Ideas to Read and Pass Along

Kevin & Jackie Freiberg

The Leadership Crucible

Leadership Lessons from U.S. Airways Flight 1549

flight 1549Like many, the triumphant story of Captain C.B. ”Sully” Sullenberger and the crew of US Airways flight 1549 riveted us. As the story turned from imminent tragedy to triumph, you could almost hear the shouts of elation echo around the world. In the midst of dire circumstances, hundreds of lives were saved when ordinary people rose to the occasion and accomplished the extraordinary. On that day, heroes emerged! For MANY reasons, this is a riveting and compelling account. But in the midst of all the conversation, what can we learn from these heroes that can help us face and transcend our own critical situations in business and in life? Sullenberger and his crew are living proof of the invaluable power of leadership. Let’s unpack how life-long learning, radical collaboration, and maniacal focus serve as critical leadership skills for overcoming adversity.

Life-Long Learning and Preparation:

How did Sullenberger prepare for the disaster? Rigorous training? Absolutely! But even more important, he dedicated his career to continuous learning and improvement. At one point in an interview with Katie Couric, Sullenberger said he knew he could get the plane down safely. When asked why, he replied, “I think, in many ways, as it turned out, my entire life had been preparation to handle that particular moment.” Sully is a former Air Force fighter pilot. In addition, he has spent nearly 30 years flying commercial aircraft, specializes in accident investigations, and instructs flight crews on how to respond to emergencies in the air. Sully prepared well!

How often do you feel bogged down by the challenges of work or life? Upon reflection, what have you learned that might add value for the future? Is “mandatory” training just another interruption? Do you engage in assignments and roles to learn and grow as much as you can? Are you adding tools, ideas, and lessons to your toolbox (your skill set) every day? Or are you mindlessly going through the motions?

What conscious choices are you making TODAY to add more skills and fully engage in preparation that will equip you for more difficult situations in the future? What are you doing today that will add to your core capabilities tomorrow? What are you doing today to expand your capacity to change? What are you doing today to strengthen your resilience?

Your future success depends largely on how you choose to face life’s challenges. Do you aggressively face challenges head on or do you let apathy and fear immobilize you? Are you using the current economic crisis as a wake-up call to learn, prepare, change, and improve? Or has fear seduced you into choosing denial as your primary strategy? Pushing through fear and dealing with difficulties are critical to maturing as a leader. To succeed in a crisis, we can’t avoid obstacles and fears. Are you accountable to training—are you willing to learn? Are you teachable? Are you conscious of how every experience adds to your skill set? Captain Sullenberger showed us; your life may one day depend on it—literally.

SUCCESS = Radical Collaboration + Accountability:

From Sully to the co-pilot, flight attendants, passengers, and emergency responders—EVERYONE’s contribution was vital to the overall success of the emergency landing and rescue.

As we have witnessed in the financial markets, panic is contagious. It can spread like wild fire. And the “domino effect” can be devastating. The flight attendants had to trust the pilots, be accountable to training and preparation, and exercise self-control while instructing and calming the panicked passengers. Their actions and demeanor played an enormous role in protecting people and supporting the pilots. Had they not kept their wits, the outcome might have been very different.

Sullenberger said when he made the announcement to brace for impact, he immediately heard the flight attendants shouting in unison, “Brace, Brace, Heads Down, Stay Down”—and he felt very comforted by that; he could count on them. He knew that if he could land the airplane, the flight attendants were competent and prepared to evacuate everyone safely.

Are you the kind of team player that can be counted on—especially in a crisis? Do you keep your cool or do you let emotions control your behavior? Do you understand the importance and significance of your role in executing the plan, in contributing to the success of the business? Or do you think it’s all up to the CEO, the team leaders, the owner—the pilot? Wake up! No one is going to ride in on a white horse and rescue you or the business. It’s up to you; it’s up to everyone. Success happens when everyone trains hard AND plays hard. Leadership is not a title or a position—it is a choice to do whatever needs to be done no matter how you feel—especially in tough situations.

Focus on What You Can Control:

Although Sully’s initial reaction was one of disbelief, “I can’t believe this is happening. This doesn’t happen to me,” he knew he didn’t have the time to ruminate. He needed to focus on what was in HIS control.

He said, “I knew I had to solve this problem. I knew I had to find a way out of this box I found myself in.”

Asked if he at any point prayed, he told Katie Couric, “I would imagine somebody in the back was taking care of that for me while I was flying the airplane.”

“My focus at that point was highly concentrated on the landing,” he said, “I thought of nothing else.”

Sully used what little time he had WISELY—focusing on the best place to land with the least amount of damage.

Clarity, objective, and focus are crucial to overcoming difficulties. How much of your time is wasted on complaining and wishing business or the economy were better? What would happen if you pulled the plug on negativity and stopped participating in the doom and gloom dialogue? What would happen if you created momentum by focusing forward on where you want to go and the fastest way to make it happen? Where is your focus when you’re under stress? Are you wasting precious time complaining and fretting or are you focused on what is in your control—on what will help you move closer to accomplishing what “seems” impossible? The U.S. Marines have a great motto they train, work, and live by;

The difficult we do immediately! The impossible just takes us a little longer.

Imagine your list of accomplishments if you and your team learned to live by such a motto?

Level-headedness: CHOOSE and Execute

Sully described having an intense inner turmoil, “It was the worst, sickening sensation in my stomach I’ve ever felt in my life. I knew immediately it was very bad.” Yet he had to keep his cool. “The physiological reaction I had to this was strong, and I had to force myself to use my training and force calm on the situation,” he said.

Panic and fear are natural and are automatically triggered reactions to any threat. The good news is that these emotions keep us from petting poisonous snakes and doing 90 mph on a 35 mph on-ramp. The bad news is that these knee-jerk reactions can be debilitating unless we challenge and ultimately interrupt them. That’s what Sully did. He refused to be held hostage by fear and let it paralyze him. Instead, he interrupted his automatic reaction and CHOSE to focus on everything he knew about “feathering” the plane on to the water for a perfect landing.

Sully said when they landed and came to a stop, he and co-pilot Jeff Skiles looked at each other and said, “Well, that wasn’t as bad as I thought. And then we quickly began doing our duties. Jeff was running the evacuation checklist while I opened the door and commanded, evacuate!”

When asked if he gave himself even a few seconds to acknowledge that they had averted disaster, Sully replied, “No, because I hadn’t yet! I still had business to attend to. I had a job to do.”

The crew quickly cleared out all the passengers before Captain Sullenberger himself walked up and down the cabin twice to make sure everyone was out. Then he took a final look at his sinking plane, grabbed the maintenance logbook, and jumped into the last life raft now filled with passengers.

“Also at that point, I was telling those on the boats to rescue the people on the wings first because we (in the rafts) were relatively safe,” Sullenberger recalled. Great leaders choose service over self-interest. They consider the well being of others before thinking of themselves. This is why people become committed to, passionate, and extremely confident about the direction they set.

Captain Sullenberger says even though he believed that everyone who had been on board was safe, he still wanted confirmation. “After bugging people for hours, I finally got the word that it was official; the count was 155,” he recalled.

All had survived.

Asked what he said when he heard the good news, Sullenberger said, “I don’t remember saying anything. But I remember feeling the most intense feeling of relief that I ever felt in my life. I felt like the weight of the universe had been lifted off my heart.”

What makes Captain Sullenberger extraordinary? We’d say a passion for lifelong learning and skill development, an acute sense of accountability, and maniacal focus. Add to that a crew who stayed the course and masterfully executed their roles. It’s the complete package that makes this story so extraordinary. Their example shows us the heights to which we were created to live—at work and in life. Is there anything facing you today that you feel you cannot get through? Clear your head and reflect upon your experience, your contacts, your training; what can you do? Start moving forward; focus on what you CAN do (not what you can’t do).

What if we lived and worked like every day counted—like every day adds value and better prepares us for what is to come? What if we chose to appreciate and serve others more than ourselves? What if we chose clarity, calm, and engagement at work? What brave choices will you make today to stretch, grow, and build skills to better equip you for tomorrow?

A Last Word on Leadership

Having an enormous victory over insurmountable circumstances may lead a person to arrogance—especially when it means bringing 155 passengers to safety. But Sully remains humble, a gold standard of leadership. Not once did he allow himself to be singled out from his crew when heroic praise was poured upon him. He didn’t think himself a hero, just a guy doing what needed to be done! He continually praised the efforts of his crew, the air traffic controllers, and the first-responders. Great leaders know they never win alone—they understand that mission accomplished is always a TEAM effort.

Do you believe we need each other to succeed? What if we believed this enough to trade silos, turf protection, and politics for radical collaboration? Imagine if we all had respect and appreciation for everyone—and truly capitalized on the diversity of gifts and talents each member brings to the game? What if we looked for opportunities to point out people’s strengths and accomplishments? Imagine if we realized we weren’t the center of our universe—that we all need to do our part and do it with skill, confidence, and focus. What kind of success could we accomplish TOGETHER in this difficult economic crisis? Let’s do as the crew of flight 1549 has done; let’s train hard and play hard. It’s the right thing to do!