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4 Crucial Leadership Lessons from "Sully" Sullenberger


4 Crucial Leadership Lessons from "Sully" Sullenberger

Written by Sarah Vanek.


Sometimes the biggest displays of leadership occur within a split second.  The decision to run into live fire to save a fellow soldier.  The choice to jump in-between a child and her drunken father.  Or, the conscious decision to respond in love when the individual on the receiving end really deserves the product of revenge.

For Captain Chesley Sullenberger, it was the call to land a plane in the middle of the Hudson River on January 15, 2009.  As the leader of US Airways flight 1549, Chesley was responsible for the 155 lives in his hands.  The moment the engines stopped, he had a decision to make. With no time to spare, he had to figure out where he was going to land that plane.

There were 208 seconds between the time the plane’s engines were ruined by a flock of geese, and the moment the plane glided to a historic stop on the Hudson—that’s less than three-and-a-half minutes.  Yet, it was during those short moments, and the ones that came after, that we find four crucial leadership lessons to hang on to.

        1.  Stay calm in chaos.

In the theatrical rendition of what many have labeled a miraculous landing, one of the outstanding characteristics portrayed in Captain Sully was his ability to stay calm in the midst of chaos and massive responsibility.  

When he knew the engines had stopped, he immediately began assessing the situation to understand what the best action was.  His voice didn’t waver.  He remained stoic and calm.  It is these characteristics that enabled him to make a wise, informed decision while everything was literally falling apart around him.  Clearly, staying calm no matter the circumstance is a critical lesson for any leader.

        2. Remember what you know.

How in the world was Sully able to stay so calm when 155 lives were in his hands and the logical chance for all of their survival was slim to none?  Simple—he remembered what he knew.  Instead of letting the chaos engulf him, he chose to focus on all of the knowledge he had gained through his time in flight school and years in the cockpit.  

Focusing on this knowledge enabled him to keep his mind on the problem and situation at hand, instead of on the awful potential outcome that had the chance to become a stark reality. This focus is what allowed him to make the best decision he could in the short amount of time that was available to him.  So, whenever you find yourself in the midst of a tough situation, hold tightly to what you already know.  Chances are, you’re more prepared than you think.

        3.  Do what’s best for those you lead.

The decision that Sully had to make in just a few seconds was a product of his leadership.  Just like any good leader, he chose to do what was best for the people whose lives were in his hands.  For him, that meant landing the plane on the Hudson.

Sully had realized that there was no way he would be able to make it back to the airport to land on the tarmac.  After filtering his options, he concluded that the best way to keep the lives on board safe, was to perform a water landing that he’d never done before.  Was this a dangerous decision?  You bet it was.  Did he believe he was doing his best for the people he was serving?  You bet he did.  And we should strive to do the same.

        4.  Put yourself second.

Now, it would have been easy for Captain Sully to bask in his own success after doing something previously unprecedented, but that is nowhere near what he did.  While bystanders were in awe over what had happened and praising him for his piloting abilities, Sully could be found searching the plane for trapped passengers.  

More than that, when everyone was picked up by the Coast Guard, Sully was asking how many had gotten off.  Why?  The one thing he cared about was that the lives he was responsible for were safe—that everyone was accounted for.  The moment he was informed that everyone was, in fact, alive he breathed a sigh of relief and was able to move on.  You see, good leaders always strive to put their people first, and themselves second.  Why?  Because good leaders realize that it’s ultimately not about them.


Captain Sullenberger had 208 seconds to land his plane ... 208 seconds to make the best leadership decision he could and then act on it.  Within those moments, and the ones that came after, we find four crucial leadership lessons: learning to stay calm in the chaos, remember what we know, do what is best for those we lead, and put ourselves second to our people.  No matter what our leadership context is, we should strive to make these lessons a core part of both what we do, and who we are.

Sometimes the most powerful leadership decisions are made in a split second.  What will the outcome of yours be?

Sully.  Dir.  Clint Eastwood.  Warner Bros., 2016.  Film.