Leadership lessons from Sully
Hero airline pilot on mental discipline, courage, compassion
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.”