Exactly 106 years ago today, the Titanic left Southampton for New York. Five days later, the ship they said was unsinkable, did the unthinkable. And ever since then, its name has been synonymous with failure.
The saddest thing is that the signs of impending disaster were there for all to see. Unfortunately, the people who should have seen them, chose to ignore them. It’s called the ‘paradox of power’ and one hundred and six years on, we’re still trying to understand why it happens.
Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbitofrontal lobe, a brain area that’s crucial for empathy and decision-making.
He argues that once bestowed with authority, we become less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. Instead, we often rely on stereotypes and generalisations and spend much less time making eye contact, particularly when a person without power is talking.
So how does this explain the Titanic disaster and the huge loss of life? Well, powerful men in positions of great responsibility simply chose to do the wrong thing. J. Bruce Ismay, Managing Director of the White Star Line, ordered that the Titanic’s lifeboats be cut from 48 to just 16, despite it carrying more than 2,000 passengers. Why? Because he was sure they would not be needed.
Ismay took another bad decision in appointing his friend, Henry Wilde as Chief Officer at the last minute. This mean that Chief Officer William Murdoch was demoted to First Officer and Second Officer Charles Lightoller made Third Officer. Second Officer David Blair was asked to the leave the ship. And took with him the key to the cabinet that held the binoculars on the bridge. And if lookout, Fred Fleet, had had binoculars (known as ‘glasses’ back then) on the fateful night of April 14th, he would have seen the iceberg before he did.
And the disaster would have been avoided.
And no, I am not making that up.
Captain Edward Smith knew there was a major ice field ahead but kept the ship at 20 knots – too fast to avoid an iceberg when the lookout had no binoculars. Jack Phillips, the wireless operator, was too busy sending telegrams from First Class passengers to notice a key ice warning. And when the warning message was finally picked up and taken to the bridge it was not seen by Captain Smith. He was busy having dinner with the wealthy George and Eleanor Widener.
I could go on. It was an abuse of power that directly led to the deaths of 1,509 people.
And it seems that the lessons have still not been learned.
Six years ago, Captain Francesco Schettino was not wearing his glasses on the evening when the Costa Concordia capsized with the deaths of 32 passengers and crew off the Italian island of Giglio. He asked his First Officer to check the radar for him. Presumably, he wasn’t wearing his glasses either. And there’s also the suggestion that the Captain’s attentions were maybe more focused on the blonde dancer, Domnica Cemortan, with whom he was having a relationship. He has since acknowledged that he brought the ship too close to the shore and should have pulled out much earlier. She declined to comment.
Perhaps Captain Steve Smith and Vice-Captain David Warner were also powerful men in positions of great responsibility who simply chose to do the wrong thing?
There is no easy cure for what is known as the ‘paradox of power’. But if there is transparency and people know they’re being monitored, it can help discourage them from doing bad things. People in power tend to overestimate their moral virtue. They lobby against regulators, and fill corporate boards with their friends. The end result is power at its most dangerous.
So here is the most important lesson in business:
People in power so often become complacent. And the power corrupts them.
It’s the message at the heart of my book, ‘The Seven Golden Rules’ which talks about the lessons we could and should have learned from the reigns of Henry VIII, his three children and, of course, the tragedy of the Titanic that was setting off on its journey 106 years ago today.
Article by Phil Hesketh, one of the country’s top professional speakers on sales motivation.