Leadershipwreck

Italian cruise ship disaster exposes a failure at the top

What’s the difference between the Costa Concordia and Flight 1549?

From all appearances, the guy in charge.

US Airways Flight 1549 was in big trouble on Jan. 15, 2009. Through no one’s fault, its engines became disabled by a flock of Canada geese, and it was coming down just after takeoff in New York. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger quickly surmised he had to ditch the plane in the Hudson River – and guided the wounded bird to a flawless landing in a part of the river he expressly chose due to its proximity to rescue boats.

Afterward, he walked the plane to make sure everyone else was off before being the last to leave.

The contrast to the Italian cruise ship disaster that killed at least half a dozen and rattled 4,200 late Friday could not be more stark.

This ship was not in trouble, not disabled by a freak accident. Instead, reports allege the captain, Francesco Schettino, had a penchant for buzzing the island of Giglio to put on a show for the islanders – the mayor last August actually thanked the Concordia in writing for the “incredible spectacle” – and that, on this day, the ship was four miles off a well-marked course.

One passenger also alleges the captain was “drinking in the bar with a beautiful woman on his arm” that night. And he is believed to have abandoned ship as passengers were fighting for their lives. He was quickly jailed.

While some ship employees went beyond the call of duty – waiters and dancers helped passengers to safety, even after being advised by superiors to change costume and pretend everything was all right – reports say some in Schettino’s crew bullied their way to lifeboats past women and children.

The tone appears to have been set at the top.

A number of the harried
passengers, wet and cold and having been convinced they were going to die, profess they will never cruise again. And who can blame them? But in truth, this was not so much a nautical disaster as a human
resources one.

Sully Sullenberger proved what having the right person in charge can do in a pinch – which is to avoid disasters; the Concordia shows that, even in calm waters, having the wrong people at the helm can actually induce catastrophe.

The difference between being jailed and hailed, as it turns out, may simply be character.

It may be the distance between a miracle on the Hudson and a misadventure at sea.

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