Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The enduring lessons of Titanic.

100 years on and the same behaviour mistakes get constantly repeated.

An obsession with superlatives seems to be an inherent part of being human; everything must be bigger, better, faster. We extrapolate this to many facets of our lives – the structures we live in, the vehicles we drive, the companies we own or work for. They say it is our natural competitiveness without which we would simply not evolve, innovate and prosper. We would simply stagnate and become extinct.

At the same time, it contains within it a seed for its own destruction: a seed I suspect that germinates in the need to be in control not only of our own destiny, but every moment in it and every element that can affect it. It is one thing to be in awe of a towering majestic mountain. It is another to marvel at the foot of a huge man built tower block. The former gives one a sense of humility, the latter a sense of majesty. I got a taste of this after 9/11, when I remembered having stood at the top of one of the twin towers, more than 100 floors up of the World Trade Centre. One loses a sense of height, as if flying in a small aircraft. I marvelled at how many natural elements had to be conquered to achieve this engineering feat. A few years later it was all gone, and the illusion of anything permanent went with it.

This is what makes the Titanic tragedy so enduring and repetitively illustrative of our human strengths and weaknesses. I found it a fitting introductory metaphor in Value through Values which was published on the eve of the financial crisis:


“When the Titanic set sail from Southampton 100 years ago it was more than the biggest and best passenger ship of its time. It represented both the best and the worst of contemporary society. It was the epitome of grandeur, opulence, refinement and innovation. It was also an engineering marvel and was hailed as a symbol of man’s mastery of the elements. It stood for the notion that out of man’s hunger for material wealth comes greatness. In its variously classed cabins were cocooned the desires, dreams, aspirations and, later, courage and cowardice of both the elite and the common people. It was the embodiment of profit-driven greed, competitiveness, pride and arrogance. These things, not the iceberg, were what sank it.”

Titanic has become a microcosm, more a “slice” of the human condition that can be extracted at any time, probably for centuries to come, and its DNA matched with any failure of a human endeavour, from a disappointing small bankruptcy to a collapse of Enron, Lehman Brothers or even the breakdown of a global financial system. When things become “too big to fail”, we have clearly allowed arrogance to outstrip reality. When things appear to be at their most secure, we have reached the point of our greatest vulnerability. When we believe in our own permanence, we have passed our sell by date.

clip_image004Each of the “sub-plots” that make up the Titanic story contains its own reflections and lessons. Such as the contrasting behaviours and fortunes between the veteran Captain Edward Smith, who went down with the vessel, and Joseph Bruce Ismay, the owner’s representative, who was one of the first rescued from a lifeboat. It reminds me of the modern day executive ability to escape full justice in major failures while professionals down the line take the full brunt. Ismay certainly did not fully escape justice, having been vilified to live out the rest of his life in disgrace, albeit in secluded material comfort.

There are many similar side events: the disgracefully inadequate number of lifeboats, their lack of readiness, the use out dated cheap and fast iron rivets instead of steel rivets, the huge disparities in conditions on board itself between the wealthy top decks and the migrant passengers on the lowest decks, the imprudent speed in dangerous ice-berg conditions, and of course, the assumption that the ship itself was unsinkable. These were the ultimate reflectors of profit-driven greed, competitiveness, pride and arrogance that made of Titanic the tragedy that it was and not the triumph it could have been.

Despite all these valuable lessons for still often repeated mistakes, it is doubtful whether the Titanic saga will be used as a classic case study in learning material of organisational, managerial or business studies for a long time to come. For the most important elements are too intangible, too behavioural, too unscientific, and too “soft”. Still today, many believe that raw material immediate self-interest is by far the best driver of human endeavour.

We may be running out of tolerance to repeating those mistakes. The social harm of inappropriate economic behaviour has grown exponentially and with the contamination the global financial system, different insights are clearly needed.

But the Titanic story will endure, to be told again, and again. Perhaps in some future telling of it, we will come to those different insights.

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