A crisis situation occurred after the engine fire on the Carnival Triumph cruise ship in the Gulf of Mexico and conditions quickly became deplorable. Passengers suffered through a lack of air conditioning, lighting, and few working toilets. For five days, the ship limped to Mobile, Alabama under the pull of tugboats.

When the ship arrived in Mobile, hundreds were waiting and the over 4,000 passengers and crew were ecstatic to be back on land. Buses quickly took them to hotels in New Orleans or back to their vehicles in Galveston, Texas.

I was impressed, however, with the conduct of Carnival’s CEO, Gerry Cahill. He had been in Crisis situationMobile awaiting the ship’s arrival, along with over 200 of Carnival’s staff from their headquarters in Miami. After the ship docked, Mr. Cahill made a statement to the media, apologizing for the incident and the effect it had on passengers who were expecting a fun cruise. “Clearly we failed,” he told reporters and those watching the event unfold on television. In closing his statement, he said that he was going onboard to apologize to each passenger individually as they stepped off the ship. http://www.bizjournals.com/southflorida/blog/morning-edition/2013/02/thank-god-its-over—carnival.html.

Carnival Cruise Lines and Gerry Cahill performed well under the circumstances. Almost every passenger expressed admiration for the crew that did everything possible to take care of them over the five days as they were being towed to Mobile. Mr. Cahill was not only humbled and apologetic by the incident, he was present at the scene and directed the efforts to get the passengers off the ship and home as quickly as possible.

In addition, Carnival compensated passengers by refunding their cruise fare and onboard expenses, reimbursing passenger travel costs, and giving each passenger $500. Each passenger will also get a free cruise in the future, compliments of Carnival. The compensation will not make up for the discomfort of the passengers over their 5-day ordeal, but on the surface it appears fair.

Gerry Cahill is to be commended for his leadership in this crisis situation. He was present and in charge. He set the example for the other employees. He clearly took responsibility for the ship’s difficulties, and he humbly apologized to as many passengers as possible on their arrival in Mobile.

Crisis Situation: Leadership Lessons

This type of crisis is a test of leadership. Many leaders fail the test by pointing blame and worrying more about the financial outcome rather than the impact on customers. Taking charge and taking responsibility are hallmarks of excellent leadership. As leaders, we hope a crisis does not occur under our watch; however if it does, it is important to remember that we are ultimately responsible and we need to be caring and compassionate leaders first.

Carnival Cruise Lines will also need to reestablish credibility with their customers. This incident has eroded their customer’s (and future customer’s) trust in the safety of their ships. Carnival will need to take the appropriate actions to fix their mechanical weaknesses and communicate these changes to the public in order to regain the confidence of their customers and shareholders.

Being a caring and compassionate leader is certainly a first step, and Gerry Cahill displayed these important characteristics; Now the difficult work remains to lead the effort in solving the underlying quality problems and then to restore confidence in their operations.  This will take some time. We will continue to watch CCL’s efforts in this area.

Ben McDonald

Ben is a leadership and talent development thought leader. He has worked with executive teams in over 20 countries and multiple industries growing and inspiring talent and organizations to achieve their best.

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