By Diane J. Chandler, who serves as an associate professor of Christian Formation and Leadership at Regent University School of Divinity in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
The tragedy of the RMS Titanic reminds me of the tragedy of leaders’ unethical behavior. When tragedy struck the Titanic, so much was left in its devastating wake, including loss of life, destruction, disillusionment, and a sense of betrayal. Broken trust through betrayal, devastated lives, and chaos likewise follow Christian leaders’ unethical behavior.
We know the story all too well. On April 15, 1912 at 11:40 p.m., the Titanic hit a mammoth iceberg enroute from Southhampton, England to New York City. The collision created a jagged hole of between 220-245 feet in the hull of this 46,000-ton behemoth. Water gushed in the vessel at an estimated seven tons per second. Within two hours and forty-minutes, the ship sank after splitting in two.
At departure for its maiden voyage, the Titanic was the largest ship in the world. Employing 3000 shipbuilders for three years, the White Star Line considered the Titanic practically unsinkable.
How could something so powerful and too big to fail end up 2.3 miles beneath the ocean’s surface southeast of Newfoundland? Considering the 2,240 total passengers and crew, roughly two-thirds, or 1503, of them died, leaving only 737 survivors.
What went wrong? Who was responsible for perhaps the most infamous maritime disaster in history? These are the same questions we ask when prominent leaders behave unethically.
After various investigations, a confluence of factors emerged to paint the Titanic as “an accident waiting to happen.” Three primary factors contributed to the disaster: (1) the leader (the captain), (2) followers, and (3) the company/organization itself.
Regarding the leader, Titanic’s captain Edward Smith was considered the most experienced sea captain of his day. He had successfully captained five other previous ships, and his reputation instilled trust in passengers. However, Smith failed to heed the iceberg warnings. Rather than slow down or stop, he proceeded at full speed in a cold, moonless night. It is also thought that Smith caved into pressure from White Star Line’s chairman/director who was onboard and wanted to make record transit time. In his haste to dispatch the life boats, Smith approved their launch, with many seats unfilled. Pride often precedes any expectation of failure.
Prominent Christian leaders often fail because of hubris, or an exaggerated self-confidence and pride. Hubris, then, contributes to grandiosity, or a narcissistic sense of superiority. When debilitating character weakness and eroding moral values combine with pressures to succeed, a path to unethical behavior heightens. In many cases, self-deception to protect a sinking self-image and avoidant mechanisms develop, including a denial of the truth. Further, leaders with charisma may abuse personalized power, reward blind loyalty, and inhibit criticism. Followers who see clearly find themselves in inner turmoil about how to bring consonance between leader misbehavior and their loyalty to the leader. Followers see the truth unfolding but the leader who exercises control and domination trumps their truth-telling. Consider the lives of many well-known Christian leaders who have abused their personal power and denied the truth when it was revealed.
In the case of the Titanic, followers unwittingly contributed to the tragedy. Some of the followers’ trepidation went unheeded. At the time of the disaster, two lookouts, Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee, were on duty in the bird’s nest. Fleet was the first to spot the iceberg, sound the warning bell, and shout infamously, “Iceberg, right ahead.” In U.S. Senate testimony, Fleet noted that if binoculars had been provided in the crow’s nest, “we could have seen it a bit sooner.”
Had Fleet insisted on having binoculars before his shift, he may have spotted the iceberg and saved the ship. These crew members were not adequately equipped to spot danger; yet their inability to spot the iceberg contributed to the disaster. Consequently, although they survived, they lived with the reality of their role in the disaster. At the end of his life, Fleet committed suicide.
In leaders’ unethical behavior, followers often reinforce leadership misbehavior by acquiescing to the lack of proper resources or by denying the truth. Leaders’ power dynamics interface with followers’ locus of control (LOC). Locus of control refers to the degree to which people feel that they effect events around them. With an external LOC, followers generally feel more beholden to leaders’ directives than those with an internal LOC, whereby followers may be more likely to confront leaders. Followers with a stronger LOC are more apt to challenge leaders’ unethical behavior.
Followers may also tolerate leaders’ misbehavior in order to maintain their own relational identity with the leader and to feel important and valued. When followers participate in leaders’ “in-groups,” they avoid risking confrontation, so as to secure their place in the organization. Consider how Joab, King David’s military captain, complied with David’s orders to arrange Uriah’s death in order to cover up David’s adultery with Bathsheba.
Post-mortems of the Titanic itself revealed several fatal flaws in construction and violations of common sense safety requirements. For example, the watertight compartments had walls that did not rise to ceilings, enabling water to pour between compartments. The metal pins, or rivets, that held the steel hull plates together contained slag residue that weakened them. Most alarming, the vessel was only equipped with 1,178 seats on lifeboats, well shy of the 2, 240 persons onboard and far below the 3,300-passenger capacity. Sadly, Britain’s Board of Trade’s low lifeboat standards further contributed to loss of life.
The Titanic sinking contradicted the prevailing assumption that it could remain afloat for several hours to insure a successful lifeboat rescue. Had the Titanic not sunk so quickly, the rescue vessel, the Carpathia that arrived two hours later, could have returned the life boats to rescue more passengers in the frigid waters, after picking up the first 705 lifeboat passengers. Unfortunately, another ship’s captain of the S.S. Californian, Stanley Lord, refused to respond to the Titanic’s distress rockets, even though his ship was closer than the Carpathia. Investigators concluded that Lord’s inaction was inexcusable and contributed to a higher death rate.
Organizational factors also contribute to leaders’ unethical behavior. The drive for competitive visibility and dominance thrusts Christian ministries and organizations to take uncertain risks in order to insure greater success. The inordinate need to achieve often leads to dysfunction in the organizational culture and climate, rule-breaking, relational breakdowns, the loosening of appropriate accountability, and in some cases—cover-up. The organization becomes weakened by followers’ unexamined organizational commitment, which allows them to make erroneous assumptions (and exceptions), discount the truth, and attempt to rescue the ministry that is sprouting observable holes in its hull.
The organization then focuses on plugging holes, mediating public relations exposés, and playing first mate to protect the ministry’s captain. Meanwhile, lack of effective organizational processes and oversight, especially for large organizations, dwarf helpful feedback channels for legitimate concerns and complaints. Organizational boards, including those in churches, can become paralyzed in taking appropriate steps to examine legitimate concerns and complaints. Organizational commitment may counter fair and unbiased internal examination and also thwart appropriate scrutiny from an external organization. In a cyclical feedback loop, leaders shape organizational cultures, which in turn influences followers. The character of leaders is central to organizational health, without which dysfunction prevails.
What is the Way Forward?
Between the time the Titanic sank in 1912, the time it was discovered on the ocean floor in 1985, and now, many lessons have been learned about avoiding maritime disasters. What can we learn today from the Titanic that will help Christian organizations avoid the pain of unethical behavior of leaders?
- We all need to take a humble attitude that avoids finger-pointing and recognize that under the right circumstances, each of us is capable of unethical leadership behavior. The Proverbs writer is instructive: “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble . . . ” (Prov. 24:17).
- We need to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit to know when and how to speak up, and if needed, to confront in a spirit of love for the sake of the body of Christ. “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15-16).
- Leaders need to encourage and model truth-telling ministry cultures where it is okay to ask the hard questions and to press through organizational hurdles in order to be heard. Openness to receive and listen to others creates safe cultures and counters fear and intimidation. “Fear of others lays a snare, but one who trusts in the Lord is secure” (Prov. 29:25).
- We need to establish reasonable (and sometimes ruthless) accountability so that leaders follow the same Christian standards that we expect of anyone else. Ministry boards need to develop clear guidelines and protocols for handling leaders’ unethical behavior. “So then, each of us will be accountable to God” (Rom. 14:12).
- Christian colleges, seminaries, and church/ministry-based equipping entities need to include in their formational curricula specific discussion and training on how to handle unethical behavior at every level of ministry. Through examining the Scriptures and sensitively discussing case studies (both real and hypothetical), emerging and seasoned leaders can build a safety net to protect themselves and their respective ministries, recognizing the great responsibility they have before God. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).
- No Christian ministry or organization is too big to fail. When cracks appear in the ministry foundation, avoidance of the problem is not an option. “Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin” (James 4:17).