Sunday, April 15, 2012, marked the centennial of the sinking of the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic. Other than the attacks on 9/11 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941, that killed over 2,300 American servicemen and injured 1,100 more in a matter of two hours, I cannot think of a tragic event that has the staying power in our societal memory as does the sinking of the Titanic that April night in the icy North Atlantic. Think of it, that great ship has become a cultural icon when almost all of us have seen no more than grainy black and white photos of it.
Of course, we have the 1997 James Cameron movie, a fictionalized romance of the luxurious voyage from Southampton, the sinking, and then the rescue that stands as one of the most popular films of all time. Recently it’s been reproduced in 3-D. Perhaps it is the name Titanic that inspires our continued fascination with the event? Would we still be so inspired by the massive fall from promise and grace if she had been christened the HMS Guppy?
Some years ago, I stood upon the spot in Ireland from which land-bound observers last saw the great vessel as she steamed into the North Atlantic. So pervasive is the legend that this plot of Irish sod has taken on a mystic notoriety. Standing there, one really can imagine with some clarity what the amazed onlookers saw that day!
Most all of us know the story. Designed with fifteen watertight bulkheads, Titanic was considered to be “practically” unsinkable. At least that claim stopped short of plain “unsinkable” or “absolutely unsinkable.” But most people believed she was unsinkable. It’s the superlatives that get you every time! Throughout history countless over-the-top claims have been attached to man and machine alike–the unbeatable prize fighter, the fastest man on earth—libraries of carelessly applied adjectives turned to dust.
Here is my take on why we are still captivated by Titanic lore. The story of the Titanic is an emotionally charged stew of fact and fiction that makes the harsh case for the fragility of life. Further, it is an unwelcome reminder that wealth and privilege are no firewall against personal disaster—first class, second class, and steerage passengers died in the same manner, quickly in freezing, deep dark waters. Writing of the 9/11 attacks in my book Humanity at Work: Encouraging Spirit, Achievement and Truth to Flourish in the Workplace (Chapel Hill Press 2008), I spoke of our fragile lease on life:
“… as we recoil from the carnage, we find ourselves compelled to accept other notions that we may have previously thought untenable. Let’s be honest, there are times when on some level, we can’t conceive that we ourselves will die. Such myths denying our mortality were blasted, though, as stories of what occurred in the towers came out to us from the media. As we learned how little in thought and deed separated many who lived from those who perished—stopping for a bagel and coffee, taking the time to vote early in local elections that day—we were forced to confront at point-blank range how precarious is our tenure as participants in life’s wonders. In recognizing the conditional nature of our existence, we revive an appreciation of how precious life is.”
But in the case of the sinking of the Titanic, something more rankles and stays unsettled in our imaginations. We recoil at the fact that the passengers in steerage were not permitted to access the limited number of life boats though the privileged members in first class were, some boats going down into the water half-filled. The antique culture imbued in the passengers and crew of the Titanic valued privileged lives disproportionately. One commentator described the unmasking of this real-life disparity as “the end of an era of arrogance.” Moreover, the lack of an adequate number of lifeboats strikes another chord with our humanity–an unblemished appreciation that each and every human soul is indeed priceless.
Other life lessons from the story of the Titanic abound, and one applies well to our working lives. I often speak to the difference between book knowledge and what I call authentic knowledge. The later is based on the insights we harvest from life experiences. Did you know that the Titanic’s captain, Edward John Smith, often observed that he had never lived through a true emergency at sea? While much of what we know of Smith’s last hours has devolved to folklore, it was reported that when the fatal state of the Titanic was recognized, Smith froze–a leader incapable of carrying out his responsibilities. Not surprising really, if you think about it, a sea disaster is pretty much the Granddaddy of Change–none of it good.
How do today’s military commanders prepare their ships for combat? Through combat simulations. Yes, that’s “simulations” with an “s.” We can bring similar exercises to the workplace. If we aren’t experienced, lack on-the-job training on the potentially serious crises that may befall our company or any of its departments, we can still simulate what may occur. For example, companies set up crisis management committees for this very purpose. They run drills, so if the day ever arises when they find a reporter in the front lobby, they will be prepared to respond, “Yes, RST Corporation is prepared for emergencies.”
You can do the same for employees as “we learn to do by doing.” Have them take on challenges that are outside their comfort zones—bite-sized challenges to start with. If they successfully manage or solve the unusual problem, you can layer on more challenging issues. Create such a process where support stands ready if it is needed, and you have a powerful training tool with little downside. Plus, new discoveries can come out of such preparatory projects.
We can do this in our personal lives as well. Have you ever attended an Outward Bound School? I promise you it will be a life-changing experience for you—and all for the good! While the Captain Smiths of the world may seem to possess self-confidence, looking handsome and professional in immaculate uniforms, their appearance is really the voiceless crowing of an uninformed ego. Remember, self-confidence is a function of being placed in a challenging situation and coming out the other side. As important as it is to be an optimist–someone who sees the glass as half full, it’s even more important, essential really, to know what to do if someone takes a baseball bat to that glass!