Titanic leadership metaphor

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The Titanic leadership metaphor uses a hypothetical situation on board the RMS Titanic as a thought-experiment for exploring leadership decisions during time of extreme crisis.


The real RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg the evening of 1912-04-14 during her maiden voyage, and sank the following day with great loss of life (over a thousand passengers and crew perished in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic).

The Metaphor

The metaphor generally revolves around the premise that the iceberg has been spotted while there is still sufficient time to change course.

This is historically a valid speculation. Although the iceberg was spotted before the collision, and measures were taken to attempt to divert the ship's course away from it, apparently these measures did not make optimal use of the Titanic's engine configuration:

Wikipedia said:

The Titanic had triple-screw engine configuration, with reciprocating steam engines driving the wing propellers, and a steam turbine driving her centre propeller. The reciprocating engines were reversible, while the turbine was not. When Murdoch gave the order to reverse engines to avoid the iceberg, he inadvertently handicapped the turning ability of the ship. Since the centre turbine could not reverse during the "full speed astern" manoeuvre, it simply stopped turning. Furthermore, the centre propeller was positioned forward of the ship's rudder, diminishing the turning effectiveness of the rudder.

Had Murdoch reversed the port engine, and reduced speed while maintaining the forward motion of the other two propellers (as recommended in the training procedures for this type of ship), experts theorise that the Titanic might have been able to navigate around the berg without a collision. However, given the closing distance between the ship and the berg at the time the bridge was notified, this might not have been possible without some sort of impact.

Additionally, Titanic experts have hypothesised that if Titanic had not altered its course at all, but reversed its engines, and had run head-on into the iceberg, the damage would only have affected the first or, at most, the first two compartments. The liner SS Arizona had such a head-on collision with an iceberg in 1879, and although badly damaged, managed to make it to St John's for repairs. Some dispute that Titanic would have survived such a collision, however, since Titanic's speed was higher than Arizona's her hull much larger, and mass much greater, and the violence of the collision could have compromised her structural integrity.

retrieved on 2007-09-13


Imagine George W. Bush as captain of the Titanic, frantically pointing at the iceberg and saying that the iceberg represents a tremendous shipwide threat and he therefore needs emergency powers in order to deal with it. The crew agrees, and he promptly steers the ship closer to the iceberg. The crew start to protest about this, and he responds by announcing to everyone on board that we shouldn't listen to those calling for a different course to be set, because dissent weakens us and disrupts our resolve to work together in this time of terrible crisis.

Yes, indeed, the iceberg is a threat -- but it's one we have the knowledge to deal with, and he's doing his best to prevent that knowledge and competence from being brought to bear.