Character defines the crisis response

On January 13, the Costa Concordia, a 144,000-ton, $600 million cruise ship with 4,200 passengers and crew members hit some rocks off the coast of the Italian island of Giglio and capsized.

On January 13, the Costa Concordia, a 144,000-ton, $600 million cruise ship with 4,200 passengers and crew members hit some rocks off the coast of the Italian island of Giglio and capsized.

According to press reports, Captain Francesco Schettino was at the command but very strongly under the influence of alcohol. He was also accompanied by a young woman whom he might have tried to impress by getting too close to the shore. At least 13 people have died and 25 are missing. The captain is also accused of leaving ship before the evacuation was complete. He claimed he just slipped into a lifeboat – with his second in command! I am afraid it will take investigations and some time before we know what really happened.

I have never been in a shipwreck, at least not a maritime one. I sincerely do not know how I would react in a life-threatening situation. Would I be a villain or simply a coward and follow the natural instinct of self-preservation and run for cover? Or would I be a hero and risk my life to help, or even save, others?

Character, I believe, is what determines the actions we take in critical situations.

“Character” is one of those words that has a meaning we understand but it is difficult to translate. We speak of good and bad character, but what do we really mean?

The etymology of the word comes from the Greek kharakter, which means "engraved mark” - interpreted as an "imprint on the soul."  

The Josephson Institute of Ethics defines character as “values that transcends cultural, religious, and socioeconomic differences. The institute lists six basic values: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, caring, fairness, and citizenship.

Neither “heroes” nor “villains” are made overnight. Character is something you build, or do not build, over time - and it is never too late to start.

We can all follow the command that Italian coast guard Commander Gregorio de Falco gave Captain Schettino when he said, “Get back on board, damn it!”

Even in a catastrophic communications situation, even one in which we bear some responsibility, it may be possible to “get back on board” and do the right thing.

Emmanuel Tchividjian is SVP and ethics officer at Ruder Finn.

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