Latest update: April 15th, 2012
On April 14, 1912, at 11:40 p.m., the Titanic struck an iceberg. It sank at 2:20 a.m. on April 15. Thus, this month (both according to the Jewish and secular calendars) marks the centennial of the disaster. Despite the passage of time, the tragedy still fascinates people and continues to be a source of lessons learned – both good and bad. Recently, when the Costa Concordia sank off the Italian coast, comparisons were made between the captain of this ill-fated ship and Captain Edward Smith, the master of the Titanic. Most striking was the fact that not only did the captain of the Costa Concordia survive the ordeal, as opposed to Captain Smith, who went down with his ship, but that the Costa Concordia’s captain abandoned ship early in the ordeal, leaving his crew and passengers to sort things out for themselves. Captain Smith, in contrast, remained on board and in command throughout the doomed lifesaving efforts. History, for the most part, has been kind to Smith, portraying him as a gallant officer doing his utmost to save his passengers and crew.
While Smith was no coward, and he certainly understood his responsibility, the truth about his leadership is actually rather complicated. Some have blamed him for ordering the Titanic to maintain its high speed despite the ice warnings he had received. Others point to his arrogant faith in human engineering, which caused him to not properly consider the dangers lurking in the sea. However, in truth, he can be exonerated for these missteps, for he was merely following the conventional practice and wisdom of the time. Captains, for the most part, believed the expedient thing was to try and get through ice fields as quickly as possible. It was felt that lookouts could spot potential danger in time and helmsmen could maneuver the ship accordingly, with time to spare. That few people fully understood the physics involved with moving and slowing down a ship the Titanic’s size was a function of the time, not a failure on Smith’s part.
But the story does not end there. Once tragedy struck Smith seems to have been a mediocre leader at best. He first kept the true nature of the accident from crew and passengers alike, thus mitigating people’s sense of emergency and urgency. While Smith knew there were not enough lifeboats for all aboard, the sad reality is that there was capacity for 400 more people than ultimately survived. Many people who could have boarded lifeboats refused to do so because they felt it was safer to remain on the ship. He also seems to have given ambiguous orders, often staying on the bridge instead of actively supervising the evacuation. Psychologists who have studied the disaster suggest that Smith became somewhat dysfunctional after the collision.
However, there is a person whose actions that night make him a leadership model to study. Captain Arthur Rostron of the Carpathia, the ship that rushed to Titanic’s location and rescued the survivors, did almost everything right that night. After having been awakened close to 12:30 a.m. on April 15 and informed of the Titanic’s plight, Rostron immediately went into action. He summoned all department heads to the bridge and began issuing clear orders. He ordered the engineers to divert all steam to the engines and away from all other uses – including the heating and electrical needs of cabins and public rooms. This enabled the ship to travel somewhat faster than its usual top speed. He also told the chief steward: “Have your men turn all three dining rooms into hospitals. Send bedroom stewards through empty third class cabins and gather up blankets to warm on the boilers. I want plenty of hot coffee, cocoa, and brandy at both port doors” (Titanic Tragedy: A New Look At The Lost Liner by John Maxtone-Graham, 2011, p.140). He then ordered ladders and other boarding devices, and special lights, to be at the doors to enable safe boarding. To ensure the safety of his ship he posted extra lookouts to spot icebergs.
Unfortunately, the Carpathia arrived after the Titanic sank and was only able to rescue those people who were in the lifeboats. However, if not for Captain Rostron’s decisive and inspired leadership that night many of those people in the lifeboats might themselves have succumbed to the elements. That night Rostron was present, focused and involved.
On the seventh day of Pesach we read in the Torah about the miracle of the Red Sea crossing. Thousands of years ago Moshe Rabbeinu already taught the world what leadership against the backdrop of a dangerous sea is all about. Bnei Yisrael had just recently left Egypt and suddenly their erstwhile masters were charging at them with state of the art military forces. They had barely tasted the fruits of freedom when they seemed poised to suffer a humiliating recapture or even worse– death. Bnei Yisrael could not fathom why G-d freed them if this were to be the ignoble outcome. It is within this context that they panicked and exclaimed to Moshe that it would have been better to remain in Egypt. If their fate was to be death, there were more than enough graves in Egypt.
About the Author: Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division and is an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College.
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