All at sea? Leadership in perilous times…

ed gillespie
7 min readSep 27, 2023

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RMS Tayleur, 1854

‘Trust your compass’ observed my colleague Matt, a former officer in the Royal Marines. ‘When you’re on exercises, and you’ve been up hill and down dale’ he explained ‘and are lost and disoriented in the dark, when your compass points in a counter-intuitive direction to the one you expect, then the mantra is “Trust your compass”. It’s magnetic. It always points north.’

We were discussing our forthcoming responsible leadership residential for the Forward Institute at the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy, and the challenges our Fellows face in these turbulent times. One thread of our Forward Institute work focuses on the 3 C’s — Character, Company and Context. What courage, character, integrity and responsibility can we bring to our leadership beyond just ‘effectiveness’? Who is among the company we keep, ensuring a diverse range of ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, sectors and perspectives? And how does the context in which we practice our leadership influence and shape what we do?

Which is why Matt had mentioned ‘trust your compass’ as a mantra to help Fellows adhere to their core values and beliefs through the maelstrom of polycrises that are whistling shrilly around our heads. The notion of a moral compass is well established, and one that enables us to discern right from wrong and act accordingly.

The media boils with the righteous fury against Russel Brand’s abhorrent historical abuses of his power. That very same media that also enabled and indeed facilitated those abuses. A new found moral certainty is pitched like a flapping tent on a cultural quagmire of tolerance and transgression as we all look back in retrospect at what was, as the Dispatches programme put it ‘In plain sight’. What Margaret Heffernan calls ‘wilful blindness’ — why we ignore the obvious at our peril.

At the same time BP’s CEO Bernard Looney steps aside prematurely due to his ‘failure to disclose relationships with colleagues’ a dubious euphemism at best. And yet the Board’s moral conviction in accepting his resignation does not extend to the prevention of burning the planet in the name of fiduciary duty and shareholder value. A stark moral relativism that must have their internal compasses whirring. Or certainly should do.

In our febrile atmosphere of divisive culture wars in which the UK is rowing back from its global (and legally binding) climate commitments and is obsessed with ‘stopping the small boats’, dark pun intended, it seems reasonable to point out that the first action will only ever exacerbate the second, as we enter the realms of dangerous feedback loops and tipping points before us.

Throw in new North Sea oil and gas exploration in the teeth of criticism from the International Energy Agency and it’s hard to see how our currently emerging legacy could be any more toxic. Even if the politics is just ragged red meat for the ravenous right, the insidious taint of the previous climate consensus that is now being mindlessly vandalised will endure. Our moral compass is manifestly failing us, and doing so disastrously. Which prompts me to share a story.

A couple of weeks ago I was co-hosting a creative writing retreat with my great friend Professor Jonathan Gosling. I found myself sat on a rocky headland of Lambay Island, off the Irish east coast near Malahide, and gazing out over an unusually limpid Irish Sea in the warm September sunshine. Seals stared back, idly curious. But beneath the tranquil waters of this scene lurked a tragedy.

Lambay Island

On 19th January 1854 RMS Tayleur set sail from Liverpool on her maiden voyage down under. One of the first vessels of the relatively young White Star Line, she was billed as the newest, fastest, safest ship in their fleet, and was one of the first full-rigged, iron-clad clipper ships. But she’d been built extremely quickly, in just six months, and had undergone no sea trials, keen as the owners were to service the booming Anglo-Australian migration demand. This was fuelled by the over-excitement of the Australian goldrush and the population (of migrants) had boomed from 430,000 to 1.7M in the three years since gold was first discovered there in 1851.

Waved off by cheering crowds and with almost 600 passengers dreaming of a better future aboard, within 48 hours the ship now known as ‘The first Titanic’ struck rocks off the south east coast of Lambay Island during a storm worsened by thick fog. The Tayleur first foundered and then sank with the loss of 370 passengers, including almost all the women and children. Virtually the whole crew, and around half the men onboard survived. What went so tragically wrong?

In a terrible precursor of her more infamous sister ship Titanic, and the even more recent implosion of the Titan submersible, the Tayleur’s destiny, and the fate of hundreds of passengers was sealed by a fatal combination of commercial hubris and human error.

RMS Tayleur’s rigging was poorly designed which created a ‘slotting’ effect in the sails that drove the ship sideways. Her ropes had not been properly stretched prior to sailing so became slack or jammed making it extremely difficult to control the sails. Her rudder was too small for the vessel’s tonnage, making her unmanoeuvrable with a huge turning circle. She was unresponsive and hard to steer. Her crew had too few experienced sailors, barely a dozen out of the seventy men were seasoned seamen, and a sizeable Chinese contingent spoke little English. The anchor chains broke when a last ditch attempt to avoid disaster was made as the rocks loomed, and like Titanic there were inadequate life belts and boats to evacuate survivors. Although the fierce storm and proximity to the shore meant the launching of lifeboats was nigh on impossible anyway. The list of failings is long.

The crew were able to collapse a mast down onto the treacherous rocks and they and some passengers escaped by crawling along it to shore. Others attempted to swim, or pull themselves along ropes to safety, and its believed this is how many female passengers died weighed down by heavy wet Victorian dresses. Oft rumoured to be even heavier with the stitched-in sovereign savings of a security conscious émigré. So violent were the waves and so unforgiving the rocks, that many were simply dashed to death or drowned in the small gap between ship and shore. The ferocious weather, literal ‘every man for himself’ chaos and appalling lack of leadership meant all but three of the hundred women, and all but three of the seventy children aboard were lost.

Allegedly one of the first ashore to raise the alarm, a heroic feat which required him to scale an almost sheer cliff face, was the ship’s African American chef. When the desperate man arrived at the doors of islander’s houses they refused to open them, never having encountered a black man before they were convinced he must have been an other-worldly spirit.

But the biggest failure of all was the compass. The magnetic effect of the massive iron hull had not been effectively compensated for when the ship’s compasses were tuned, ‘swung’ in naval parlance, and positioned. As a result Captain John Noble was convinced his ship was heading south through the Irish Sea, when in fact it was sailing due west…onto the Lambay rocks.

Veteran sea-farers amongst the passengers apparently tried to remonstrate with the Captain that his compass must be off, but he ignored their concerns, even as the atrocious weather and poor visibility made the use of a sextant to confirm their position impractical.

The all too predictable and avoidable horror of the RMS Tayleur should be a salutary lesson in multiple leadership failure. And yet so many of the same mistakes were repeated with the Titanic in the twentieth century and even in the twenty first century with the OceanGate submersible debacle in June this year.

As aspiring responsible leaders this story strikes some painfully resonant notes and raises some difficult questions:

How attuned and resilient are our own moral compasses, our ability to discern right and wrong acutely in the gathering tempest and then act accordingly? Do we trust that our own colleagues, superiors and indeed institutions are not acting as vast iron vessels, bending and disrupting our moral compass headings away from true north and leaving us all dangerously lost at sea? How confident are we that we are not simply blinded by our supposed technological prowess in the confrontation with wild nature? That our own commercially hubristic institutions are not heading towards the rocks in rough seas and poor visibility? Have we done our own due diligence in preparing our vessels for potential storms ahead? With the right skills and experience onboard? To what extent might our clients and customers also hold useful answers and perspectives? Are we listening to the voices of those we might not always easily understand, or who feel unfamiliar? Are we putting the protection and safety of the most vulnerable at the heart of what we do?

These are the real questions truly responsible leaders should I think be asking themselves in these tumultuous times. How will our character define how we respond to the challenges? What company do we need alongside us, in supporting solidarity but also constructive critique? And how will the emergent context continue to dynamically influence what we do next?

By all means trust your compass. But let’s not ignore the obvious in our peril on these turbulent seas.

Ed Gillespie is a writer, speaker, futurist and poet. In 2007/8 he circumnavigated the world without flying and wrote ‘Only Planet — a flightfree adventure around the world’. He is a serial entrepreneur and an adviser to or investor in a number of ethical businesses. Ed is also a facilitator with the Forward Institute’s responsible leadership programme, a Director of Greenpeace UK and Co-Founder of Futerra

Ed is co — presenter of two popular podcasts: ‘The Great Humbling’ with Dougald Hine, and ‘Jon Richardson and the Futurenauts’ with fellow futurist Mark Stevenson and comedian Jon Richardson.

Follow him on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.

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ed gillespie

Ed Gillespie is a writer, poet, environmentalist, serial entrepreneur and futurist. edgillespie.earth