Who among us didn’t look at those people standing on the wings of a U.S. Airways jet, ankle-deep in the frigid waters of the Hudson River, and think, “AAAaaaaarrrrggghhhh!!”
My feet are numb just looking at the photograph. Those of us for whom flying is an occupational hazard stared at the picture wondering how they managed to stand upright wearing business attire, sans coats, with the river current flowing over the wing — and we made mental notes to learn how to do that since, next time, it could be any one of us! If you’ve ever watched the water below as you’ve flown out from LaGuardia, or over Boston Harbor or San Francisco Bay, or down the Potomac River for a landing, you will now pay a lot more attention to the instructions about inflatable life vests.
For me and other leaders of human communities, there’s an even more important lesson in this remarkable story — an entire leadership course packed into the ten minutes’ worth of smart decisions and skilful actions of the pilot, Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III.
“Sully,” as he is known, was just about one minute into liftoff when the plane’s engines flamed out, perhaps because the plane ran into a flock of geese (the investigation will take several weeks before confirming the cause).
Sully made expert decisions during the next several minutes that made it possible for every single person on that plane to live to tell the tale. He did not panic, nor did he form a committee, consult a focus group, check the polls or call the passengers to see what he could get in return for making a decision in their favor.
Rather, he did something that every leader is supposed to do, but many often fail at this basic leadership skill — he made decisions based on what he believed to be the best course of action. He chose to land the plane on the river.
The pilot is responsible for the safety and welfare of all souls on board the plane. Deliberately choosing to land the plane on the Hudson River was a bold, gutsy, extraordinarily risky decision for Captain Sullenberger. But his understanding of the risk of the river landing was obviously mitigated by several factors: the sure knowledge that the disabled plane would crash somewhere; the potential loss of life for all on board as well as possible ground casualties if the plane crashed on the ground in the city or suburbs; and his long flying experience and meticulous attention to training details about how to land a plane on a body of water, maximizing the manipulation of flaps and vents and air pressure and myriad details to keep the plane intact and floating long enough for help to arrive.
Imagine making all of those decisions in two or three minutes! He also knew the consequences for being wrong. Faced with terrible choices among potential tragic scenarios, he did what he thought was right. He prevailed.
Sully’s bold, decisive leadership is a sharp contrast to the waffling, temporizing, self-interested hand-wringing of too many leaders on the scene today. The parade of greedy politicians, self-dealing corporate executives, shady financiers, self-righteous pundits and vapid celebrities who parade about in various guises of importance give the whole concept of leadership a very bad name.
Captain Sullenberger asserted leadership in exactly the right way. He made bold decisions informed by excellent training and long practice. His exemplary leadership made it possible for every single passenger to get out alive.