Time and time again, tragedies like the Titan disaster occur because leaders ignore red flags

The loss of the OceanGate submarine Titan appears to be an example of warnings being ignored.

Too often have we heard unfounded cries that you are going to kill someone, wrote OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush in 2018, after being told he was risking his life by using his experimental submersible Titan to ferry customers to see the wreck of the Titanic almost 4,000 meters below sea level. I take that as a grave personal insult.

Rush, who died along with four others in the catastrophic failure of the Titans last week, was warned by marine tech experts and at least one (later fired) employee that the carbon-fiber vessel risked potentially catastrophic problems without testing and rigorous assessments.

Stockton Rush, CEO of OceanGate Expeditions, photographed aboard the Titan in May 2023.
Stockton Rush, CEO of OceanGate Expeditions, photographed aboard the Titan in May 2023.
Weekly trips/AP

Those boarding the Titan had to sign a waiver stating that it was an experimental submersible vessel that had not been approved or certified by any regulatory body that could result in physical injury, emotional trauma or death. That should have been warning enough.

But it’s not about being wise after the event. The Institute for Crisis Management consultancy annually compiles statistics on crises around the world. He classifies 46% of these as smoldering in nature, meaning they likely occurred after red flags or warning signs.


ICM Crisis Annual Report, 2021

ICM Annual Crisis Report 2021, CC BY

In every crisis I’ve studied, says US crisis management expert Ian Mitroff, author of more than 20 books on the subject, there were always a few key people within an organization, or on its fringes. , who saw the first warning signs and tried to warn their superiors.

Either way, the signals were either ignored or prevented from reaching the top or having any effect.

US academics Erika James and Lynn Wooten agree:

Steaming crises almost always leave a trail of red flags and warning signs that something is wrong. These signals are often not listened to by management.



Read more: Why PR agencies and their role should get more attention


Why the red flags are being ignored

Why are red flags not always taken into consideration?

Sometimes warning signs are simply not recognized.

This happened with French bank Socit Gnrale, which lost an estimated $4.9 billion in 2009 due to unauthorized transactions by a single rogue futures trader, who set up dummy trades to cover losses in a declining market. An independent investigation found that the bank failed to act on 75 red flags over an 18-month period.

Sometimes the problem is reported but prevented from going to management.

In one of Australia’s worst disasters, the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009 which killed 173 people, some of the fires were caused by fallen power lines which started fires in hot windy conditions.

Subsequent investigations revealed clear warnings about the risk of fires.

A memorial to the Black Saturday bushfires in Marysville, Victoria.
A memorial to the Black Saturday bushfires in Marysville, Victoria.
David Crosling/AAP

Sometimes top decision makers are aware of the problem but don’t make it a priority.

This appears to be the case at New Zealand’s Pike River Colliery, where a gas explosion in 2010 caused a mine to collapse, killing 29 people. warnings of a potential catastrophe at the mine.

The commission concluded:

In the drive towards coal production, directors and managers have not paid sufficient attention to health and safety and have exposed the company’s workers to unacceptable risks. Mining was expected to stop until the risks were properly managed.

Flowers for the 29 victims of the Pike River mine disaster in New Zealand.
Ian McGregor/AP

And sometimes the warning alarms are literally turned off.

Following the disastrous explosion and fire at the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 workers, in 2010, a US government investigation revealed that vital safety alarm systems had been deliberately disabled to prevent workers from being woken up by false alarms .

Experts will try to sort out exactly how and why the Titan joined the Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and whether the disaster could have been avoided if the many previous safety issues hadn’t been explained.

The best crisis management is to prevent the crisis in the first place. Whether it’s for businesses, governments, communities or individuals, when there are warning signs of impending disaster, talk about it and keep talking about it until someone takes action.



Read more: 3 Crisis Leadership Lessons from Abraham Lincoln


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