Lead­er­ship lessons from Sully

Hero air­line pi­lot on men­tal dis­ci­pline, courage, com­pas­sion

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Jobs - By Leigh Buchanan Leigh Buchanan is an edi­tor-at­large for Inc. mag­a­zine.

Few peo­ple have had their met­tle tested as pub­licly and in such dire cir­cum­stances as Capt. Ch­es­ley “Sully” Sul­len­berger.

It was a decade ago that the pi­lot of US Air­ways Flight 1549 de­ployed a life’s worth of lead­er­ship lessons when he skill­fully ditched his dis­abled plane in the Hud­son River in New York. He and his crew got ev­ery­one off the plane safely.

Since then, myr­iad busi­ness lead­ers and oth­ers have sought his in­sights on the im­por­tance of mas­ter­ing one’s craft. Sul­len­berger, 68 and now re­tired as a pi­lot, spoke with Inc. about his ex­pe­ri­ence with com­mand, the im­por­tance of a good team and, of course, that day in 2009.

Q: You were a fighter pi­lot in the Air Force. What did your ex­pe­ri­ence in the mil­i­tary teach you about lead­er­ship?

A: The mil­i­tary has a cen­turies­long his­tory of a very dis­ci­plined, strong cul­ture. The tacit in­sti­tu­tional val­ues and knowl­edge can be ex­pressed in lore that even non­mil­i­tary will know: Don’t give up the ship. Not on my watch. No one left be­hind.

And ev­ery­one knows from the his­tory of their ser­vice and from pre­vi­ous con­flicts about the courage, in­tegrity, and es­prit de corps. Be­cause of those core val­ues, they know how to do dif­fi­cult things, even in sit­u­a­tions where it seems suc­cess is al­most im­pos­si­ble. They work to­gether un­der ex­treme chal­lenges to sur­vive.

Q: What did you have to change when you moved to civil­ian avi­a­tion?

A: In the mil­i­tary, there are very spe­cific ways to ac­com­plish tasks and in­ter­act with oth­ers. In the civil­ian world, there are a

mil­lion ways to get from A to B, and maybe 900,000 of them are right enough.

So in civil­ian avi­a­tion, while it was al­ways im­por­tant to ad­here to pro­ce­dural com­pli­ance, there was also a lot of room for tech­nique, for judg­ment. That was a huge cul­tural shift about get­ting the job done.

Q: Look­ing back on the day of Flight 1549 10 years ago, did you sur­prise your­self in any way?

A: The sur­prise was how in­tense it was. In com­mer­cial avi­a­tion, we work hard never to be sur­prised by any­thing. We plan ahead, an­tic­i­pate ev­ery course of ac­tion and have al­ter­na­tive cour­ses of ac­tion. But the star­tle ef­fect was huge in those first sec­onds when the birds struck us and dam­aged the en­gines . ... And

the thrust loss was sud­den. My body’s nor­mal phys­i­o­log­i­cal re­sponse to this sud­den lifethreat­en­ing stress was in­tense. My blood pres­sure shot up. My pulse spiked.

We all got tun­nel vi­sion as our per­cep­tual fields nar­rowed be­cause of the stress. But, as pro­fes­sion­als, we had learned to mas­ter the craft and to mas­ter our­selves. We had the men­tal dis­ci­pline to com­part­men­tal­ize our minds and fo­cus clearly on the tasks at hand.

Q: Some ex­perts cite hu­mil­ity as an im­por­tant com­po­nent of great lead­er­ship. Was it hard sus­tain­ing hu­mil­ity when the world kept call­ing you a hero?

A: Not at all. My nat­u­ral tem­per­a­ment is not to seek to be the cen­ter of at­ten­tion. What was

hard was bridg­ing this gap be­tween what I thought and felt and what oth­ers seemed to think and feel about this event, and by ex­ten­sion about me.

I had to make an in­tel­lec­tual com­pro­mise with my­self: to say that I will gra­ciously ac­cept the gift of their grat­i­tude but I won’t fully take it on as my own man­tle. I am not go­ing to com­pletely be­lieve that I am as heroic or great as they may as­sume.

One thing about my per­spec­tive has changed. In the early days, I would say that we were do­ing our jobs. By say­ing only that I sold all of us short. In hind­sight, we got so much so right so quickly un­der such try­ing cir­cum­stances that I think we did our jobs ex­traor­di­nar­ily well.

Q: How can you work to pro­duce a great cul­ture in a smaller team?

A: It starts with core val­ues. It starts with lead­er­ship by ex­am­ple. Try­ing to live what you be­lieve and make it ap­par­ent to those around you. Es­pe­cially on a small team, not a sin­gle word, not a sin­gle in­ter­ac­tion goes com­pletely un­no­ticed or is with­out con­se­quence.

If you walk the talk, peo­ple no­tice it. And if you don’t, they no­tice it. So I think try­ing to model the at­ti­tudes, the be­hav­ior, the val­ues that you be­lieve in, that you want to see. If you do that, it can be con­ta­gious. Courage can be con­ta­gious. Com­pas­sion can be con­ta­gious. Com­pe­tence. Con­tin­u­ous learn­ing. Con­stantly striv­ing for ex­cel­lence can be con­ta­gious. And that ben­e­fits not just you and your team but also so­ci­ety.

Q: What do peo­ple typ­i­cally miss about lead­er­ship?

A: There is a strong busi­ness case for lead­ers to have not just fi­nan­cial skills or tech­ni­cal skills but also hu­man skills. One of the most fun­da­men­tal re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of lead­er­ship is to cre­ate a cul­ture in which we all are able and will­ing to do our best work.

In any­thing but the short­est term, it is al­ways bet­ter and cheaper to get it right the first time rather than have to try to re­pair the dam­age af­ter­ward.

Q: How can you pre­pare your­self to lead?

A: There are a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties to make a dif­fer­ence in smaller or less ob­vi­ous ways. There are ways to lead even driv­ing in traf­fic — by choos­ing to let some­one in front of you rather than cut­ting them off. Some­times a small group will ex­pe­ri­ence some so­cial awk­ward­ness, and then one per­son will take the ini­tia­tive to say a word or do some­thing. And peo­ple will fol­low them. That’s all it takes.

Be­ing the one to say, “This is where we start.”


Capt. Ch­es­ley “Sully” Sul­len­berger, in the cock­pit of the US Air­ways jet that he safely landed in the Hud­son River, says lead­er­ship is about cre­at­ing a “cul­ture in which we all are able and will­ing to do our best work.”

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