What Sully Can Teach You About Leadership

It’s been almost eight years since Captain Chesley Sullenberger miraculously landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River. It began on a chilly day in January 2009 when his plane encountered a flock of geese upon departure from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Both engines lost thrust, putting 150 passengers and five crew members at serious risk. Roughly four minutes later, Sully ditched the plane on the Hudson River. Every soul aboard survived.

As one who thinks about navigating uncertainty, I was immediately struck by the decision prowess of the pilot. I wanted to find out what led Sully to flourish amidst such radical uncertainty and pressure. Sullenberger’s book, Highest Duty, and Sully, the new Clint Eastwood film about his triumph, helped me understand why he was the right person for the job.

Here are three things I learned from Sully’s story.

Use checklists as tools, not rules

Checklists are an important tool in a pilot’s arsenal. And with good reason: they help to reduce human error in aviation, just as they do in medicine. Sully himself is a checklist advocate. As he wrote in Highest Duty, his wife has to remind him: “Sully, life is not a checklist!”

Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles made careful use of checklists when things began deteriorating. But the situation was unprecedented, making strict adherence to the checklist’s script a liability. As Sully wrote, “Not every situation can be foreseen or anticipated. There isn’t a checklist for everything.”

In the movie, we see investigators interrogating Sully and his co-pilot about the steps they took. They have to explain why they did not follow the standard emergency protocol, which, while useful in the abstract, was not appropriate for the situation at hand. So while the standard protocols checklists codify are useful, they are not rules that leaders must follow at all costs. As Sully eloquently summarizes: “Compliance alone is not sufficient. Judgment…is paramount.”

US Airways Flight 1549 rests in the Hudson River. © Julian Ungano/Getty

Keep advisors on tap, not on top

Soon after both engines fail, Sully and Skiles relay their status to an air traffic controller who offers an emergency landing at LaGuardia. Sully responds that the plane may not make it and might land on the Hudson. The pilot also proposes New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport, where the controller quickly secures him a runway. Throughout this conversation, Sully notes, the controller did not try to steer him in a particular direction: his “choice of phrasing was helpful to me. Rather than telling me what airport I had to aim for, he asked me what airport I wanted. His words let me know that he understood that these hard choices were mine to make, and it wasn’t going to help if he tried to dictate a plan to me.”

Twenty-two seconds after Sullenberger proposes Teterboro, he abandons the possible destination, quickly concluding a landing on the Hudson is likely to save the most lives. Even after Sully’s decision, the controller keeps offering suggestions, unable to stomach the thought of a water landing. Ditching a plane on water is a risky maneuver, one best avoided if possible.

At this point, Sullenberger tunes him out: “I knew that he had offered me all the assistance that he could, but at that point, I had to focus on the task at hand. I wouldn’t be answering him.” Too often, we let trusted advisors take the wheel, thereby abdicating our responsibility as leaders. Sullenberger succeeds in part because he knows how to leverage his advisor without ceding control.

Question assumptions

The drama of Sully revolves around the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the incident. Initially, investigators believe that the plane’s engine could have restarted and pilot error was to blame. And computer simulations suggest that Sullenberger could have made it to LaGuardia or Teterboro instead of landing on the water. To convince the NTSB that he made the right decision, Sully arranges for human-operated simulations of these scenarios to be streamed live at the hearings. When those don’t go his way, he argues—convincingly—that neither the computer nor human simulations are using realistic assumptions.

He asks how many times the pilots in the simulator had practiced. The answer, which is met with a great gasp: “17.” Sully and Skiles hadn’t practiced once. The lead investigator then asks for new human simulations under more realistic assumptions. This time, the pilots must wait 35 seconds after the bird strikes before turning back to LaGuardia or Teterboro. Under these more realistic conditions, they crash, vindicating Sully and Skiles.

Today, we are all too ready to trust the apparent conclusions of computer simulations or controlled social-scientific experiments without questioning how valid their application is to the real world. While Sully may have exaggerated the antagonism between the investigators and the pilots, the film is a useful parable about the creeping propensity to trust models over human testimony, despite the fact that the models themselves are irreducibly human as well.

Sully is the quintessential leader. He is respectful of procedure while acknowledging its limits. He takes responsibility without being overconfident. And he tackles moments of radical uncertainty with composure and appropriate judgment. We can all learn from him.

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