Skip to Main Content


Lessons from the Titanic

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2012 - Winter


The ship’s infamous sinking provides insights into management and leadership.

There’s a trend in business publishing these days: books built around unlikely case studies. Consider Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer; and Tony Soprano on Management: Leadership Lessons Inspired by America’s Favorite Mobster. Now there’s a new title, co-authored by David C. Tate, Ph.D., FW ’00, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry: Sink or Swim: How Lessons from the Titanic Can Save Your Family Business. Surely no business owner would seek to emulate the combination of design flaws, construction weaknesses, and operational misjudgments that sank the Titanic.

But it turns out that the story of the Titanic can offer insights into the pitfalls of running a small family business. As Tate and co-author Priscilla M. Cale, M.B.A., write, “What initially seemed counterintuitive ... turned out to be absolutely correlative.”

Tate and Cale provide psychological insights into the personal frailties and structural problems that, taken together, doomed the Titanic. They examine team fragmentation (some iceberg warnings never reached the captain); ineffective leadership (the captain never alerted his officers that the ship was sinking); and overconfidence (the Titanic carried only half the lifeboats necessary because the ship was “a lifeboat in herself”). For each factor that contributed to the 1912 disaster, the authors reflect on similar problems that can arise in ordinary family firms.

They argue that the U.S. economy depends on such insights: Family firms employ nearly six in 10 workers and generate half the nation’s GDP. But earnings are only part of the authors’ point. In firms that endure, “the family will have learned to be stewards of values that bring enrichment.” Ultimately, a family firm’s legacy “is about enrichment, not riches.”