In cruise ship sinking, leadership failures from captain to Carnival CEO


The sinking of the cruise ship Costa Concordia highlights many leadership problems--even beyond those of the ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino. (Tullio M. Puglia/GETTY IMAGES)

The bravado that led him to take the boat off course, the apparent lack of concern for responsibility, the eyebrow-raising story about the boat’s captain tripping into a lifeboat—each makes for a fascinating snapshot of the person at the helm of the boat. But Schettino’s failure of leadership is literally a cliché—that of a leader who abandons his ship.

The less obvious story, meanwhile, is what the leaders of the company who own the Costa Concordia (as well as those in the cruise industry at large) should do now to restore the traveling public’s faith in cruise travel and the reputation of their brand. Shares in Carnival, the Costa Concordia’s parent company, fell nearly 14 percent on Tuesday as investors worried about the impact the accident would have on wary travelers. Analysts lowered their 2012 profit forecasts for the firm. January is apparently the biggest booking month for the cruise industry, and in an already tough economy, the image of a half-sunk cruise ship on the front page of newspapers everywhere is likely to hit the company at a time it hurts most.

So what should its leaders do? While their initial blame on human error was first questioned, it now appears that painting the incident as a singular event may be fair. The boat’s skipper reportedly admitted during interrogations Tuesday that he took the boat off course to salute a former colleague, and that he made a mistake in his approach. “I was a victim of my instincts,” The Telegraph reports him saying.

But even if the captain turns out to be at fault, that doesn’t mean the company doesn’t share some of the blame. It did employ the captain, who has reportedly been called out for his daredevil style in the past. If there were warning signs about Schettino—one of the officers on the Concordia reportedly said he ruled with “an inflexible authority... against which no-one could make their voices heard”—it was the company’s responsibility to take action. A public explanation of how captains are selected and supervised, or how they plan to improve their processes for doing so, would be a good start. How often is each captain’s performance reviewed? Is there a system for concerned colleagues to share their thoughts about their performance? What processes are in place for deputy captains on board to prevent taking the boat off course?

Human error or not, many travelers could still worry that they’d find themselves on a boat with a similarly brazen skipper. To combat those concerns, the company’s CEO needs to show how much he empathizes with the tragedy—and get himself to Italy now. It’s astonishing, really, that Carnival CEO Micky Arison, Bloomberg reports, is overseeing the tragedy that has killed at least 11 people from Miami, which is 5,000 miles away from the site of the crash. No matter how much constant contact he’s able to keep with the people at the shipwreck’s site, it’s not the same as visibly being on the ground. In a crisis, optics matter, and the only way to combat the image of a half-sunken cruise ship may be with the image of an empathetic leader with rescue workers on the phone and victims’ families on the ground.  

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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