"CEOs can't wait to read Sunny Bindra's articles every week."

Learn from the disastrous leadership of this ship captain

Jan 30, 2012 Business Daily, Leadership

“The Italian cruise ship the Costa Concordia sank off the coast of Tuscany last Friday night, after smashing into rocks off the island of Giglio. The 114,500-tonne vessel, carrying 3,200 passengers and 1,000 crew, hit a submerged reef at 9.42pm, after the ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, had steered it to within 200m of shore to “salute” a retired colleague who lived on the island. The rocks ripped a 50m gash in the Costa Concordia’s hull. The ship began to list, and the captain steered it into shallow water close to a headland. At 12.30am, it suddenly capsized. As of Wednesday, 11 people had been confirmed dead and 21 were still missing.”

The Week (January 21, 2012)

We all know about the Italian cruise ship disaster – the image of the capsized luxury liner lying marooned off the Tuscany coast was on our TV screens for many days.

However, those aspiring to leadership would do well to focus on an even bigger disaster, the man whose version of leadership caused this tragedy that has led to so many unnecessary deaths: captain Francesco Schettino.

First, consider that this gentleman caused this disaster reportedly because he was using the ship to ‘salute’ a friend who lived on the island. How many leaders similarly misuse their positions and resources to feed their own egos or private aims? Leadership is not a personal enterprise; it involves taking heavy responsibility for the lives and livelihoods of others.

Second, note the captain’s laxity in taking the problem seriously. Reports suggest Schettino was terribly slow to react to the disaster, even though the ship had suffered a huge gash in its side. He is said to have told the coastguard that it was just a “technical failure”; he is alleged to have then ordered a meal for himself and a female companion; he only sent out a mayday call at 10.30 pm; and did not give the order to abandon ship until nearly 11 pm. By then the boat was listing so sharply that many lifeboats could not be lowered. It was too late to save lives.

This type of denial is also ego-related. Too many leaders are utterly loath to admit to any mistake, and in the process will worsen the problem. Honest leadership requires coming clean, quickly. If you’ve messed up, say so and get on with the more important imperative of damage control. Don’t dance around denying there’s a problem. Look at so many CEOs across the world in 2011, and you will see that this kind of dance is very common.

Lastly, and most egregiously, the captain is accused of abandoning his ship: an audio recording from the Italian coastguard, widely heard across the world’s media, suggests he left his sinking vessel with his two senior officers while hundreds of passengers were still trapped on board. He is reported to have told magistrates, in comical justification of this cowardice, that he “tripped and fell into a lifeboat.”

Again, a profound lesson is contained therein. If you have created a problem, stay to fix it and bear the consequences. If you have enjoyed the perks of leadership, you must carry the burdens as well. Too many business leaders float away from the problems they create, often with handsome payoffs. In Schettino’s case, there is no such luxury. He will face manslaughter charges. The business world similarly needs a system of repercussions for incompetence and mismanagement. At the top, there is much upside and little downside.

In the meantime, the words “Vada a bordo, cazzo!” have become famous in Italy. They were uttered repeatedly by the furious head of the Livorno port authority when ordering Schettino back onto his stricken ship.

I’ll leave you to go online to learn what the words mean. Let’s just say they could apply to many a political and corporate leader, too.

Buy Sunny Bindra's book
here »

Share or comment on this article