Bob's Gutsy Leadership Blog

Giving In to Peer Pressure: A Deadly Example

The book called Rescue of the Bounty is an exciting, true story of an ill-fated, 2012 voyage of a fifty-year-old, 180 foot, wooden ship called Bounty.  It was a replica of the HMS Bounty, a classic three mast ship of the late 1700’s, and was used in movies such as Mutiny on the Bounty and Pirates of the Caribbean.

The voyage began in New London, Connecticut and was to end in Florida.  The captain of the ship for the past 17 years was Robin Walbridge.  He was broadly admired as an excellent trainer and very experienced, while always being very focused on the task at hand.  On October 26, 2012 the 15 person crew began to assemble for the trip.  That day the news was all about a very large hurricane named Sandy which was brewing in the Bahamas and heading north.

During the day of Oct. 26, most of Walbridge’s fifteen subordinates received text messages, e-mails and phone calls from family and friends who knew the ship was set to sail to Florida.  They were asking if the trip was cancelled, and if not, why not.  The crew members tried to provide assurance that sound decisions would be made by the veteran and highly regarded captain, but some spoke to their fellow crew members about their personal concerns.

The next day, just before Bounty was to sail, Captain Walbridge held a crew meeting and said “There is a hurricane heading this way.  It’s called Sandy, but some are calling it Frankenstorm.  There will be 60-knot winds and very rough seas.  The boat is safer being out at sea that being buckled up at a dock somewhere.  I know some of you received calls and messages from friends and family.  If anyone wants to go ashore, now is the time.  I won’t think less of you.”  No one budged, nor did anyone ask a question or make a comment.  The moment for objections passed, and the session ended.  All went to work, preparing to set sail within the hour.

Unfortunately, by Oct. 29, Bounty was being battered by 60 knot winds and 25-30 foot waves coming from all directions.   Soon the bilge pumps gave out, as did the electricity generators and eventually the engines, since the boat leaked badly, especially on the sides above the normal water line, which had some wood rot.  Just before capsizing, Bounty got a message to the Coast Guard about their dire situation. Fortunately, the crew had put on insulated survival suits just before all were thrown into the raging seas.  Fourteen of the sixteen were eventually picked up by the Coast Guard helicopters and survived; one member of the crew and the Captain died.

The questions are obvious: Why did every single crew member agree to remain on the ship when the Captain indicated they could leave before the ship left dock if they had concerns. We know many had serious concerns.  Why were no questions asked or comments made?  Was it peer pressure?  Not wanting to disappoint team members? Not wanting to appear to be afraid?

The lesson is clear; Trust your instincts.  NEVER hold back questions or concerns.  Don’t hesitate because others are quiet.  Never fear questioning superiors if you have concerns.

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