Captain Michael Davidson, of the container ship SS El Faro, was determined to make his trip on time. But a hurricane was approaching, and Davidson and his fellow officers had to plot a new course to avoid the storm, in the face of conflicting weather reports from multiple sources and differing opinions among the officers about what to do. Over the 36-hour voyage, tensions rose as the ship got closer and closer to the storm.
And there were other factors compounding the challenge. The El Faro was an old ship, about to be scrapped. Its owner, TOTE Maritime, was in the process of selecting officers to crew its new ships. Davidson and some of his officers knew the company measured a ship’s on-time arrival and factored that into performance reviews and hiring decisions.
When the SS El Faro tragically sank on October 1, 2015, it was the deadliest American shipping disaster in decades. But who was to blame for the tragedy and what can we learn from it?
Harvard Business School professor Joe Fuller discusses the culpability of the captain, as well as his fellow officers, and what it reveals about how leaders and their teams communicate under pressure.
Fuller used transcripts of the ship’s tape recorder to study the crew’s communication, allowing him unique access to every conversation with the captain and crew, as they struggled to decide the ship’s course.
“What you see is that different deck officers…have pretty direct conversations with Davidson about the storm. But at no time, do any of them say to Davidson, ‘Captain, I’m really concerned, this course is taking us right on a collision with…the storm.’ And I think we should adopt a different course of action,” Fuller notes.
If you’re trying to lead your team through a crisis or make good decisions under pressure, this episode is for you.
Key episode topics include: leadership, leadership styles, crisis management, operations and supply chain management, power and influence, business failures, communication.
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· Listen to the original Cold Call episode: Management Lessons from the Sinking of the SS El Faro (April 2022)
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