Understand Your Leadership Frailties


Rarely do we see leadership so on display as we have with the sinking of the Costa Concordia off the Italian coast. Human instincts is a useful lens to view the leadership actions and responses of the captain. And before we sneer too strongly at Captain Schettino, we might first check in the mirror to question how we have responded to our own Schettino moments.

On Friday 13 January the cruise liner the Costa Concordia with 3216 passengers and 1013 crew struck a rock and ran aground off the island of Giglio. Seventeen people have died and 15 are reported as missing. While we don’t necessarily receive the truth as to what actually occurred, the picture emerging from the media reports is a grim one. Given what we currently know, here is how we can make sense of the events through the lens of human instincts.

1. The earliest reports allege that the captain was “showing off” (the instinct of Contest and Display) by sailing close to the island to give a fog-born blast in honour of the ship’s head waiter who is a native of Giglio (although later reports suggest the honour was to a retired commodore who lives on the island). 

2. There appears to be a delay of 66 minutes between when the ship struck the rock and when the order was given to abandon ship. From the recordings of the black box it appears that the severity of the impact was initially understated (the instinct of Confidence Before Realism which means that when the implications of the truth are so horrific leaders often deny the reality of the moment).

3. The head of the ship’s owner, Costa Cruises, was quick to blame “human error” (Loss Aversion). Immediately after the grounding, the owner said that Costa ships have their routes programmed and alarms go off when they deviate. Italy’s defence minister also blamed “gross human error”. Isolating catastrophic events to human error (the captain, the pilot, the rogue trader) seeks to contain the loss to the specific event and avoids probing deeper into the system (the shipping company’s safety systems, processes for developing and appointing ship’s masters, control systems). 

4. Given the power of Gossip and mobile phones, the situation could not be contained. The alarm was raised by a crew member calling his relatives, who then called the police. The police called the coastguard who rang the ship to question reports of people being hit on the head by flying objects and that some people had lifejackets on. At first the crew claimed that everything was fine and that there was just a small technical problem. 

5. Reports a few days later focused on what the captain was up to and who he was with prior to the grounding. From Hierarchy and Status we know that leaders attract more attention than anyone so he would have been very noticeable. 

6. When the reality of the moment could no longer be denied, the captain’s response was to prematurely abandoned ship while passengers and crew were still on board scrambling for safety. He claims to have slipped and fallen into the lifeboat, although what’s not explained is why the second and third officers were in the same lifeboat. 

7. The heavy lifting of the evacuation was left to the crew. One crew member claims to have done 10 trips in a lifeboat.

Leadership Learnings

But before we scorn Captain Schettino too strongly, who as a leader hasn’t faced challenging situations and found ourselves tested and in retrospect we might have done things differently. 

1. Who hasn’t at first, often unconsciously, understated a serious situation hoping that it will go away? 

2. Who hasn’t faced a change of events as bravely as we might like to think we would have? (When I was a young HR officer, the CEO of the company that I worked for went into hiding when the business results suddenly turned negative. He could not face the staff and leadership was left to others). 

3. Have there been occasions when we have not taken accountability for our actions and decisions?

4. To what extent are we inclined not to call for help and think we can do it all ourselves?

5. Have we left it to others to clean up messes rather than staying on the deck and rolling our sleeves up?

The benchmark leader is Captain Sullenberger of flight 1549 over New York City in January 2009. Soon after takeoff from LaGuardia airport his plane struck a flock of Canadian geese and both engines failed. Knowing about the human tendency of denying the reality of the moment, he erred on the conservative rather than the optimistic and landed his plane on the Hudson River. All 155 passengers and crew survived. He was the last person off the plane. How do we respond to the challenges in our own roles and what do we need to do to be more like Captain Sullenberger and less like Captain Schettino? 


Andrew O'Keeffe



Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

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