the Costa Concordia well before everyone else was off. He got into a lifeboat and ignored the directives of Italian Coast Guard port officials who told him to get back on the ship. Schettino will get his day in court and his chance to explain why he was so cowardly in the most important leadership moment of his professional life. But, there are important lessons here for the rest of us the next time something goes seriously wrong when we are at the helm:
--It’s not a matter of IF something goes wrong, it is a matter of WHEN, because something inevitably WILL go wrong. It is the nature of things. There are too many variables. Stuff happens. While you can’t think of every conceivable scenario where a disaster or crisis could strike, it is important that before one does, you not only identify the most likely circumstances, but also have a plan that is realistic and practical once it does. A leader’s job is to ensure that while all precautions are taken, the preparation for a crisis never stops.
--Never underestimate how bad a situation is by engaging in wishful thinking. Great leaders always consider the worst case scenario when something goes wrong. It’s not a matter of being negative or pessimistic, but rather asking yourself; “If the worst happens, what do I and my team need to do?” Clearly Schettino didn’t do this. Instead, what was communicated to the over 4,000 people on the ship that there was some sort of electrical problem and that there was no reason to be overly concerned. Again, this was wishful thinking. I’m not advocating that we communicate in a fashion that produces hysteria and panic, but rather a degree of candor about the severity of the situation and the need to be calm and deliberate in our actions.
--It is clear there were few, if any, leaders on the Costa Concordia staff who were in a position to take charge or communicate clear direction once Captain Schettino abandoned ship. Great leadership isn’t only at the top of the organization, it is required throughout a team. One has to question whether Captain Schettino developed any other “situational” leaders who were positioned to do what needed to be done in case of a crisis or emergency in which he wouldn’t or couldn’t lead. Even in the best circumstances, no one leader can do it alone. He or she needs others to help communicate and execute a crisis strategy.
--Great leaders don’t panic. They have a sense of calm, even in the most dangerous and perilous situation. We saw it during 9/11 with the crew and passengers of Flight 93 that crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania. We saw it with Chesley Sullenberger, known as “Sully,” the pilot of the US Airways plane that landed in the Hudson River. A leader’s calm demeanor has a direct impact on the demeanor of others around him. Conversely, when a leader panics, it is obvious that he or she induces panic in others.Like I said, there are many lessons in leadership that all of us can learn from the Costa Concordia tragedy.
Steve Adubato coaches and speaks on communication and leadership and is author of the new book "What Were They Thinking? Crisis Communication: The Good, the Bad and the Totally Clueless" (Rutgers University Press). Write to him at The Star-Ledger, 1 Star-Ledger Plaza, Newark, NJ 07102, visit his Web site at www.stand-deliver.com, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.