Leadership styles that sink ships — the five habits and lessons we can learn from lost staff, dictatorships and shipwrecks

The leader steers the ship.

Most often when we’re discussing leadership it’s generally in a loose and sweeping metaphorical sense, but in today’s case —the leader actually steered a real-life, 114,000-tonne ship.

The leader has the power to influence and persuade, but when that power is left unchecked and in the wrong hands, it has the potential to see entire nations massacred and drive dangerous divides between minority groups.

The leader is known to be inspiring, progressive and engaging, but when a leader is driven solely by profit and productivity over people and power over purpose, then the result within a company can be dire.

Today we touch on three stories about three leaders that have eerie and somewhat disturbing commonalities between their style and the disastrous outcomes associated with their leadership. 

We touch on:

  • The captain crashed a boat resulting in the death of 32 people, and then abandoned ship;
  • The dictator was known as the creator of fascism, yet was often known to be charismatic, poetic in his speech highly driven; and
  • The CEO was known to regularly yell and humiliate employees and fired his EA after 12 years when she asked for a raise, saying he could do her job within half the time and didn’t need her anymore.

Although these examples are rather dramatic in nature, some subtle characteristics outlined in the examples can help us learn to become better, greater leaders. 

Here are some of the characteristics they’ve had in common and what we can learn from them. 

1. Driving a culture of fear

Tech investor, Elon Musk has built not only a reputation for being one of Silicon Valley’s most successful and innovative entrepreneurs but also for his ruthless treatment of staff and impersonal leadership style. 

Known for regularly firing employees who could not meet unrealistic deadlines (we’re talking about building a space shuttle in a week, or a new piece of technology within a couple of days), or for asking for raises, it is widely reported that many of Elon Musk’s employees work in fear and feel like they’re constantly walking on eggshells. 

Similarly, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who became Italy’s Prime Minister between 1922 and 1943 and quickly became a dictatorship, led malicious and often misdirected and misinformed attacks on anyone who dared to question his leadership.

Freedom of speech was abolished and secret spies and police infiltrated regions of Italy, robbing the people of personal power and also cultivating fear and paranoia.

How to stop it:

Don’t ever threaten staff. Comments like “if you do this, there will be consequences,” or “I’ll fire you if XYZ happens,” are not only unproductive — they’re damaging. 

During Mussolini’s leadership, initially, it was welcomed, as he rebuilt the economy and provided a sense of calm within chaos, but heavy consequences for any resistance or speaking up created mass fear.

Always be sure your team members have a voice, are heard, and have the freedom to share ideas, concerns or challenges with a sense of safety and security. 

Team members should never feel ridiculed, humiliated, or publicly called out for mistakes.

2. “You’re replaceable” — dehumanising people

After 12 years of loyal service, Elon Musk’s Executive Assistant served Musk with enthusiasm and fierce loyalty. 

When she struck up the courage to ask for a raise, Musk gently told her to pack her bags for a two-week vacation, only for her to return to no job. 

Musk believed he could do her job herself and abruptly fired her on the spot.

At points, all of these leaders had a resounding habit of not seeing people as people — they were seen as pawns, numbers, inferior races (in Mussolini’s case) or completely replaceable. 

How to stop it:

Every person should be celebrated for their unique strengths and abilities. Recognise each team member’s unique contribution to the team and regularly share wins that focus on individual efforts. 

3. Driven by ego — abusing power and position

In 2012, Captain Francesco Schettino was on the bridge when the Costa Concordia hit rocks and sank in 2012, killing 32 people.

The captain of the Italian cruise ship was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

He was accused of taking the liner too close to the shore and then abandoning ship with passengers and crew still on board.

 Although not substantiated, rumours suggested he was steering too close to shore to impress his girlfriend who was onboard the ship, and then used his power and position to abandon the ship when it was sinking — leaving crew and passengers to die. 

Similarly, Mussolini was renowned for his arrogance and boasting of being one of the youngest Prime Ministers of his time. 

He appeared driven by power and control, and referred to himself as ‘Il Duce’ or ‘The Leader’.

How to stop it:

With great power comes great responsibility. A great leader acknowledges they may experience an imbalanced power dynamic, and takes that responsibility with ethical consideration and self-awareness. 

They recognise that ‘great leaders eat last’, and take radical responsibility when serious disasters or economic challenges arise. 

Question where your privileges lie, where you may experience an imbalance in power, and how that’s perceived by your team members. 

4. Focusing on self-interest instead of customers and company vision

In all three examples, each leader demonstrated a significant level of self-interest over others.

Mussolini was solely driven by the goal to “become the next Caesar”, Captain Francesco was more interested in protecting his reputation than his care for the victims of the disaster, and Elon Musk was quick to hastily defend an accusation of offering a mini-submarine during the Thai Cave collapse as an opportunistic PR stunt, by calling the leading diver a paedophile.

How to stop it:

As a leader, where is your focus? Although intrinsic motivations are needed to foster drive and ambition, especially in a leadership position, a company’s vision and focus on the end user/customer or client must never be lost. 

Are you making decisions in the best interest of the business or customer? 

5. “It’s not my fault” — blaming others for their mistakes

When Captain Francesco Schettino faced trial, his emotional plea centred around the hardship he had personally experienced from the media scrutiny, not the lives lost from the boating accident. 

“I have been in a media meat grinder for the last three years and all the blame has been placed on me,” he stated in his trial. 

At no point did Schettino take responsibility for the errors leading up to the disaster, or the role he played in the accident. 

How to stop it:

Great leaders take responsibility for their actions as well as their teams’. A great leader understands that when something goes wrong, they are ultimately accountable for the loss or hardship.

They don’t finger-point or blame external factors for something that is ultimately within their control. 

Next time a team member makes a mistake, use it as an opportunity to reflect on your leadership. 

‘What could I have done differently here?’

‘What did I not provide in training/time/resources/support that could have prevented this from happening?’

‘How can I support my team to learn from this and grow?’

What makes you a leader and what type of leader do you want to be perceived as by others? 
This month’s worksheet provides activities, a planner, and questions that will guide you in identifying the type of leader you would like to be, your leadership brand, your leadership priorities and your leadership qualities.
Discover your own tendencies. So that you can build a team around you with complementary skill sets. Create the processes and structures you need to be most effective. And open up your eyes to your weaknesses (which are your biggest opportunities to grow and become a more skilful leader).
Click here to download our FREE Leadership Compass Worksheet.