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How a deep-sea dive to Titanic tested leadership skills

The following is an edited excerpt from Deep Leadership: Essential Insights from High-Risk Environments. Copyright © 2012 by Dr. Joe MacInnis. Published by Knopf Canada, an imprint of the Knopf Random Canada Publishing Group, which is a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Leadership begins in small places, close to home. But, later in life, when it matures and becomes complex, it is not for the faint of heart.

One of my most difficult challenges was as the startup leader of the $7-million IMAX Titanic expedition. It was a two-and-a-half-year marathon of uncertainty, setbacks, and obstacles.

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I began the project with the buoyant optimism you need when you kick-start a difficult task.

I'd dived to the Titanic, seen her magnificent ruins up close, and knew how breathtaking they would look in the giant-screen IMAX format. I'd worked with the Russians and their Mir research subs and was confident there was a terrific story in Anatoly Sagalevich and his team taking us two miles down to the wreck and back.

I had reliable colleagues like Emory Kristof at National Geographic, Steve Blasco at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, and Al Giddings, an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker. And I lived in Toronto close to IMAX's head office. I had a clear concept of the task, the team, and the technology – but I had no idea how hard it would be to raise the $7-million needed.

I wrote a lengthy technical proposal. It had little impact. I attended countless meetings that produced nothing but nodding silences. What follows is typical of the project's early phases.

Ten months after my odyssey began I was in the office of Fred Klinkhammer, the outspoken president of IMAX. He was telling me his company was reluctant to increase its participation in such a high-risk project. He was a big-boned, grey-haired man who made the air vibrate when he spoke.

"Russia is in chaos," he bellowed. "How can you be sure the Academy of Sciences will participate? And you don't have enough money. You're two million short."

"I've dived in one of the Russian subs to a depth deeper than Titanic. When they commit to a project, they deliver," I told him, and then, for the 15th time, I asked him if he would increase his investment.

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He told me his company was committed to other projects.

"There is enormous public interest in Titanic," I countered. "Millions of people want to see the wreck up close. Only IMAX technology can give them a life-sized view. You'll get a big return on your investment."

Klinkhammer bit down hard on every word, "You're two million short."

I left more determined than ever. I called three of my friends who worked in the financial sector and they offered to help with bridge financing.

I arranged for Sagalevich and his boss to fly to Toronto to meet Klinkhammer. I encouraged Stephen Low, an IMAX film director, to spend three days with Mir subs. Slowly, the fiscal tide began to turn. IMAX theatre managers in Toronto and Ottawa agreed to advance half a million dollars. At last, with most of the $7-million budget tentatively in place, Klinkhammer reluctantly gave us the green light.

Six months later we met Sagalevich and his big Russian ship in Bermuda. Then we steamed north to where Titanic went down. The weather stayed calm and we made the first five dives.

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But a week into the expedition I was confronted with a situation every leader dreads.

I listened to the concerns of Al Giddings, Stephen Low, and Emory Kristof.

"As we were flying over the bow, he hit the davit."

"He can't hold the sub steady. We're missing key shots."

"If he continues to pilot like this, there's going to be a serious accident."

There was a long silence and then someone said, "We need you to tell Sagalevich he has to step back as lead pilot. Genya is younger and has better reflexes. We want him driving the camera sub."

My heart sank. Sagalevich was the co-designer of the Mir and had been the lead pilot since they were launched. How do you tell an old friend his performance is compromising the mission?

I sat down with Sagalevich. I told him how much we appreciated the extraordinary effort he and his team were putting into the project. Then, as gently as possible, I outlined the problem.

He visibly stiffened and a palpable distance opened between us. No one tells a middle-aged Russian that after two hundred dives he is losing his touch with the machines he helped build. He conceded that this was his first time flying around a shipwreck laced with lethal hazards and unpredictable currents. Looking down at the floor, he agreed to my suggestion. The project came first.

We made 17 successful dives to the wreck. We carried out the first scientific study of the Titanic and the debris field around it. We created an IMAX film seen by millions. But during that half-hour conversation my friendship with Sagalevich began to unravel. Two years later, in part because of my failure to see what was happening, it was beyond repair.

When I took on the IMAX Titanic leadership challenge I was drawing on most of the sources of strength I've mentioned: I was committed to the project's teams, technologies, and outcomes; I had used the clearest, most concise writing to define what we were attempting to do and why; and I had sought out the best mentors.

However, as the setbacks and obstacles increased, it became harder to sustain my enthusiasm. I was forced to dig deep into my reservoirs of patience and persistence. My mentors made the mission possible.

I've never been the perfect leader. In spite of my best intentions I became impatient and even angry. I stamped my foot to stop an IMAX consultant coming aboard the ship and infecting the crew with her toxic personality. I grumbled loudly when Stephen Low announced he was going to build a mock-up of the interior of the Mirs, have the Russian and American sub teams act out imaginary confrontations and not let the audience in on the secret. And I failed to come up with the graceful words that might have explained the situation to Sagalevich without alienating him.

But in those two-and-a-half years I learned more than I could have hoped for from my mentors, shipmates, and the ocean. The experience helped me to understand how important it is to take responsibility for your own mistakes and never repeat them.

Leadership opportunities will present themselves to you in small places close to home or in big places far from home. Accept them with gusto. Help a group that is worthy and in need and you take another step toward wisdom.

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