On a cold day in January 2009, US Airways flight 1549 took off from La Guardia, New York towards Charlotte with 155 crew and passengers on board. Capt. Chesley Sullenberger (aka Sully) was in command. It was yet another day at work. As a former fighter pilot, he had an impeccable record in flying. However, this flight proved to be the ultimate test of his chequered flying career.
Soon after take-off, a flock of Canada geese hit the aircraft damaging both their engines. The Air Traffic Controller at La Guardia directed the Captain to return back to base. The aircraft was steadily losing altitude; and he knew instantly that he wouldn’t make it back to the airport. He had less than 3 minutes to do something before the plane went down. Frightening visions of crashing into the busy city of New York sent a chill down his spine. A crash was not how he wanted his career to end. Setting aside his panic, Capt. Sully and co-pilot, Jeff Skiles decided to do the unthinkable- of landing in the Hudson river!
With no past precedence of a water landing, they only had their experience to lean on. In those critical minutes, they not just took a highly risky decision but also methodically broke down the problem into sub parts. Addressing each issue with utmost precision, they deftly manoeuvred the aircraft to a safe landing on the Hudson. All passengers were rescued to safety by the crew and a flotilla of boats nearby. From having faced the possibility of death just a few minutes ago, the mood of relief and joy was unmistakeable.
The media was abuzz with news of this remarkable achievement. Sully was the hero of the Hudson.
However, the worst was not over for him. National Transportation Safety Board inquisitors were hot on his heels. Sully was accused of jeopardizing the lives of his passengers by choosing to ignore the ATC orders of a return to La Guardia. This was yet another test of his resilience. Not one to give into pressure or let his image be sullied(!), he boldly challenged the accusation. Riding on a deep sense of conviction of having taken the right decision, he was able to exonerate himself from the claim.
Leaders in business setups, may not be faced with such life-threatening situations; but they can definitely take a leaf out of Sully’s achievement on leading in volatile and uncertain times.
One can only marvel at his ability to stay calm in such catastrophic circumstances. From a brief moment of panic, he had the courage and the presence of mind to take a decision in a split second and then work through the execution in a systemic manner.
In a subsequent interview he said “I was sure I could do it” His unwavering voice was an indication of how he had put his mind to it. When attention is so focused, all energies gets aligned in the resolution of the problem. From navigating a landing fraught with risks to coordinating a complete evacuation, Sully’s determination and ‘hanging in’ power is commendable. With all the media adulation for this heroic feat, his quiet acknowledgement demonstrated his humility. On more occasions than one he praised his co-pilot, the crew and the rescuers on the river for working in tandem to pull off the entire operation.
In any trying situation relying merely on technical expertise is not enough. When this is combined with strong inner leadership capacities, the outcome is nothing but extraordinary. These capacities are not inherited nor do they magically surface when required. They need to be consciously developed over a period of time. For Sully, his rigorous training in flying had prepared him adequately. What this feat proves beyond doubt is that the human mind can be proactively schooled to push boundaries, even beyond what the logical mind can comprehend. Skill development needs to be complemented with the ability to reflect deeply. The relentless quest of who we are and how can we be the best at what we do, allows us to gravitate to a space of better comfort with ourselves. The deeper we go within, the higher is the ability to access parts of ourselves that we didn’t know existed. Qualities such as those demonstrated by Sully get revealed only through a sustained self- discovery process.
What if we had more Sullys in families, organizations and in governance setups?
When children witness parents challenging themselves, they will be inspired to persist in spite of fear.
When leaders demonstrate humility and courage, organizations will have an equal focus on people, planet and profit.
When people in civic and political spaces operate from high accountability, efficiency in governance would rise several notches. People like Sully inspire each one of us to test our limits and go beyond the unthinkable. It’s not about what domain of work we choose to be in. It is about who we are becoming in the process.