Early Contender for Worst Leader of 2012

Posted 01.20.2012

Based on the observable evidence, passenger accounts, his own statements and audio transcripts with an Italian coast guard officer, it sure looks like Capt. Francesco Schettino is a very strong early contender for worst leader of 2012. By now you’ve probably seen the pictures and read the stories of the tragedy with the Costa Concordia cruise ship just off the Italian coast. The Captain ordered the early evening maritime equivalent of a fly-by just a few hundred yards from the coast to impress the citizens of a local town.  The ship hit a rock which tore a gash in the hull and within an hour it was laying on its side.  It took him an hour to send a Mayday signal and when the authorities called him after hearing from panicked passengers, he denied anything was wrong. Dozens of passengers either died or are still missing.

Far from going down with his ship, let alone organizing an evacuation, Schettino was in a lifeboat while hundreds of passengers were still trying to get to safety.  The UK’s Daily Mail offers an extensive summary of all the events including a link to the audio recording of an outraged Italian coast guard official ordering Schettino to get back on board and take care of his passengers. He never did. In a basically unbelievable story, Schettino said a few days ago that he ended up in the lifeboat because he slipped and fell off the Concordia and into the lifeboat.

Like I said, unbelievable.

The whole story has had me thinking all week about the responsibilities of a leader. For some situationally specific guidance, I turned to a copy of the U.S. Navy’s Watch Officer’s Guide. (Yes, I acknowledge that I’m enough of a leadership nerd that I own one even though I haven’t served in the Navy.) Early in the book, the authors list seven essential characteristics of the Officer of the Deck.

It certainly would have been a good list for Captain Schettino to absorb. It’s actually a good list for any leader who bears responsibility for the safety and welfare of others.

Here it is:

  • Forehandedness:  This is a word you don’t hear every day but it basically means planning ahead and being prepared.
  • Vigilance:  The Watch Guide notes that “vigilance extends beyond the visible.” The leader must encourage vigilance on everyone’s part.
  • Judgment:  This characteristic is about maintaining a response that is proportional to the situation at hand.
  • Intuition and Experience:  Once you master the basics of your job, you can build on that experience to develop a sense of what’s really going on.
  • Leadership:  The Navy defines this as “the sum of those qualities of intellect, of human understanding, and of moral character to enable a person to inspire and to manage a group of people successfully.”
  • Technical Knowledge:  You have to have the technical skills needed to do the job and to guide others in doing theirs.
  • Energy:  The Watch Officers Guide points out that maintaining one’s energy as a leader is critical. A proven way to do that is to stay engaged with the crew.

Finally, above all the other characteristics, the Watch Officer’s Guide addresses the importance of the leader always staying calm. As the authors write, “You will not be able to control many things on the bridge of a ship… but there is one thing you can always control: your own temperament. Stay calm and focused, work hard to learn what you must, admit your mistakes when they occur and all will be well.”

What are your takeaways from the failure of leadership on the Concordia? Which traits from the Watch Officer’s Guide do you think are most important for leaders? What would you add to the list?