“Iceberg, right ahead.” With those words, the Titanic’s lookout Frederick Fleet warned the crew on the ship’s bridge of the imminent threat. In classic British fashion, Sixth Officer Moody thanked Fleet and turned to First Officer Murdoch, who was in charge of the watch, and repeated the warning. Despite Murdoch’s best efforts to take evasive action, in less than a minute from the initial warning, the great ship struck the iceberg. The ship was moving too fast and was too large to change its course quickly enough. The time of the collision was 11:40 p.m. April 14, 1912. By 2:20 a.m. April 15, the greatest ship ever built had sunk beneath the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. Fifteen- hundred people went down with the ship. Just over 700 survived.
The tragedy of the Titanic is that it didn’t have to happen. Captain Smith, the ship’s master, had received multiple warnings of ice throughout the day.
9:00 a.m.: The ship Caronia reported ice.
1:42 p.m.: The ship Baltic reported ice.
1:45 p.m.: The ship Amerika reported ice.
7:30 p.m.: The ship Californian reported ice.
Nonetheless, the captain maintained full speed, which made it harder to stop the ship in an emergency. In the captain’s defense, it must be pointed out that standard practice in 1912 was to try to traverse an ice field as quickly as possible. Additionally, since this was the Titanic’s maiden voyage, the captain and crew were not fully familiar with the ship. Having commanded smaller ships in the past, the captain may have assumed that the Titanic was as maneuverable as they were. Lastly, with expert lookouts on board, the captain felt that any iceberg posing a threat could be seen early enough to avoid it.
However, there seems to have been an overriding reason for the captain’s relatively passive response to the ice warnings. His judgment was impaired due to pressure from Bruce Ismay, the Titanic’s parent company chairman, to reach New York ahead of schedule. In truth, we will never know for sure, since Captain Smith went down with the ship and Ismay, who survived, denied actually pressuring the captain. However, historians feel that it is safe to say that Captain Smith focused on the long-range goal of reaching New York quickly at the expense of the more immediate goal of navigating his ship safely through the ice threat.
Leaders of organizations constantly find themselves needing to balance their strategic vision with their immediate tactical needs. For example, as a society, how do we balance the need to invest resources in long-term medical research with the need to allot resources to current medical issues? Do we invest money in cancer research or buy more ambulances to reduce the response time to medial emergencies? From this week’s parshah we can glean some guidance.
The Torah relates (6:9) that Bnei Yisrael didn’t listen to Moshe due to their “shortness of spirit and hard labor.” Moshe felt that they didn’t listen to him because he was a failed leader. If the Jews didn’t listen to him how would Pharaoh listen to him? G-d, however, ordered Moshe, nonetheless, to approach Pharaoh. According to the Meshech Chachmah, G-d explained to Moshe that his lack of success was not due to his inability to lead effectively, but rather to a tactical error.
In passuk 8, Moshe informed Bnei Yisrael that they would enter and inherit the land of Israel. It was in response to this “vision” that Bnei Yisrael responded with indifference. According to the Meshech Chachmah, G-d explained to Moshe that people who are slaves are not interested in long-term visions. They are interested in one thing – improving their present condition. Why think about tomorrow if we can’t escape the problems of today. Therefore, G-d instructed Moshe to currently talk to Bnei Yisrael only about ending the slavery.
This approach is reflected in passuk 13 when G-d commanded Moshe to tell Pharaoh to let the Jews go. Only after Moshe succeeded in ending (or at the very least lessening) the bondage, would he be able to excite Bnei Yisrael with the vision of their future in the land of Israel.
In a similar vein the Malbim explains the passuk in Tehillim (119:105), “Your words are a candle for my feet and an illumination for my paths.” The illumination represents the ideal vision – the path of Torah. But the path is full of little obstacles that, if not overcome, will prevent a person from following the path. The candle, which helps a person to see right in front of him, enables one to avoid the immediate obstacles. In this case, the candle represents the Torah and mitzvot. Like the Meshech Chachmah, the Malbim emphasizes the need to balance long and short term needs.
The lesson for leaders is obvious. While a leader must have a vision, he must build credibility with his followers by addressing their immediate needs. As those needs are addressed, he can then encourage them to buy into his vision and commit their support to its realization. However, at no time can the march towards the vision neglect immediate needs that if not met will prevent the vision from being realized.
The added tragedy of the Titanic is that, had the ship been going even a little more slowly, or had the lookouts spotted the iceberg merely 30 seconds earlier, the collision would have been avoided. Unfortunately, an historical “what if” matters little in the face of an historical “what was.” Captain Smith failed as a leader that fateful night. He kept his eye on the destination while neglecting to look at what was right in front of him.
Rabbi David Hertzberg is the Principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division. Questions and comments can be e-mailed to him at Mdrabbi@aol.com.