4 Things CEOs Can Learn from Captain Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger

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“I’ve had 40 years in the air, but in the end, I’m going to be judged on 208 seconds.” Certainly every seasoned CEO can relate to that quote by Captain Sullenberger at one time or another in their career.

plane-in-distressAs Sully opens at the box office, moviegoers are learning more about the emergency landing that Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger made on the Hudson River in January 2009 after the airliner struck a flock of geese. The miraculous landing wasn’t just a first in aviation, but a spectacular feat in control, confidence and rapid-fire decision making under extreme circumstances.

Whether they’re facing a product liability, an employee scandal, or a big drop in share price, CEOs can find great leadership lessons in how Captain Sully handled the emergency.

1. Prioritize and make the best decision, quickly. Gerry McNamara—global managing director of the CIO practice at Korn Ferry International—was on the plane that day and said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that Sully acted with “absolute clarity.” McNamara said Sully “said what needed to be said and did what needed to be done,” an ability he said many executives lack. Since that day, McNamara said he has learned to identify real leadership; and while many executives know how to delegate or manage, few know how to lead.

“There are a hundred things [that] could be done, but they have difficulty sharing the five things that must be done and communicating them with clarity, so that people understand the mission and get behind [them],” said McNamara.

“The biggest misconception is that leadership and management are the same thing. They’re not. But we need both.”

2. Build experience and knowledge, then follow your core values. Sully said in a 2014 CBS interview that leadership “starts with core values and the willingness to actually live by them.” He said leaders need to check their ego at the door and be willing to do things to serve a cause beyond their own needs. Sully said those three minutes and thirty-eight seconds were a reflection on his entire career.

In an interview at the Americas’ SAP Users’ Group (ASUG) conference in Orlando, Fla., that all professionals need to engage in lifelong learning to constantly expand their skills. “I have been making small, regular deposits throughout my life of education, training and experience in this bank and on [that day] when we were suddenly confronted with this…the balance in that account was sufficient that I could make a sudden withdrawal” said Sully. “We never know when that moment is going to come.”

3. Remain calm and assess the situation. Yitzchok Saftlas, CEO of the Bottom Line Marketing Group, said in a post that Sully harnessed the emotional impact of the emergency to his advantage and did not let panic cloud his judgment or decision-making. “We have always practiced for emergencies that might arise. This one was so sudden and so extreme that I had to suppress my natural adrenaline rush, quickly channel it, and not allow it to distract me,” said

Sully said in the ASU interview that between the time the geese hit the plane and they were in the river, they had only 208 seconds to solve a problem that they “had never seen before.” He said aiming to have a deeper understanding of your profession can help one attain confidence, have clear priorities, and control their emotions, even in unfamiliar and foreign situations.

4. Take charge and trust in your team. CEOs know they’re only as good as their team, but it sometimes can be challenging to put complete faith in others in a time of crisis. Sully said that leaders can lead well by creating a culture of excellence and collaboration. While Sully was responsible for landing the plane in the Hudson, his crew was credited with helping keep passengers calm, then getting them safely on the wing after the plane had landed.

“The biggest misconception is that leadership and management are the same thing. They’re not. But we need both,” said Sully.

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