Friday, January 30, 2009

Competent Courage from an American Hero

By now we are all familiar with his story. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III skillfully landed a US Airways jet in the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 people aboard the plane. A former fighter pilot for the US Air Force, "Sully" demonstrated the sort of courage under pressure, in a time of real crisis, that truly warrants the claims of "American Hero." He landed the plane, then calmly walked up and down the aisle twice to ensure all passengers were off before exiting himself.

This sort of leadership, this demonstration of courage and competence in a time of crisis, is worthy of our praise and surely the sort of thing we could use more of now -- in politics, in our businesses, schools, and communities, and on our planes! With the turmoil and chaos we see in our world today, we could sure use more leaders like "Sully."

Prepare for impact. While those were "Sully's" words as the plane headed toward the Hudson, they were also what it took for him to successfully land on the river. He had prepared his entire life for that event. He has flown for nearly 40 years and logged over 19,000 flight hours, first with the Air Force (F-4s and gliders in the 1970s, the latter certainly being fortuitous that day), then almost 30 years with US Airways. He served on a board that investigated aircraft accidents. He is President of an aircraft safety company. When he returned to his hometown, he simply stated that he was "doing the job he was trained to do." Preparation for worst-case scenarios, training, and experience all count for something and undoubtedly enabled "Sully" to do what he did. In a time of crisis, training is not what we cut to help us keep the plane flying, but what we must continue to do to keep the aircraft in the air...or to bring it safely to the ground.

Communicate transparently. Upon impact with the birds, "Sully" immediately radioed the air control tower that his plane had suffered a double bird strike, taking out both engines. With a calmness that relayed confidence, he told passengers to "brace for impact." While we have not heard the cockpit communications, I have no doubt that he maintained continuous contact with his crew, his co-pilot, other aircraft, and the control tower. Communication in a time of crisis is critical. People need to understand what we know, when we know it. They also need to believe in the competence of their leaders, that they will continue to be updated on the situation, without painting false, rosy pictures. When the plane is going down, that is not the time to tell people to enjoy the in-flight movie. Communication during crisis prevents chaos.

Hold it steady during the crash. While the headlines read -- Jet crashes in the Hudson, they should have read -- Jet lands in the Hudson. In a time of crisis, the first task is to stop the bleeding. Land the plane. Get the team under control, survive the impact, and go from there. "Sully" knew he could not make it safely to any of the local airports and felt that his best option was to do a water landing. While the risks of that maneuver surely had their own safety implications (it was near freezing in New York City, bridges crossed the river in multiple spots, etc.), "Sully" felt that it was his best option in order to bring the plane down. Getting people off the plane would be his second priority. The first one, and any leader's principal concern during a time of crisis, was to land the plane.

Nobody panics. Control the chaos. No doubt, people took comfort in the tone of "Sully's" voice and the controlled decent to the river. No sharp turns, no rough dives that might signal a lack of confidence. Then, when the plane came to a stop, "Sully" calmly walked up and down the aisle (twice!) to ensure that all passengers had exited. Trust your skills, know your equipment, operate the way you train. In a time of real crisis, leaders control the chaos.

This is a true American hero. I love "Mrs. Sully's" comments at his welcome home ceremony: "I knew when I married Sully the one thing for sure was that he was the most honorable man I knew," she beamed. "I have always known him to be an exemplary pilot, I knew what the outcome would be that day because I knew my husband. But mostly for me, he's the man that makes my cup of tea every morning." (Source: NY Daily News) Brave, calm under pressure, and a selfless servant. "Sully" teaches us all about leadership in a time of crisis. That's Leader Business.

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