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Leadership Fail: Lessons Learned from a Sinking Cruise Ship

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I watched the news on Saturday and saw an ocean liner slowly sink into the water off the coast of Tuscany in the Mediterranean. Four thousand people have been rescued and three have been reported dead so far. The photos of the “Costa Concordia” were unbelievable. Several on board said, “It was like no one was in charge.” This is a classic “leadership fail” that we can learn from.

Here are some headlines from the disaster:

  • Passengers said it was “chaos” as crew told them: “go back to your cabins.”
  • The captain couldn’t be found at first; later arrested for abandoning ship.
  • Survivors leapt for their lives into the icy sea as the liner rolled on its side.
  • The ship was four miles off course when it hit ground.
  • The lifeboats were so pitiful, they had difficulty being launched.
  • At least three people died and many more are injured.

My guess is, you are a leader who’s experienced your own set of sinking ships. Maybe it wasn’t this severe, but things went awry and someone wanted to wring your neck. From this tragic cruise ship disaster, may I offer some leadership advice for you when you face a crisis?

1. Stay visible. Be public. Don’t run from the problem.

In this case, the captain was arrested for doing the opposite. Leaders must stay calm and model the way. People do what people see.

2. Prepare and execute a plan.

It appeared the captain and crew had no plan for such disasters and certainly didn’t execute an effective plan to help the passengers in a crisis.

3. Give clear direction to followers.

In crises, people need clarity more than anything else. Unlike the ship’s crew, offer clear and wise counsel to people on what steps to take in response.

4. Outsource what you must to furnish solutions.

Hotels and cafés offered restrooms and shelter for passengers, but it was random. The crew was not in touch with nearby establishments to care for the people.

5. Over-communicate.

When things go wrong, people are down on what they’re not up on. Keep people informed and repeat your words often. Emotions can cloud folks’ reception.

I’d like to hear from you. Are there any other lessons from this disaster? What have you learned from dealing with crises as a leader?


Details continue to emerge from this disaster.

For more info, see this article:  "Coastguard raged at liner captain, tape shows"

Also see this post for more leadership lessons from a sinking ship.


  1. Tim Carpenter on January 17, 2012 at 9:07 am

    I believe one of the most effective ways to survive a sudden, threatening change is to euip the people to lead themselves if beeded. Assigning passenger team captains to fulfill leadership roles could of prevented a lot of the chaos on the ship. Having large groups of people “wait” until the higher leadership tells them what to do usually leads to frustration and panic. 
    Just like the airlines prepare whoever is seating in the exit row in case of an emergency, they should of prepared and equipped passengers to lead their “peers” when needed.
    WE must equip our young people to lead their peers rather than “wait” for the teacher or adult to tell them what to do. This delegated authority minimizes chaos and multiplies effectiveness.
    Just like the passengers rose up and made a difference, I believe this generation of leaders will rise up and rescue their peers from the sinking ship of the world.

  2. Alan Spies on January 17, 2012 at 9:40 am

    I believe that in times of crisis, it is imperative for a leader to not lose sight of the mission and vision.  It is easy to get distracted and sidetracked but the best leaders are clear about their mission and vision, regardless of the circumstances.  It should also be noted that as leaders, our mission and vision should focus on serving others.  In this tragic example, it is readily apparent the captain was merely looking out for his own interests.

  3. timage on January 17, 2012 at 11:01 am

    Sooo many lessons from this. One of the contributing factors to this disaster was pride. Pride makes you think that what happened to the Titanic could never happen to us. Pride makes you think you can show off your navigational skills by cutting it too close to the coastline (I heard the captain might have been showing off). Pride makes you think that you don’t need to go through the emergency-preparedness speech on this trip.

    Pride can cause a crisis and it can also worsen a crisis.

    You posted a pic of the ship pre-crisis. I think you could create a completely new Habitudes book based on the pics of the ship after the accident. Unbelievable.

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Leadership Fail: Lessons Learned from a Sinking Cruise Ship