Sinking of The Titanic: An Analogy on Leadership for Golf Professionals

by Brian Dobak
December 21, 2009

"We have struck iceberg…sinking fast…come to our assistance."

Burning the airwaves were those words late in the cold evening of 1912. Before they tapped the last bit of Morse code, those words became the epitaph over the lives of the 1200 people lost on the Titanic. The ship was doomed as it slowly sank into its watery grave. Why did the largest, most advanced ship of the century sink? Those of us who study history or remember the movie may know why. It really wasn’t the iceberg that caused the disaster. It was something else. It’s clear what the real cause was -- leadership had failed. Our golf operations require leadership no less than the largest companies in the world as well as the unassuming endeavors such as the nautical undertaking that was The Titanic. The Titanic still rests in its grave on the bottom of the ocean, but we can resurrect lessons from the tragedy to apply them to our own circumstances in some way. Ultimately, the lessons we learn can help us become better leaders.

Leadership is always Responsible

Leadership is more than a wooden figurehead. Leadership is not a position, a job title or in this case, merely the Captain of the ship or the Director of Golf. Leadership is not just power, ego, and pride. Leadership is ever present, touching, motivating, talking, and checking, barrier removing, training, preparing, breathing, and moving about. The Titanic’s maiden voyage was Captain E.J. Smith’s retirement trip. He was headed for the easy life. All he had to do was get to New York. God only knows why he ignored the facts, why he ignored seven iceberg warnings from his crew and other ships. Leadership is responsible for everything the organization does or fails to do. As an Assistant Professional, Head Professional, Director of Golf, or General Manager, we all have the same responsibility to keep our eyes and ears open, respect the facts, and be proactive in our effort to stabilize the many situations, large and small, we confront on a daily basis. We need to put our egos aside, take heed and listen to each other so that the potential fires can be put out and continue on our course.

Biggest Is Not the Best

It took over 30 seconds before the Titanic turned away from the iceberg…but it was too late. The larger an organization becomes, the greater its inflexibility and the more difficult and cumbersome to steer, to direct and to change. It can soon become a bureaucracy where rules, regulations, policies, procedures and permission to make decisions become the norm. Today’s club operations including our golf operations must change course quickly. The largest and most recognized golf resorts require a different approach than do the small private clubs. But the smaller clubs encounter change no less. Once extremely successful, can you imagine the struggling that some of the best resorts are experiencing right now because of the economy? Success can turn around on us fast and flip us over if we aren’t paying attention to threats and weaknesses.

Rank Has Its Privileges?

What kind of hierarchy exists in your golf operation. Ranking is good for command and control, but it is disputable for change and innovation. Ranking people can limit potential. Today, many golf operations rank assistant professionals just as your everyday businesses rank and classify people - sometimes unintentionally. However, the results are mostly the same.  Ask yourself, when the ship sinks, who gets in the lifeboats first? What are your levels of command?  Do you have assistant professionals that can be trusted and take the lead on the spot?  Clear the lines between the classes and make everyone feel they are rowing in the same direction for the same purpose. In a disaster, everyone is an equal.

The Truth Changes

The Titanic was unsinkable…so they thought. So confident were they, that they only had enough life boats for half the passengers. The thinking that made us successful yesterday is the very same thinking that will cause us to fail tomorrow. Our unlearning curve must be greater than our learning curve. Our operations, no matter how big, recognized, or successful, must plan accordingly for the grim possibilities of the future. Our success can come crashing down if we don’t take heed to possible failures with equal fervor as we do for our plans for success.

Technology Is Never a Substitute for Leadership

When technology fails, leadership must prevail. Captain Smith said years before the The Titanic’s voyage, "I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder…modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that." Many businesses today have placed the wrong people in charge. They are not leaders, but managers. So--when disaster strikes, who is going to lead and will your technology pull you under? In our golf operations, when the point of sale system, inventory system, teaching software, or tournament software go down, is there a plan in place. Is their leadership in place that is proactive and plans for future threats? Or does the leadership operate on knee-jerk reactions and barely slide by when something goes wrong. The latter is not the recommended style of leadership.

Leadership Is Always Training

As the stern of the Titanic lifted out of the water; the crew and passengers struggled with the lifeboats. There were no drills, no rehearsals and the crews stood unfamiliar with their responsibilities. The boats were improperly loaded and only one boat went back to try to recover survivors. As golf professionals, no matter what our title is, we must always train ourselves and be open and proactively helping others improve their skills so they can become more productive and better golf professionals. Are you a Head Golf Professional that has no idea how to run a credit card or operate tournament software? Or are you a Head Golf Professional that is ready for anything should a situation arise in which you have to work a few hours outside, operate tournament software, or run a credit card?

Leadership Looks Below the Surface

The greatest danger as well as the greatest opportunities lie below. The ocean was and will always be like glass, deceptively dangerous. The biggest part of an iceberg lies below…unseen. Like steel fangs, it tore at the rivets along 300 feet of the The Titanic’s hull. Those below, the "crew and steerage," felt and saw the damage first. Like a gasping breath, the steam billowed above as chaos reigned below. Just like then and now, those who know what’s wrong with your "ship" are those below. Furthermore, those below usually have the best ideas and solutions to your problems. Start looking toward those on the front-line (assistant professionals, outside services staff, golf shop attendants) for the ideas, problems and solutions. Do it before you hit the icebergs.

Leadership Looks beyond the Horizon

Success causes problems, it can get organizations in trouble. A good "Captain" is on the lookout for changing trends, changing needs, storms and icebergs. In today’s economy, it is likely that those clubs staying afloat are the ones that looked beyond the horizon.

Portions of this article were taken from Gregory P. Smiths, “The Sinking of the Titanic: An Analogy of Leadership That Failed”