Lessons from the Costa Concordia: A Case For Company Values


The events before, during and after the January 13 tragedy aboard the Costa Concordia point to a true failure of leadership at every level, from the captain who ran the luxury liner aground during a drive by “salute” off the island of Isola del Giglio to the chief executive Pier Luigi Foschi who denies any responsibility. Two days ago Foschi told a newspaper they were unaware of this practice.

Why didn’t they know?

What was operating in the culture of the company that would give rise to these dangerous practices and where senior leaders were disconnected? Curious what company values were driving these behaviors, I searched the Costa Cruises website.

The week of the accident, these values were listed on their website:

  • Passion for our Guests (a spontaneous sense of service attitude)
  • Costa Human Resources  (competence, diligence, loyalty, morality, friendliness and enthusiasm)
  • Team work
  • Innovation and creativity
  • Financial performance
  • Ethics

Where is safety? Even reading the definitions carefully, safety is not mentioned. On the other hand, if these values were being lived consistently, it is possible safety might be assumed.

Fun Before Safety?

Is it possible that the real values driving behavior are a misinterpretation of what customer service means? Pleasing the customer and providing fun experiences are not customer service if you are putting the customer in jeopardy.

A quick visit to the Carnival website (owners of Costa Cruises) gives a strong message that it’s “fun for all and all for fun.”  If you search hard enough, you can find a safety policy, but it is not easy to find.

A Case For Infusing Values

I decided to check out another cruise line also known for being fun. On the Disney website safety jumps out – it is listed in the sidebar menu.

Of course ultimately, the issue isn’t what is displayed on their website, but what is lived. However, we can make a good guess at the culture by how they portray themselves.

Values Make Cents

It appears the Costa owners think they will save money by not taking responsibility for the culture that gave rise to these dangerous practices. They are making a big mistake. In the long run, having clear company values and using them for critical decisions makes sense financially, as Johnson & Johnson proved 30 years ago during the famous Tylenol tampering incident.

When values are not infused throughout a company, people are left to use their own judgment. It’s the reason I fired my lawn service last spring. And in the case of the Costa Concordia, not ensuring that company values guide decision-making has been more than costly, it’s deadly.



31 comments to Lessons from the Costa Concordia: A Case For Company Values

  • “a true failure of leadership at every level”, indeed. They could have come out to deal with the accident in a way that could have left us with some form of confidence as to what they stood for. To me this has left me with the impression that the organisation is run through fear (too much stick). I suppose when you are in that frame of mind, accepting responsibility is seen as meaning you will get the chop, hence the instinct of blaming someone else when there is a problem, rather than looking to see what the opportunity is to do good or make a difference.

    • Indeed. Right now we can only guess at the culture that gives rise to these behaviors, but it is clear that it is not healthy and that real leadership is solely lacking. The CEO is modeling the same behavior that the captain exhibited. Hopefully others can learn from this, even though it appears the folks at Costa Concordia have not.

  • Very poignant article, without clear inculcated values and vision an organisation so easily flips between whatever the latest fad or activity to make a quick profit.

    I often come across people talking about and websites in particular stating an organisations Vision & Values and then goes on to talk about the Mission (or Purpose) if you prefer and nothing about vision or values.

    Values are very much the poor second cousin in most organisation.

  • Jan Ericsson

    Very good observation! If I recall right we are the same observation after the Estonia disaster mor e than 10 years ago.

  • Hi Jesse ~ we are in tune with each other again! I like how you have explored the stated values of the Cruise Line and found them wanting. It’s hard to imagine that such a company would fail to include ‘safety’ in their values proclamation. As we have sadly seen, when there is no safety, there can be no fun either :)

  • I meet so many in business and life in general that think values are an afterthought. They don’t realize that practising one’s values can bring great success. Your article is a perfect portayal of this, and it is so sad that people had to die in order for that company to take notice. Last week I implemented a new meeting at a commpany I was consulting with and I started out the meeting by talking about the values that this particular committee should follow. We talked about them, got feedback and support and the meeting was a huge success and really the best meeting I have seen at this company.

    Thanks for all you do Jesse and thank you for writing about this.

    Todd Nielsen

    • Hi Todd, It’s my experience also that although people often treat values like an afterthought, once they really dig in and work on them, they become quite passionate about them. So glad to hear about your successful meeting. Keep up the good work you are doing.

  • Great post, Jesse!

    Too often, the importance of establishing company values is overlooked or minimized at best, yet as you point out in your post above, when people do not know that the organization stands for, they default to their individual judgment. In the case of the cruise ship, that proved deadly.

    Defining values that shape the company culture also provide a firm foundation from which leaders can draw strength. When the organizational policies and individual behaviors of leaders truly reflect the values and culture of the company, decisions no longer become about the individual(s), but about the organizational culture itself.

    • Hi Sharon,
      Excellent point that when the culture and policies are aligned around shared values, decision making shifts from an individual focus to an organizational focus. Thanks so much for further illuminating these important issues. Always great to see you here!

  • Once again Jesse you are spot on. Part of a values culture involves learning from mistakes but it is obvious here that ducking responsibility is the norm. When mistakes are considered learning opportunities, as opposed to “gotchas”, the continuous improvement is the norm.

    • Hi Russ, I appreciate your emphasizing how important it is to embed learning in the culture. The owners and leaders at Carnival have an opportunity to learn now, but I agree it will be difficult unless they make the shift you are talking about. Their best way forward is to take a serious look at their values and align policies, practices and training with them.

  • Connie McKnight

    Fabulous analogy Jesse Lyn. Values are something that are taught and it’s pretty obvious this is a lesson that was missed.

    It all begins at the top and if ethics and integrity aren’t values that are important, the personnel hired will not necessarily have these values.

    I really enjoyed the post.


    • Hi Connie, I can’t agree more. The leaders are certainly poor role models as they try to sidestep responsibility for what occurred under their watch.

      On Friday, CEO Pier Luigi Foschi made this ludicrious statement to a newspaper,

      “I can’t rule out that individual captains, without informing us, may have set a course closer to land. However I can rule out ever having known that they may have done it unsafely.”

      I had to read the statement twice because it made no sense.
      – I didn’t know they were doing it.
      – I also didn’t know they were doing it unsafely.

  • Al Watts

    ‘Great post, Jesse; well done. The Costa Concordia gives credence to thee metaphor that I use in my book “Navigating Integrity …:” If we want to judge the likelihood of a vessel reaching its destination, we need to evaluate a ship’s seaworthiness as well as the competence of its captain and crew; the same holds true for organizational sustainability. Owning one’s values makes decision-making easier, and is a hallmark of integrity.

    • Hi Al, It’s interesting how very close to home the Costa Concordia comes to the metaphors you use in your book. But so sad that it’s such a negative example. Thanks for sharing your thinking. It’s nice to see you here again.

  • Hi Jesse -I’ve been ruminating on your points since I read your post. I wonder now if there will be a switch within this business sector and safety will now become a more visible priority – up there with fun! Will we see a “sea” change (sorry couldn’t help myself!)in marketing policies and internal values?

    • Hi Dorothy
      I think it would be unfortunate if everyone jumped on the safety bandwagon because without understanding that the real issue is the importance of installing guiding values, including integrity, from the top all the way throughout the organization. Hope they sea that. :-)

  • I’ve spent part of my professional life dealing with safety and risk and I’ve learned not to pre-judge too much ahead of a full investigation. But I suspect much of the cruise industry would prefer us not to dwell on safety – it lacks glamour and can frighten! Having said that travelling on cruise ships is usually one of our safest occupations. That is because most of said industry has learned to be quietly obsessed with safety but discrete about it. And, we, poor souls, tend to have absolute faith in our leader the captain of the ship. But I do wonder about leadership in other industries and whether stuffy old safety might be loosing out in the battle to attract new customers? I’m sure a captain’s social skills have been a priority for a few years. What we do know now is that leadership and SAFETY are going to have to be right up the cruise industry values in future after this incident!

    • Hi Wendy
      Good points! On the other hand, safety could be implied if they were actually living their espoused values. It is too bad that their actions affect how people’s confidence in the entire industry. Thanks for your comments!

  • Jesse,

    Regarding company values, I was really glad that you mentioned this:

    “Of course ultimately, the issue isn’t what is displayed on their website, but what is lived.”

    The following quote which I heard in a movie years ago comes to mind when I think about this issue:

    “You are what you do. Everything else is just talk.”

    Also, I love that you mentioned the Johnson & Johnson Tylenol incident regarding taking responsibility.

    It seems like a simple way to deal with problems like this would be to:

    1. Say you messed up
    2. Say you’re going to fix the problem
    3. Fix the problem

  • Fay Kandarian

    Appreciate your applications to current events! Thank you for sharing.

  • Simon Harvey


    Great post and I believe you are spot on as to the importance of company values. The problems I see is that you can have all the values you want, but unless you share (communicate) your metal models, values are doomed to failure. I wonder how many crew, or officers had ever read the values of Costa, and if they did, how many understand what they meant. I found this under ethics on their site:

    We conduct our business with integrity, honesty and transparency, with full respect for safety”

    With Costa quoting that 70% of its employees come from about 80 different countries you can start to see where the human factor and culture becomes a massive factor. Even listening to the the conversation between the two captain’s, Concordia’s and the Italian coast guard, you can hear confusion in what the two are saying and hearing (little feedback), and they are both speaking their native language.

    Within many top companies you will find values and visions, some that may in fact spur customers to use a product, or employees to work hard, but unless they are constantly shared and practiced they are not worth the paper they are printed on. This is not easy as anyone at the receiving end of service, often finds out.

    Safety at sea and in the air should be huge, as accidents at sea or in the air affect and effect so many systems. There are many many rules and regulations set out in codes and regulations already, but just as values, they become worthless if not followed. In the end it’s how you apply knowledge that leads to effectiveness.

    The codes ships come under vary a bit by registration state, but most of the bigger, more reputable ship companies come under the International Safety Management (ISM) Codes, with objectives put forth as follows, by International Maritime Organization (IMO):

     “To ensure safety at sea, prevention of human injury or loss of life, and avoidance of damage to the environment, in particular to the marine environment and to property.”

    So whether the company had well stated safety values or not, the ethics:

    “with full respect for safety”

    Seems to cover keeping to the ISM and IMO codes, the problem again is in the system and its lack of feedback and sharing mental models, yes values are important but as you say, “what is lived” is what counts.

    Without going on more than I have already, I leave this link to a blog post I wrote on sharing mental models and safety culture here.

    I do think you are right on point as to companies and values, and values that should guide decision-making, I just hope we can all, as you do so well, start to share our mental models more often.

    Thanks for the inspiring post,

  • Hi Simon, Thanks for your well-thought out and comprehensive comments. This is certainly a subject deep within your realm of expertise and there is much that can be said. I appreciate your deepening the points as well as the links you provided to your excellent blog.

    I thought your comments on your most recent post were especially pertinent: Without vision and or development within, employees/crew will create their own systems and feedback loops in order to function. While these random and personalized systems may seem to work to begin with (while there are no incidents), what happens over time is similar to driving wedges under a stable platform, it causes an imbalance. Poor interpersonal interaction weakens links in communication, and these systems start to breakdown, turning what first appeared to be your crème de la crème crew, into a ball and chain one.

    Thanks again for taking the time to further illuminate these important points, Simon.

  • […] From Jesse Lyn Stoner: Lessons from the Costa Concordia: A Case for Company Values “The events before, during and after the January 13 tragedy aboard the Costa Concordia point to a true failure of leadership at every level, from the captain who ran the luxury liner aground during a drive by “salute” off the island of Isola del Giglio to the chief executive Pier Luigi Foschi who denies any responsibility. Two days ago Foschi told a newspaper they were unaware of this practice.” […]

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