What Sully Sullenberger Can Teach CEOs

Leadership means more than greed and ego

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The story of US Airways Flight 1549 – the “Miracle on the Hudson” – keeps getting better. And it’s a story we really need right now.

Elsewhere, of course, the news is revolting. Wall Street moneygrubbers just rewarded themselves with $18 billion in bonuses for nearly wrecking the nation’s financial system. Many of the banks they run – which are supposed to be the lifeblood of the economy – are in a state of ruin. The politicians who claim they can fix the mess keep stumbling over their own greed and egomania.

Sully Sullenberger is an antidote to all that. In his recent 60 Minutes interview with Katie Couric, Sullenberger was as commanding and sublime as Hollywood could have cast him. The 58-year-old pilot explained how, in about three minutes’ time, he made a series of momentous decisions that helped avert catastrophe and save 155 lives. If he’s not too busy writing his autobiography or becoming a media star, Sullenberger could hold leadership seminars on Wall Street and in Washington. Here’s what he can teach the rest of us:

How to prepare for a problem. The press, in its simplistic way, has dubbed Sullenberger a hero for his cool decision-making in an awful situation. But it was decades of experience and training and meticulous hard work - not swashbuckling heroism - that allowed him to land Flight 1549 on the Hudson without tearing the plane to shreds. “I had to force myself to use my training and enforce calm on the situation,” Sullenberger told Couric. “My entire life up to that moment had been in preparation to handle that particular moment.”

[See how Sullenberger really saved Flight 1549.]

We love to imagine that certain chosen people have superpowers that allow them to accomplish things other mortals cannot. In Sullenberger’s case, those superpowers came from years of diligent professionalism and simulator training on how to handle things that could go wrong. That kind of training is required in aviation, because the consequences of an emergency are a matter of life and death. It would be nice if bankers and mortgage brokers and government regulators had to interrupt their self-certainty every now and then, and drill for scenarios when things don’t turn out the way they expect.

[See how Wall Street continues to doom itself.]

How to focus. Couric asked Sullenberger if he said a prayer in the cockpit, while trying to bring Flight 1549 down safely. Basically, he said no. Thank God! Nothing against the Almighty, but if I had been on that plane, I’d want the pilot to be flying it, not praying over it.

Couric’s question might have seemed reasonable out in TVland, but once again, it makes high-level professionalism sound like the equivalent of divine intervention. It isn’t. Sullenberger was commanding a jet that had no thrust and was rapidly sinking back to earth. First he had to find a place to land, then he had to make sure the landing didn’t rip the jet apart. It was a demanding challenge that required fast, methodical problem-solving. “My focus was so intently on the landing, I thought of nothing else,” Sullenberger said. That’s what we ought to expect of a pilot in such a situation. And that’s what we got. For once, the system worked.

How to follow through. Once the plane had splashed down safely, Sullenberger got up and announced what a great job he had just done. Er, whoops, I mean, that’s what many of us would have done. Sullenberger, instead, went back into the cabin to make sure everybody got out of the sinking plane safely. When he climbed out himself, into a raft, he directed boats that were pulling up to first rescue people on the wings, since they were in a more precarious situation that those in life rafts.

Then, once everybody had been safely pulled from the river, Sullenberger insisted on a full, military-style accounting of everybody on board, to assure that all 155 passengers and crew had made it. “After bugging people for hours, I finally got the word that it was official,” he said. “That the count was 155.” Once he knew that, he was gripped by “the most intense feeling of relief I’ve ever felt in my life.” Wow. Isn’t that surprising: A professional who takes personal responsibility for those under his charge.

[Read about one CEO who gets it.]

What confidence really is. Sullenberger reminds us that confidence and swagger are two totally different things. In sports, in Hollywood, in politics and in business there are endless numbers of people who insist they’re the best or the richest or the most deserving. That’s ego. Vanity. Arrogance. Megalomania.

But it isn’t confidence. Here’s confidence: After explaining the complex matrix of problems he had to overcome in order to land Flight 1549 safely, Sullenberger said, “I was sure I could do it.” Why was he sure? Because years of experience had given him the skills to pull it off. And he knew it. Fortune smiles on those who practice. Let’s hope it rubs off.

US Airways
  • Rick Newman

    Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success and the co-author of two other books. Follow him on Twitter or e-mail him at rnewman@usnews.com.

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