The Power of a Leader’s Influence

IsmayOn April 12, 1912, The RMS Titanic, then the largest passenger steamship in the world, struck on iceberg while traveling on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York City. Two hours and forty minutes later, Titanic slipped beneath the waves and into history. 1,517 people lost their lives, while survivors and families struggled to make sense of the tragedy.

In the days that followed, newspapers across the world relayed stories from the disaster – stories of heroic acts of bravery and stories of incredible acts of cowardice. One of the most publicized villains was Bruce Ismay – the managing director of the White Star Line and one of the designers of the Titanic.

Ismay was onboard the Titanic, but managed to escape on a lifeboat and survived. Following the disaster, Ismay was blamed for the incident and labeled a coward. It was reported that he drove the captain to push the Titanic faster than was necessary in order to prove the power of his creation. It was said that he scrambled aboard a lifeboat ahead of women and children while other men willingly stayed behind. And Ismay was condemned for resigning shortly after the sinking, disappearing from public view so he wouldn’t have to face scrutiny for his actions.

By all accounts, Bruce Ismay epitomized the greedy, cut-throat capitalist who, in the end, turns out to be a gutless coward. But the newspapers had it wrong. You see, Bruce Ismay was none of these things. And during the official inquiries into the sinking of Titanic the real truth came out.

Letters surfaced in which Ismay advised Captain Smith to sail only as fast as prudent and safe. Other letters from Ismay discouraged altering the timelines of other voyages in order to facilitate an earlier arrival. Witnesses during the inquiry testified that Ismay spent nearly two hours assisting other passengers, namely women and children, into lifeboats before being ordered into one himself. Only then, finding no women in the vicinity to take his place, did he enter the lifeboat.

Ismay did retire following the sinking, but this move had been announced months before the voyage. Following the disaster, he petitioned the board to keep his post, but the negative publicity was too overwhelming. So Ismay took a position on the board of an insurance company whose primary clients were Titanic victims and their families. For 25 years, he relived the disaster at every meeting.

So what happened? How did the press get the facts so horribly wrong? It seems that early in his career, a newspaper writer and publisher named William Randolph Hearst approached Ismay for an interview. Being a shy, private man, Ismay refused and Hearst held a grudge. When the Titanic went down, he saw an opportunity to vent his anger. It was his papers that printed the first – and worst – stories. Other publications followed his lead and Ismay’s reputation was forever ruined despite his heroism.

I’ve heard leadership described as influence. Effective leaders understand the power their influence has over others. Used properly, a leader’s influence can solve problems, mobilize others and effect positive change. Used irresponsibly though, this same influence can be terribly destructive.

Here are three steps to properly leveraging your influence as a leader:

  1. Put your emotions aside. As a professional journalist, Hearst should have been able to put his emotions aside. He should have known that when you speak or write from a negative emotion, you usually wind up saying something out of line. Make sure your intentions are honorable before acting.
  2. Do your research. Check the facts before passing along something second-hand information. It’s extremely embarrassing to find out you’ve been party to rumor or innuendo. So focus on facts rather than assumption or hearsay. Although Hearst’s papers were the first to wrongly accuse Ismay, others quickly followed suit without checking the facts.
  3. Go overboard on apologies. When you do misspeak, quickly correct the mistake. I don’t know if Hearst ever published a retraction, but if he did it was probably very small and buried in an obscure part of the paper. I suspect even a front-page apology wouldn’t be enough to undo the damage done to Ismay’s reputation.

Credibility is easy to lose, and very hard to regain. The best leaders do their best to preserve their own credibility and protect the credibility of others.

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