Who could abandon a sinking ship, leaving thousands to fend for their own lives, while safely escaping in a life boat? What kind of leader could recklessly operate its ship, showboating for the entertainment of a few, while endangering the lives and livelihoods of many? And, when the worst happens, who could callously disregard the welfare of those under his stewardship and flee?
If your first response is Francesco Shettino, the Captain of the luxury liner Costa Concordia, you are only partially right. For over the last few years, the business world has been littered with captains of industry who have abandoned their companies, jumping safely into their lifeboats, while their companies, employees, customers and shareholders went down with the ship. So many CEOs tanked their companies, taking golden parachutes worth millions.
The economic downturn brought out the worst in many. Yet, for all the sinking Costa Concordia’s, there are many more “Miracles on theHudson.” Captain Sully Sullenberger’s quick and courageous actions saved the lives of everyone on board when his aircraft was suddenly forced to crash land on theHudson Riverin 2009. Sullenberger got everyone out of the plane safely, at personal risk to himself. Witnesses described him as a man who operated with grace under extreme pressure; courageous, one who held his cool; a take charge guy—all the attributes you want and expect in a leader.
Whether sailing a ship, flying a jet, or running a business, it is relatively easy when you have smooth waters. When the pressure is on, when the unexpected occurs, when lives are at stake, that’s when leaders step forward and shine. That’s when greatness emerges.
You see this with great athletes. When the big game is on the line, they want, they demand the ball. They coolly take charge and carry their team, often to victory. We saw this with Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and recently with Eli Manning. Outside of the world of sports, we’ve seen it up close in our business communities. Business owners and executives leading their organizations through the worst economic downturn since the depression, saving their companies and staff, when walking away might have been a better personal decision for them.
Francesco Shettino and Sully Sullenberger probably had comparable training and experiences. Yet in that moment of crisis, they took different paths. Shettino caused his catastrophe; disaster found Sullenberger. Shattino’s first reaction was to save his hide, call his mother (yes, he really did that) and even refuse direct orders to return to the ship to help save the lives of his helpless passengers. Why would he not return to the ship? Because he said it was too dark and dangerous. Shettino was a coward.
Executives, business owners, sea captains and pilots rarely seek such a crisis to test themselves. But when a crisis occurs, they are defined by it. In the last few years, we have been witness to many.
Real leaders emerge during these extreme moments. These crises are rarely planned or scheduled. They often just happen. And it is at this point when we see these qualities in these men and women. Juxtapose the image of the giant Costa Concordia, drifting, partially submerged on its side with that of the crew and passengers of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 standing on the wings of that plane as it floated in the Hudson, and you will fully comprehend the impact and the makings of great leadership.
(This article was originally published in the York County Coast Star on February 16, 2012)