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A Tale Of Two Sea Captains

October 24, 2017

Leadership is more than a position on an company org chart. This isn’t a post about the difference between leaders and managers, although both have an important role. This is about leaders.

I want to talk about two sea captains separated by almost exactly a century in time, but an immeasurable distance when it comes to leadership. First is Captain Francesco Schettino. Captain Schettino was captain of a luxury cruise ship. Unfortunately on January 12, his ship was going too fast and it hit an obstruction and sank in shallow water. Of the 3,229 passengers and 1,023 crew known to have been aboard, sadly 32 died. At the time it was launched it was one of the largest ships to ever set to sea at 114,137 gross tonnage (GT.)

The second captain was Captain Edward J. Smith. Captain Smith was also the captain of a luxury cruise ship. Unfortunately on April 15, his was going too fast and hit an obstruction. It also sank in deep water. Of the 2,224 passengers and crew aboard the ship more than 1,500 died. At the time it was launched it was the largest ship ever to set to sea at 46,328 gross tonnage (GT.)

In both cases it took some amount of time for the ships to sink. Captain Schettino didn’t give the order to abandon ship until an hour after the accident. It then took over six hours to evacuate. Captain Smith’s ship sank 2 hours and 40 minutes after it’s accident.

Captain Schettino was found guilty in an Italian court of being responsible for the death of the passengers in his care. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Captain Smith was also considered at fault for the sinking of his ship and his actions may have contributed to a higher death toll due to the fact that some lifeboats left without being properly loaded. Captain Smith didn’t serve time in prison for his fault. He died when his ship sank. Knowing there was not enough room in the lifeboats for all of his passengers he ordered women and children be loaded first.

Captain Schettino had no such compulsion. He was one of the first people off the ship. He was even ordered back on board, but refused.

As you’ve probably guessed, Captain Smith’s ship was the RMS Titanic which sank on April 15, 1912. Captain Schettino was captain of the Costa Concordia. A cruise ship that sank (really capsized) off the coast of Italy on January 12, 2012.

Both captains made mistakes. Captain Schettino admits he was literally showboating by pushing his ship too fast and too close to the shore. Captain Smith’s legacy is less clear. It’s suggested that he ignored iceberg warnings and was attempting to set a speed record for crossing the Atlantic.

I think history will be kinder to Captain Smith than it will be to Captain Schettino, if it remembers him at all. Because when it came to a crisis the two men behaved very differently. Captain Smith realized he was condemning himself and his men to an icy death. We have some insight into his final moments thanks to James McGann, a crewman on the Titanic who found was with Captain Smith on the bridge as the water closed in.

“I was helping to get off a collapsible boat. The last one launched when the water began to break over the bridge on which Captain Smith stood.

“When the water reached Captain Smith’s knees and the last boat was at least 20 feet away from the ship, I was standing beside him.

“He gave one look all around, his face firm and his lips hard set. He looked as if he was trying to keep back the tears, as he thought of the doomed ship. I felt mightily like crying as I looked at him.

“Suddenly he shouted: ‘Well boys, you’ve done your duty and done it well. I ask no more of you. I release you. You know the rule of the sea.

“It’s every man for himself now, and God bless you’.”

Captain Schettino’s story was not quite so noble. First he insisted he didn’t intentionally abandon ship. Instead as the ship’s deck tilted he lost his footing and slid into a lifeboat. At his trial, his lawyer insisted that


“Everything that did not work on the ship is part of the cause of the accident. Lights didn’t work. People fell into holes. Elevators got stuck.”

He blamed his helmsman for not speaking English and therefore not understanding his command to turn away from the island that crippled his ship. He basically blamed everyone except himself.

Maybe it’s my love of the sea that these two stories have stuck with me. Both doomed their ships. The Costa Concordia was eventually righted, but sold for scrap. The Titanic, of course, lay hidden in its watery grave for decades before it was located.

And yet, the two men could not have been more different. Captain Smith appears to have been a leader to the very end. Captain Schettino was the person in charge, but abdicated the role of leader.

History has largely forgiven Captain Smith for his lapses in judgement. (In fact, I expect there will be people who respond strongly to this post defending the good captain’s honor.) No one is in danger of wanting to defend Captain Schettino’s honor. His attorney’s stated it would be easier to fly than to defend him at trial.

Perhaps if he had been more like Captain Smith that might not have been the case.


Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren.

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(c) 2017 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved

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