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One reason the story of the Titanic disaster has such enduring appeal is that it is an object lesson in the need to question perceived reality, trust our gut, and when necessary, act on our own personal authority to save others and ourselves. This is what I call the Lifeboat shift: the moment when we see or sense danger and realize that the ship we’re in is headed for trouble. This is the moment when we realize that “business as usual” will no longer work, and we must take emergency action, whether to avoid the danger or to abandon ship.
Making this shift requires several things, the first of which is trusting our own eyes, ears, and intuition. Life’s most important decisions often require more than logic. Where to work, how to invest our retirement savings, who to marry: We can’t know the outcome of our decisions when we make them, and we can’t know all the risks and obstacles we’ll face.
Indeed, many problems are like icebergs. At first, issues may seem small and insignificant — we see only the tiny tip — and we must guess how big and dangerous they really are or might become and how urgently we need to move to avoid them. When deciding what to do, we must tap into our intuition and sometimes even take a leap of faith.
This is hard in a crisis. Many clients have told me that, as pressure mounts within their organizations, they find themselves emotionally numb. The more cut off they become from their feelings, the less energy they can summon to take meaningful risks on their own behalf. They freeze, they act out, and in worst-case scenarios, they end up making compromises that erode their ability to operate in alignment with their genuine values.
Thus, when you spot an iceberg and recognize trouble ahead, the first and most important thing to do is to pause, tune in to your feelings, assess your reaction and the problem, and then focus on doing the next right thing in the present moment.
Danger on the Horizon
In the early 1900s, competition among the various shipping lines was fierce, yet the commitment to the value of human life remained uppermost among vessels at sea. Hence, it’s not surprising that the various ships that entered the treacherous waters of the Atlantic radioed one another frequently with ice warnings.
The Titanic received no fewer than six iceberg warnings from other ships sailing in their vicinity on April 14. The first one came in at 9 AM from the Caronia. During the formal inquiry following this tragedy, it was reported that this warning from the Caronia was the only one that was posted where all of Titanic’s officers could see it for formal consideration. When Captain Smith saw this first warning, he asked Sixth Officer James Moody to calculate when the Titanic would reach the ice indicated in this report. Moody reported that this would be around 11 o’clock that evening.
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So what happened to all the other iceberg warnings?
This simple but crucial question takes us to the wireless room of the Titanic, where the senior wireless operator, Jack Phillips, was engaged in a task that was starting to overwhelm him. As soon as the Titanic got within radio range of Cape Race, Newfoundland, Phillips was finally able to establish direct communication with the continent of North America.
While passing on iceberg warnings was a critical part of his job, Phillips had also been tasked with promptly relaying messages from Titanic’s passengers to friends, relatives, and business contacts. This was critical to keeping the passengers happy, and the backlog was such that he wasn’t able to pause, prioritize, and focus on the relative importance of the various types of messages that were flowing in and out.
In other words, Phillips was losing perspective on what was truly important — safety.
Just Another Warning?
At 9:30 pm, the nonstop personal messages were interrupted by an ice warning from the Mesaba. This warning didn’t strike Phillips as urgent since he had already passed on earlier warnings, and these hadn’t prompted any feedback from the officers in command. Phillips, who was swamped, figured things were under control.
In retrospect, they weren’t.
About fifteen minutes before the Titanic struck the iceberg, an urgent message from the Californian burst into his headphones. “Say, old man,” boomed wireless operator Cyril Evans from the Californian, “We are stopped and surrounded by ice.” The Californian was about twenty miles away from the Titanic at the time.
Phillips was running on fumes at this point and responded impatiently, “Shut up! Shut up! I am working Cape Race.” Phillips felt he had to keep up with those passenger messages to keep everyone happy.
It’s a tragic irony that disaster might have been avoided if the wireless operator hadn’t been too overworked to think more clearly under pressure and prioritize safety. To his credit, the frustrated and exhausted Phillips quickly got back to the Californian with the message, “Sorry. Please repeat. Jammed to Cape Race.”
Tragically, by this point, the Californian’s receiver wasn’t able to get a message clearly from the Titanic anymore. Soon after, at 11:35 pm, Evans shut down his wireless and retired for the night.
Of course, wireless warnings from other ships weren’t the only means used to assess potential threats.
The Importance of Seeing Clearly
That night, Frederick Fleet and his partner, Reginald Lee, were the two lookouts in the Titanic’s crow’s nest. These men probably both felt like they’d drawn the short straw when it came to their tour of duty on that freezing night. While the passengers below were enjoying the comfort of their warm beds, Fleet and Lee were out in the elements striving to keep their freezing eyelashes from hampering their ability to scan the waters ahead.
Fleet was responsible for trusting his vision and seeing danger in time to alert others. An experienced seaman, Fleet knew that spotting an iceberg could be tricky business. While icebergs could sometimes be identified by a ring of white foam that formed around the base when waves broke against it, the seas were calm that night. Sometimes the reflection of the moonlight made it possible to see the white surface of an iceberg in the distance, but there was no moon that night. At least the stars were bright — that seemed helpful.
What wasn’t helpful was the fact that the Titanic had left Southampton with no binoculars for the lookouts.
Neither of these two men in the crow’s nest were happy about that oversight.
Around 11:30 pm, Fleet casually mentioned to Lee that the horizon ahead had seemed to develop a slight haze. It seemed so subtle at first that he almost didn’t mention it. A few minutes later, Fleet made a horrifying realization. Sometimes icebergs appeared as black objects, and one was directly in their path!
Fleet rang the bell in the crow’s nest three times to alert the crew on duty and telephoned the wheelhouse immediately. Despite their best efforts to warn the crew in time, Fleet and Lee were subjected to the horrifying experience of watching the iceberg coming closer and closer while the Titanic maintained its course at full speed.
While historians still debate the precise details of why it took the crew so long to respond to Fleet’s warning, Fleet is regarded as having done everything he could under the circumstances. His warnings arrived in time to still avoid the crash, so what happened? Where were the officers in charge?
Only three people were authorized to change the course of the ship: Captain Smith, First Officer Murdoch, and Second Officer Lightoller. When Fleet telephoned the wheelhouse, the only officer present was Quartermaster Robert Hichens, who was duty bound not to release the ship’s wheel or turn the ship. By then, Captain Smith had retired for the night, Lightoller had been relieved of command by Murdoch at 10 pm, and Murdoch was out on the bridge.
Theoretically, this still shouldn’t have presented a problem. That’s because two additional officers were always supposed to be stationed in the wheelhouse with the quartermaster to make sure everyone communicated in a crisis and orders were relayed promptly. The two additional officers assigned to the wheelhouse on that fateful shift were Sixth Officer Moody and Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall.
Where were they? As luck would have it, just before Fleet spotted the iceberg, Moody had left to run a quick errand. At the same time, Boxhall had decided to run out for a quick cup of tea. After all, it was freezing! What could possibly go wrong!?
The human dimension of this would be touchingly funny if the consequences weren’t so tragic.
The minute they realized the ship was in harm’s way, Moody and Boxhall both rushed back to the wheelhouse. Moody grabbed the wheelhouse phone, Murdoch yelled the order to change course, and Hichens turned the wheel with all his might.
At first, it seemed like the Titanic might just clear the danger. Then, as the iceberg moved alongside the starboard bow, survivors report they heard a strange scraping noise.
This was the sound of impending disaster.
Remember this whenever you hear the refrain “it can never happen to me.” Even seemingly small errors can result in catastrophic failures.
The Signs of Trouble Come First
Nearly all my clients confirm that signs of trouble arise at companies long before they hit a metaphorical iceberg and these firms go under. The end may come suddenly, but for months, if not years, many employees have seen the writing on the wall. This is especially true when company leadership subscribes to the Big Ship mindset. That is, senior management refuses to listen to or address the concerns of employees, who are expected to do their jobs and nothing else. What’s worse, some Big Ship thinkers punish people who “rock the boat” and raise bad news by demoting or even eliminating them. Thus, to keep their jobs, employees play along and maintain the illusion that everything is okay when they know it’s not.
To foster compliance and distract employees from problems, senior management sometimes uses chaos as a control tactic. Having employees dash around collecting endless and confusing data, hiring and firing consultants, and nonstop travel often ensure that everyone remains exhausted and unavailable for frank discussions.
In this type of scenario, people operate on autopilot. They aren’t authentically present. They lose touch with their feelings, and this can infect someone’s entire life and leave them unprepared to handle a crisis. Like Robert Hichens, if that person suddenly must make critical decisions under pressure, they may freeze or break down — sometimes experiencing outbursts of temper or becoming tongue-tied and unable to make any decisions.
This is a critical lesson from the Titanic : In any kind of crisis, it’s important to be as fully and authentically present as possible. When you sense trouble, don’t panic and freeze. Train yourself to pause and assess.
Pausing: The Gateway to Emotional Wisdom
Pausing is a foundational skill for navigating life. Pausing enables us to spot incoming threats and dangers as well as to remain calm in a crisis so that we avoid panic and act effectively. Any time strong emotions are triggered, we should pause to assess our feelings and what’s causing them.
Sometimes we only need to pause long enough to take a deep breath and stem the rush of adrenaline coursing through our system, which may be prompting an excitable rather than an effective response. Other times we might choose to pause for days or even weeks to regain perspective and decide on the most strategic way to proceed.
I recommend practicing the art of pausing until it becomes emotional muscle memory. This particular skill is essential for reclaiming our personal power in any situation, and it’s particularly helpful under stress.
Pausing Is A Skill That Can Be Learned
Over the past twenty years, I’ve worked with people who have grappled with a wide range of emotional triggers on the job that prompted unhelpful reactions. Some clients are self-described people-pleasers who find themselves giving their power away by anxiously filling in conversational silences.
Self-described alphas also give their power away, but their reactions are often different. When problems arise (sometimes due to damage they’ve done), alphas often find themselves reacting impulsively, talking over others, trying to force solutions, or setting unrealistic targets for their teams.
Whatever your behavioral pattern happens to be, mastering the ability to pause will help you stop reacting emotionally and start responding strategically.
Anyone can learn to pause. That means you can learn to pause. That said, mastering the skill of pausing can involve a tricky learning curve.
Because this is an experiential skill. You can’t learn to pause under pressure by imagining yourself doing it. You have to actually do it, over and over, and this takes courage.
Pausing can feel like turning up a dimmer switch in a dark room. When people have made a habit of avoiding their emotions — perhaps by engaging in nonstop activity or endless chatter — pausing forces them to experience their feelings. This can be uncomfortable, and they often report battling thoughts like, “Isn’t this self-indulgent? Aren’t we wasting precious time? I’ll just say I paused, but I’m not going to waste time doing it!”
Pausing Can Be Scary
Pausing can be scary because people don’t always know what they are going to find when they pause long enough to look within. With practice, people start to understand how pausing can help them clarify any self-defeating thoughts or self-sabotaging behaviors.
When our bodies are flooded with adrenaline, our immediate impulse is to act first and think later. Pausing is about doing the opposite.
It’s worth it.
When you pause, that adrenaline gets redirected so you can focus more clearly on what’s unfolding in the present. For example, people who manage to steer clear of a potential car accident and pro athletes who are able to excel under pressure focus intently on what’s unfolding in the moment. This focus is so intense that people sometimes say it feels like time is slowing down.
This is the ultimate mastery of pausing, which allows people to be aware of their inner selves and manage their emotions while simultaneously responding strategically to whatever is going on.
Mastering the Ability to Pause
Mastering the ability to pause is a skill that benefits everyone, not just top athletes. And similar to how athletes work hard to maintain their physical agility, you practice pausing to cultivate your emotional agility. That way, as pausing becomes a habit, you know you will be able to handle yourself in a crisis. This builds self-confidence and trust in yourself, which will then be reflected in your interactions with others.
Pausing is the opposite of operating on automatic pilot. People operating on automatic pilot do what they are told without question so long as an authority figure reassures them that everything is “fine.” Instead, by pausing, you evaluate circumstances for yourself. You listen to your internal guidance. This increased awareness improves your ability to act effectively in the moment.
Pausing helps you take your power back from the inside out.
©2020 by Maggie Craddock. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New World Library. www.newworldlibrary.com
Lifeboat: Navigating Unexpected Career Change and Disruption
by Maggie Craddock
Today’s hardworking professionals are navigating sudden waves of financial stress, management shakeups, and downsizing. Using the experiences of Titanic survivors as a powerful metaphor, executive coach Maggie Craddock offers lessons for a transformative approach to our professional lives, one that recognizes that “every man for himself” doesn’t work long-term. Lifeboat is organized as a series of key questions we all need to ask ourselves when facing unexpected career disruption or difficult changes. These questions help readers clarify their authentic priorities, assess the group energy that guides a particular workplace, and identify the type of job that will help them reach their true potential.
For more info, or to order this book, click here. (Also available as a Kindle edition and as an Audiobook.)
About the Author
Maggie Craddock, author of Lifeboat, is a veteran executive coach known for her work with Fortune 500 CEOs and senior management. She has been featured on CNBC, ABC News, and National Public Radio. She is also a certified therapist and also the author of The Authentic Career and Power Genes. More information at WorkplaceRelationships.com.