Leadership Lessons of Titanic

James Cameron’s Titanic was released 20 years ago this month. My most request presentation discusses lessons learned from the Titanic disaster and how they can apply to your organization. In celebration of the movie’s 20th anniversary, the following is a snapshot of my Leadership Lessons of Titanic.  

The Leader is always responsible

Leadership expert John Maxwell states “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” The maiden voyage of the Titanic was Capt. E.J. Smith’s retirement trip. His final duty was to pilot the grandest ship ever built into New York Harbor. However, Smith took many safety issues and precautions for granted on the trip. He ignored multiple iceberg warnings from his crew and neighboring ships.

Leadership is about everything you do, and the things you don’t do. Maxwell says “Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.” The leader sets the stage and influences others to act; the leader is always present, event when he/she is not there physically.

Bigger is not always better

Titanic was the largest ship of its time. It was such a large ship that it took nearly a minute to steer away from the iceberg, and many believe that delay in changing course was the biggest factor in its sinking. As a result, the iceberg ripped a large gash in the ship’s hull.

The bigger the organization, the more difficult it is to steer, direct, and change. In large organizations, policies and procedures may sometimes circumvent common sense. How long does it take your company to change its course? How many levels does it take to change policy/procedure?

Reevaluate policies and procedures

A common thought is Titanic was grossly negligent because there were not enough lifeboats aboard the ship.  According to regulations of the time, the requisite number of lifeboats was in direct proportion to the ship’s weight—to a point: The regulation stopped calculating at 10,000 tons, for a maximum of 16 lifeboats. Titanic, at more than 46,000 tons, carried 16 lifeboats.

After Titanic sank, regulations changed to calculate the number of lifeboats according to the number of passengers. As a leader, you should routinely review and reevaluate the policies and procedures of your organization. Be aware of shifts in company culture or focus that warrants a policy change. Just because procedures always worked a certain way does not mean it cannot be done more efficiently or successfully.

Look for dangers hiding below

‘On the night Titanic sunk, because the moon was not out and the water so still, it was very difficult to see the iceberg. Rough waters would have caused breakers around the iceberg, making it easier to see from afar.’ - The Discovery Channel.

Titanic was sunk due to damage created by the part of the iceberg hidden beneath the water. Peter Drucker said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The culture of your organization defines the environment in which your employees work. Culture cannot be dictated; it is developed, usually from the collective traits, beliefs, and behaviors of your employees.

Value structured training

As Titanic was sinking, crew members struggled with releasing the lifeboats. They did not have the proper training on how to utilize the lifeboats in the event of an emergency. Deployed lifeboats were loaded with too many or too few passengers, and only one returned to attempt to recover more people.

Effective leaders understand the importance of a structured orientation and training program. If we fail on developing our employees, we fail everyone who depends on our company to succeed.

Never lose sight of your goal

Twenty years ago, James Cameron was determined to make a movie featuring an exact replica of Titanic, and recreate the most realistic sinking of the ship. The movie cost more to make and longer to shoot than was originally planned. The movie wasn’t going to be ready for its planned July 4 release.  Cameron was at odds with the studios financing the film. Critics thought the picture was going to be a disaster. All the while, Cameron never lost sight of his goal.  Titanic went on to become the highest grossing picture of all time, holding the top spot until being supplanted by another James Cameron film.

John Maxwell’s 21


Law of Leadership is the Law of Legacy. As a leader, we are making a lasting impact on everything and everyone with who we interact. Do you want to ultimately be remembered as the most esteemed commander of all time, or the person who sank Titanic?

Posted 268 weeks ago