10 Years After the ‘Miracle on the Hudson,’ Sully Sullenberger Talks Incredible Mental Discipline and How to Handle Pressure
The pilot who helped save US Airways Flight 1549 a decade ago explains what great leaders do both in crisis and in peacetime.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Few people have had their mettle tested so publicly, or in such dire circumstances, as Captain "Sully" Sullenberger. It was just over a decade ago that the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 deployed a life's worth of leadership lessons to safely land his disabled plane in the Hudson River, a feat he routinely credits to team--rather than individual--performance.
Since then, myriad business leaders and others have sought his insights on the importance of mastering one's craft, maintaining constant vigilance, continuously learning, and always being willing to listen. Sullenberger spoke with Inc. about his experience with command, his distress over the country's political leadership, and, of course, that momentous day in 2009.
Inc.: Whom did you admire when you were growing up? What did they teach you?Sullenberger: My father was a naval officer in World War II. He taught me from a very early age about the responsibilities of a leader: that a commander is ultimately responsible for every aspect of the welfare of those in his or her care. And woe be to any leader who through some lack of foresight or error in judgment causes someone to be hurt.
One of my mentors was my first flight instructor, L.T. Cook Jr. He was a crop duster: a man of few words but of high standards. What he taught me laid the foundation for my flying career. Fly the airplane. Know it intimately. Develop the skills, the knowledge, the judgment, and the experience to be able to handle something you never anticipated, at a moment's notice. And that, of course, is exactly what we had to do many years later.
Inc.: You were a fighter pilot in the Air Force. What did your experience in the military teach you about leadership?
Sullenberger: The military has a centuries' long 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.
Inc.: What did you have to change when you moved to civilian aviation?
Sullenberger: 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.
Inc.: Looking back on the day of Flight 1549 10 years ago, did you surprise yourself in any way?
Sullenberger: 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--it turned out irreparably. And the thrust loss was sudden. My body's normal physiological response to this sudden life-threatening 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.
Inc.: How do you think about risk?
Sullenberger: I have made quite a study of risk. And I have a deep understanding that outcomes are almost never the result of a single failure or error. They are the end result of a causal chain of events. And so I began early in my career to sensitize myself to latent conditions and systemic risks. I read about historic accidents and the chain of events that led up to them. So I could see when things began to change and the conditions were not as ideal as they had been. And I would say that is one more little link in the chain. If I don't mitigate it, if I don't take action to prevent it from causing harm, then it might. So I am a mindful practitioner.
Inc.: Some experts cite humility as an important component of great leadership. Was it hard sustaining humility when the world kept calling you a hero?
Sullenberger: 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 mantel. 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.
Inc.: How do you produce a great culture in a smaller team--like one operating an airplane or perhaps building a startup?
Sullenberger: 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.
Inc.: Have cultural problems contributed to problems in the airline industry?
Sullenberger: We have been struggling with that since the Wright Brothers. In the bad old days it wasn't well recognized that leadership was important, that building a team was important. And of course the accident rate reflected that. In the late '80s I helped to develop the very first leadership team-building course at my airline. We observed how the best captains built and led their crews: how they communicated, handled distraction, managed their workloads, and tracked errors. How they took a team of experts and created an expert team. We flattened the hierarchy so it could be psychologically safe for a junior flight attendant to approach a senior captain about a safety issue. And we helped create among team members a shared sense of responsibility for the outcome. Each of the major airlines has done this over the last 20 or 30 years, which is one of the main reasons aviation has become so safe.
Inc.: What do people typically miss about leadership?
Sullenberger: 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.
We need to do a better job teaching leadership according to core values. Team building: how you connect with groups. How you motivate them, not just with money but also with job satisfaction. How to share success. If we can remind people not just what to do and how to do it but also why we do it and for whom, there will be a strong positive influence on the bottom line.
Inc.: How can you prepare yourself to lead?
Sullenberger: 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."