Leading During a Crisis: 7 Lessons From The Costa Concordia Disaster

By Manie Bosman

Since the luxury passenger cruiser Costa Concordia sank off the Tuscan coast at Giglio island last Friday, the media have been screaming accusations against its captain for abandoning ship while many passengers were still on board. Captain Francesco Schettino’s somewhat bizarre explanation that he didn’t intend to abandon the ship but that he “slipped and fell into a lifeboat while helping passengers” did not add to his credibility or defence. In the eyes of millions he has now become the personification of cowardliness and failed leadership, and is said to be the “most hated man” in Italy.

But is this justified? Many of us hold the romantic notion of a ship’s captain as a noble hero who would sacrifice his own seat on the last lifeboat and sink to the bottom of the ocean with his ship if that’s what it take to save his crew and passengers. Fortunately not many captains are tested in the way Captain Schettino was tested last week, but how many leaders face and fail similar tests of courage, efficiency and reliability every day? The circumstances of Captain Schettino’s leadership failure was dramatic and was splashed across front pages and television screens all over the world, but the lessons we can learn from it are basic and universal. Here are 7 lessons about leading during a crisis that we can take from the Costa Concordia disaster:

Lesson 1: Taking risks is often necessary, but it’s no excuse for stupidity… Just about every successful venture involves at least some level of risk taking. However, if the possible losses far outweighs the gains, it is just stupidity. If the Costa Concordia followed its scheduled route it would have passed safely about 8 kilometres from the coast of Giglio island. Instead the captain steered it to within 300 meters of the island’s rocky shores, apparently so that he could perform a ‘salute of respect’ for a retired officer and to impress his head waiter’s family watching from the shore. “I don’t know why it happened. I was a victim of my instincts,” he later said. Good instincts are crucial for great leadership, but if your instincts (or ego) lead you take unnecessary risks, you’re in dangerous waters… sometimes literally.

Lesson 2: Relying on technology is okay, but only to a point … Interviewed by the Czech paper Dnes about a year before the tragedy, Captain Schettino stated that “everything is much safer” on cruise ships than a century ago when the Titanic sank. He attributed the increased safety to “modern technical instruments and the internet” and declared “if an error occurs, it is not so serious, because we are better prepared for possible complications”. We’re all continuously amazed at how technology is improving the way we live and work, but leadership is a human enterprise and cannot be abdicated to technology. Great leaders understand that even at the best of times things can change in a minute, and while they don’t waste energy worrying about what can go wrong, they plan and prepare strategically to anticipate all possible future scenarios. Relying blindly on technology to navigate safely through dangerous waters is simply not enough.

Lesson 3: Self-confidence and optimism should not stop you from facing reality… Described by other officers as “too exuberant”, a “daredevil”, and a “braggart and show-off” who “drove the luxury liner like a Ferrari”, Captain Schettino’s self-confidence and ego could easily have led to much greater loss of life than it did. For about 45 minutes after the ship had ran onto the rocks Schettino continued to assure an anxious harbourmaster on the island that everything was fine, other than a “small technical problem”. Meanwhile he was trying to manoeuvre the ship back into open water and refused to give the order for the vessel’s 4 200 passengers to “abandon ship”. He obviously over-estimating his ability to rectify the situation by himself and stubbornly refused to accept the reality and the seriousness of the crisis. Great leaders understand that recognition of reality is the first and crucial step in solving a problem. Ignoring reality, denying that a problem exists or trying to find quick-fix short-term solutions that only address the symptoms can waste valuable time and cause even more harm to those you are supposed to be leading. If other officers didn’t ignore Schettino’s orders not to abandon the ship, many more passengers and crew members could have died.

Lesson 4: Effective communication becomes even more important during a crisis… In essence, leadership is an inter-personal relationship enacted through communication. Where there is a lack of communication, there is a lack of leadership. During a crisis, more than any other time, people look up to leaders to provide explanations, information and direction. While the leader might not yet have all the information when the crisis occurs, he or she can create calm and order by sharing whatever information they have and by giving clear direction as to the immediate steps needed to avoid further disaster. Not only did Captain Schettino fail to communicate the extent of the pending disaster to the authorities on land who could have initialized emergency procedures long before they eventually did, he also failed to provide any clear direction to crew and passengers when it finally dawned on him that the ship was sinking.

Lesson 5: A leader should remain visible and available during a crisis… Closely related to the previous and the next point, leaders cannot afford to go ‘below radar’ when there is a crisis. Recordings from a frenzied telephone conversation between Captain Schettino and an Italian coastguard on the night of the disaster reveal how Schettino tried to argue that he could co-ordinate the evacuation of the ill-fated passengers from the safety of his lifeboat. During a crisis people need someone to give them hope – someone who sets an example and who can assure them that a solution will be found. A leader who jumps (or stumbles as he claims) into a lifeboat to save himself and who was safely on land seen getting into a taxi and leaving the scene as hundreds of passengers were left to fend for themselves, just doesn’t provide that kind of hope.

Lesson 6: Being scared is okay, loosing self control is not… A leader’s true character and underlying values become clear when a crisis hits. When the ship started tilting and even Captain Schettino realized that it was going under, the fear he felt was every bit as real and justified as what everyone else on board was experiencing at that moment. But as the saying goes – courage is not the absence of fear, it is doing the right thing in spite of fear. In reality this is much easier said than done and many have failed this test. However, it is what we expect from great leaders in a crisis – to get their own fear under control and provide at least some degree of calm and direction. In a crisis everyone is watching to see how the leader will react. Will he or she stay true to their principles and values? Will they succumb to the pressure or face up to the crisis? Will they capitulate for short-term rewards, or will they make the sacrifices needed to mend the situation? Schettino’s greatest failure was not to be scared, but to succumb to his fear and abandon those who depended on him in their greatest hour of need.

Lesson 7: Effective leadership is not a position… Perhaps the final lesson we can take from the events of that tragic night is the fact that effective leadership is not tied to a title or position. While Captain Schettino failed dismally to lead during this crisis, others rose to the occasion and in doing so averted a much bigger disaster. Off-duty Captain Roberto Bosio, who captains the Costa Concordia‘s sister ship the Serena, was only on board the ship by chance when the disaster struck. When Schettino failed to act and then disappeared, Bosio ordered all passengers to put on life jackets and personally helped scores of woman and children into lifeboats. He remained on board and organised the entire rescue effort throughout the night. He was assisted by others, many of whose stories of courage and heroism might only emerge in the days and weeks to come. Like the ship’s chefs and waiters who helped people get into the lifeboats after several officers including the terrified second-in-command followed their captain’s example by abandoning the sinking vessel. And like Francis Servel, who drowned after giving his life jacket to his wife Nicole. These people, who led when others fled, are the proof that great leadership has little or nothing to do with labels, ranks and image, but it has everything to do with how we positively influence others to pursue shared goals or a vision. This is especially true during a crisis..

Finally – Captain Schettino is a human being who, in the face of grave danger, allowed his natural survival instincts to dictate his actions instead of doing what is expected of good leaders. Sadly that simple act during a defining moment in his life and career would probably stay with him as long as he lives. At this point it would be easy for me to condemn him as a coward and a failure, but I must admit that I have never been tested at that level and can therefore only hope that if ever I face such a crisis, I will make the right choices. It is easy to captain a ship when the sea is calm and the wind is gentle, but the real test for great leadership is to continue doing the right thing when the weather changes.


About Manie Bosman

Manie Bosman is Founder and CEO of the Strategic Leadership Institute. He is a leadership development consultant specializing in the emerging fields of neuroleadership and neurosafety. Based in Pretoria, South Africa, Manie has more than 20 years of international experience in cross-cultural interaction, diversity management, change management, public speaking, communication, corporate training and team development. He holds a Masters of Arts in Organizational Leadership and believes that effective leadership is the key determiner of success in any venture, group or organization.
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7 Responses to Leading During a Crisis: 7 Lessons From The Costa Concordia Disaster

  1. Manie that was an awesome article – I especially love this part: “It is easy to captain a ship when the sea is calm and the wind is gentle, but the real test for great leadership is to continue doing the right thing when the weather changes.” So true! Building resilience and courage is one of the most important aspects of becoming a leader.

    And leadership, you are so right, is not about titles. Actions speak so much louder than a business card.

    A question – how did he get put in a position of authority in the first place? Is there something here for us to consider in our organisational processes that would endorse someone in that role without knowing or foreseeing the resilience, or even values, required, for the job – especially in a crisis? Love to hear your thoughts on that.

    • Manie Bosman says:

      Glad you enjoyed it Zoe! I am not sure why he was appointed in the first place, but I have a suspicion that he might be a very charismatic individual when he wants to be. I could be wrong as I have no confirmed evidence or sources, but if my suspicion are right this might say something about the ‘danger’ of appointing leaders based only on their popularity or social skills.

    • Nick Lambert says:

      It’s hard to imagine that Schettino could be posted as Captain of such a mighty & new vessel without having proved himself worthy of the task. In time we may learn whether his behavior in this instance was out of character & that previously he had exhibited courage.

      The truth is stranger than fiction, it is often said, and I suspect his trial will reveal this to be the case.

      • Manie Bosman says:

        You could be right, Nick, he has to have proven himself in one way or another in the past. However, he started his career on a ferry and I am not sure if then or during the last 6 years as captain of the Costa Concordia his courage and leadership was ever tested under real pressure. As I’ve mentioned in the blog article, it is often only when things get really tough that we learn who we really are, and unfortunately for Schettino that is when he failed as a leader. Here’s an interesting article on the topic if you have a few moments: http://t.co/eNf8X66j

  2. Manie Bosman says:

    Does anyone really know how we will react when facing real danger? A recent study shows that before facing actual danger, people are often completely out of touch with how they will respond to it in reality. Read more here: http://t.co/eNf8X66j

  3. Manie Bosman says:

    Another article on this topic from the Washington Post: “In cruise ship sinking, leadership failures from captain to Carnival CEO” http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-leadership/post/in-cruise-ship-sinking-leadership-failures-from-captain-to-carnival-ceo/2011/04/01/gIQACNtkAQ_blog.html?tid=sm_btn_tw

  4. Manie Bosman says:

    And here’s another great post with a different perspective on the same event by @GwynT http://gwynteatro.wordpress.com/2012/01/22/when-leaders-lose-sight-of-their-primary-purpose/

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