Management Lessons from Captain Sully

On January, 15, 2009 U.S. Airways Flight 1549 executed an emergency landing in the Hudson River off of New York City after striking a flock of geese upon takeoff from LaGuardia Airport.  Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the undisputed hero that day, appeared on the show “Face the Nation” with Bob Schieffer on January 12, 2014 in connection with the five year anniversary of this memorable event.  Watching Captain Sully during the interview, I couldn’t help but notice the management and leadership lessons embedded in his words which I’ve collected into the five points below.

  1. Expect surprises.   Captain Sullenberger started out the interview by saying, “We never trained for this, and so we had to very quickly come up with a solution” . . . thus highlighting the fact that no matter how much you plan, prepare, train and try to anticipate, always know that at times things will likely surface that you didn’t envision.  All you can do is mentally brace yourself in advance for that possibility, so that if and when it occurs no time is lost adjusting emotionally to the situation thereby allowing you to immediately shift into the appropriate leadership mode to address it.
  2. Focus and discipline are critical.  The captain was asked how he remained so calm.  He answered, “It really wasn’t calm that day.  Instead it was disciplined, intense focus . . . having the ability to compartmentalize and do our job well in spite of the sudden life threatening stress.”  It’s the ability to separate and isolate the critical issues for the task at hand and block out all others, and the acceptance that the factors that you CAN control require ALL your attention in demanding times if you’re to positively influence the course of events.
  3. Maintain perspective and self-confidence.  Captain Sullenberger was asked, “Did you think you’d be successful?”  He answered, “I was confident that I could find a way to solve the problem.  At the very beginning I wasn’t sure exactly what steps I would take, but I had a good overall view of what needed to be done.”  This speaks to the maturity of character in difficult times where a leader knows that problem-solving is a process that has to follow a certain course.  If you get flustered and knocked off that track, you’ve lost.  You need to maintain your perspective and strive to fill in the necessary details to deal with the situation.
  4. Technology is a tool, not a crutch.  Captain Sullenberger cited challenges created by “the unintended consequences of increasing complexity and automation,” resulting in an over-reliance on technology and a dilution of “well-learned fundamental flying skills.” He emphasized that pilots need the opportunity to practice these skills and must have a “deep understanding of the technology (so) that they know what it should be doing and when it’s not and when to intervene.”  In business, this correlates to the need to understand the fundamentals of the business, the economic drivers, and the impact of the external landscape on success or failure.  Further, it speaks to the need to develop in middle management a similar understanding and intuition about the business that will guide and inform their problem-solving and decision-making skills.
  5. Use Risk Management to stack the odds in your favor.  Captain Sullenberger emphasized that “we have to look proactively at risks and mitigate them before they can lead to a bad outcome.”  This is essentially the complement to the first point above.  Even though surprises are inevitable, you still have to do all you can to avoid them and minimize their impact when they eventually surface.

One can only be in awe of Captain Sullenberger, recognizing that he exercised these skills in a compressed time frame with 155 lives hanging in the balance.  If we can learn even a fraction of the lessons he exemplified, we’ll be in a better position to manage the business crises we may face and land the ship safely.