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Leadership Lessons from the Titanic for Charities

The Management Centre

It’s today- April 14th. The date the Titanic sank. In case you’ve been living on another planet for the last 100 years you should know that today, on her maiden voyage, the pride of the White Star Line hit an iceberg 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. Within two hours and 40 minutes the 46,382-ton liner, with lifeboats for only 50% of her passengers, sank. Only 750 people were saved.

Since the media is full of ‘Titanicana’ I wondered if there were any leadership lessons from the anniversary. Here are my top 5:

1. Avoid hubris

you may think you’re very clever. And you may indeed be very clever. But don’t get carried away with your own hype. No organisation is unsinkable. UNICEF basically invented, and used to make $40M annually, in the charity cards and gifts business. Today it makes scarcely $10M. It thought it was invincible. Every agency, no matter how powerful, can trip. Hubris- an overweening sense of your own importance and invulnerability- is the catalyst for a chain of mistakes that can bring down the mightiest agency. For more on this try Jim Collins’ latest book ‘How the Mighty Fall’ where he explores the role of hubris as a key driver in organisational failure. And stop believing your own hype!

2 Pay attention

you need to watch out for early signs of challenge or difficulty. On Titanic almost everyone, including the captain, was way too busy partying when young Fredrick Fleet, the junior watchman, spotted the iceberg on Sunday night at 11:35 pm. The night was clear and free of fog, so really there was no reason to hit the iceberg at all. (Fleet later testified he could have averted the disaster if he had a pair of binoculars to see further.) If you don’t pay attention to what the competition is doing or what’s happening externally you can hit disaster. Poor old Blackberry really didn’t pay proper attention to what was happening at all…and many charities don’t either.

3. Look deeper

A superficial problem may obscure deeper challenges. It wasn’t the top part of the iceberg that doomed the Titanic. The upper structure damage was very limited- so initially no one worried too much. But of course 2/3 of an iceberg is below the surface. And it was that 2/3 that ripped the deadly holes in the hull below the waterline and ultimately sank the ship. You need to look for early signs that a surface problem may need radical attention. So the Komen Fund may be permanently damaged by its recent failure to deal with the Planned Parenthood fiasco. The initial mishandling simply revealed a whole series of deeper challenges in the governance and leadership.

4. Value values

much of the criticism of the management of the Titanic is that the major death toll took place among the third class passengers. It was reported, perhaps unfairly, that the shipping line saw them as ‘the little people,’ and so not valued as much as first class travellers when it came to rescue. Even then this was an uncomfortable value. If you do have to make tough decisions ensure you treat everyone fairly. Your performance as a manager or leader will be judged on how well you deal with the humblest of your volunteers or staff. And while ‘women and children’ first may seem slightly archaic, the notion of sticking to values or principles no matter what is important. In the UK many charities pulled out of the Govt’s workfare programme because it was seen as fundamentally unfair- and there was an upsurge in support because they stuck to their principles rather than simply taking the money.

5. Don’t Panic

Having a system to deal with an emergency is important- but you also need to not panic long-term. After the disaster Ismay, the White Star Line chairman, offered to resign and there was great press pressure for him to do so. But the Board backed him, arguing they had to change and learn. So the company didn’t fold after the disaster but continued on to become one of the top freight and passenger lines in the world for the next 25 years. (White Star, interestingly, became a driving force for the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea- SOLAS.) You can recover from a crisis provided you learn. Five years ago the Kenyan Red Cross was in trouble- performing poorly in fundraising and with a big hole in the accounts. Today it is one of the most successful NGOs in Africa- running everything from hotels to ambulance services- thanks to a steady and sensible response by staff and the Board.

So I know it’s late… and you’re busy… and very clever…and someone else is supposed to be looking after stuff…but isn’t it time you went and had a look out the porthole? I mean… just to check!

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