Timeless leadership lessons the Titanic tragedy teaches

A traveling exhibit about the RMS Titanic, which is truly incredible, arrived recently at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland. It features hundreds of artifacts from the ship, replicas of staterooms and the ship’s famous grand staircase in First Class.

The exhibit tells captivating stories from the tragedy, which took the lives of more than 1,500. Many are heartbreaking and some heroic. One tale, in particular, offers insights about leadership, especially courageous and calculated leadership during a crisis. And it’s as relevant today as it was on that frigid April night more than 100 years ago.

That story is about the only lifeboat among the 20 in the water that went back to look for survivors after Titanic slid under the icy sea.

ship pic Tagedo


Harold Godfrey Lowe, the Fifth Officer on board, took command of lifeboat #14, lowered from the port side of the ship as it was certain to sink.

He ordered the wooden lifeboat to be rowed about 150 yards away from the wreck. This was to avoid getting sucked beneath the surface along with the hulking ship — the largest and grandest that had ever been built. Lowe also wanted to get the lifeboat clear of the hundreds overboard. Desperate and drowning, they could have swamped #14, also dooming those in the little, wooden boat.

His objective, though, wasn’t just to save the passengers in lifeboat #14. Lowe corralled four other lifeboats nearby and ordered them lashed together. The survivors from lifeboat #14 were transferred into those four boats — none of which was at capacity.

Lowe and volunteer oarsmen took #14 back to the scene of terror and death to look for others to rescue, after the piercing cries had faded. His lifeboat:

  • plucked four survivors from the sea;
  • rescued scores of passengers in an overloaded collapsible lifeboat; and,
  • rowed over to an overturned wooden lifeboat. Its survivors, having clamored up the sides, were perilously standing on top. They, too, were rescued.

He persisted for hours, the story goes. And his efforts and leadership saved dozens of souls who would’ve otherwise perished.

7 leadership lessons from Lifeboat #14

Fortunately, few of us would ever find ourselves in such an extreme and devastating crisis. But the amazing story offers guiding principals for leaders that would be appropriate in many circumstances — especially in a crisis, when deliberation must be decisive, not delayed.

Here are seven lessons for leaders Lowe’s example offers.

1.  Assess risks

Lowe knew he would be returning to look for, and save, survivors. But he had an obligation to the safety of the people who were already safe in his lifeboat.

Avoiding the vortex that could be caused when the Titanic plunged to the depths was crucial for the wooden lifeboat. So was making sure it didn’t get swamped by panicked swarms of passengers thrust into the freezing sea and fighting to climb onto anything afloat.

By assessing the risks, he kept lifeboat #14 far enough away to escape imperiling the lives of his petrified passengers. And as soon as he judged it safe to return, he did so, having plotted the plan from outside the disaster zone.

2.  Balance risks

After surveying risks, exemplary leaders grasp that they must forge ahead despite the chance for failure. Skilled leaders weigh the possible outcomes and steel themselves, rather than becoming paralyzed from that calculus. They move forward with conviction along the path that holds the promise of the best results for the most people.

3.  Influence

This characteristic might seem obvious, but it truly distinguishes great leaders from dictators or bullies. Leaders assert and direct. Yet, they also achieve buy-in from collaborators, followers or on-lookers.

Lowe needed several accomplices for his multi-phased rescue plan: to corral and tie those four lifeboats together and then transfer passengers. He also needed some rowers to take lifeboat #14 back to the disaster zone to scout for survivors who could be rescued.

Once leaders assess the risks and shape a plan, the best ones persuade others and win sufficient support for the mission.

4.  Be strong

Physical strength? Not necessarily.

The ablest of leaders show strength of character, strength of moral conviction and strength of belief in the venture’s mission. This does not preclude them from seeking alternative views. (Nor does it require it in all cases, either.)

Regardless, the strength shown by outstanding leaders helps solidify the sense of support for them and their chosen plan.

5.  Inspire 

At their best, leaders inspire others to do their best work, too. And to achieve more than they might have otherwise. Inspiring leaders often have charisma. Yet to inspire others leaders must do far more than dazzle. They model and execute greatness. They roll up their sleeves and work — inspiring as they do.

6.  Act

To excel leaders must, ultimately, act. Thorough planning and insightful strategy are important. But they’re not enough.

Strong leaders undertake the difficult tasks that they’ve assessed to be essential and rallied their team members to support. Acting is where success or failure becomes cemented into history. It takes guts. And it takes resolve.

7.  Be true to an overarching sense of right and wrong

Leaders might be loved, but that isn’t what drives them or what makes the best ones. When a leader stays true to what’s right, it can anger people — notably those who perceive that they will be, or could be, worse off.

No one knows how many voices objected to Lowe’s plan. Surely some number wanted to secure their safety at any cost, including the price of lives lost, and resisted the plan to row back. Lowe knew it was the right thing to do.

Hundreds of people watched the Titanic sink, as they bobbed in under-filled lifeboats. If any of the others had also been governed by the thumping beat of doing the right thing, it might have propelled them to action, as Lowe was. And more passengers might have been saved if others had also taken the extraordinary efforts he demonstrated as a strong, inspirational, influential and analytical leader.

Timeless lessons, especially during crisis

People are not perfect. Nobody is. And great leaders aren’t either. These seven attributes, however, distinguish them — especially in a crisis, when there’s little time for deliberation, consequences can be fatal (literally or symbolically) and results will be permanent.

Truly exceptional leaders have these characteristics, some perhaps instinctively. For others, contemplating the examples of lifeboat #14 during the Titanic tragedy may spark a determination to take a different view of, or approach to, challenges that arise in the future.

Courage and brave leadership, after all, are timeless. (Here is a post about the courage and leadership that first followers show, too.)

What attributes do you think are most important for leaders to have and demonstrate?

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