Leadership Lessons from "Sully" Sullenberger


The heroic actions of pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger in successfully guiding U.S. Airways flight 1549 to a safe (albeit frightening) landing in the Hudson River Thursday offer lessons in leadership for any executive.

As companies--and their CIOs--hope to make a safe landing in this troubled economy, looking at the skills Sullenberger summoned is an ample start.

"Sully" clearly isn't your everyday airline pilot. A former Air Force fighter jet flyer, Sullenberger has participated in National Transportation Safety Board investigations, started a safety consulting firm, and serves as a visiting scholar the Cal-Berkeley's Center for Catastrophic Risk Management.

But more important than his stellar CV are the actions he took in not only guiding his troubled passenger jet to a safe landing, but in ensuring the passengers and crew were evacuated before exiting the craft.

A few vital attributes Sullenberger displayed:

Preparation: Like any pilot, Sullenberger was trained in flying and landing under duress. But he went further: he researched and studied crash situations and even consulted others on the matter.

Poise Under Pressure: According to reports, Sullenberger selflessly walked the aisle of the plane twice to make sure everyone was out. He knew his first priority once the plane hit the water, and he followed the protocol to a T.

Execution: Not only did Sullenberger have to act fast when his plane encountered engine trouble upon takeoff, but he had to warn his passengers (the now-famous "Brace for impact" warning he said through the intercom) and then help them evacuate.

As CIOs look ahead in 2009, these lessons should be top of mind: prepare for the worst, keep your poise if/when they get there, and then execute on your plans to make the most of them. IT leaders have some of the toughest jobs in today's economic climate, and their bosses will be looking for some epic performances.

Sure, CIOs don't have to worry about the lives of 155 passengers and other crew members in life-threatening scenarios, but they do have to worry about the long-term viability of their IT strategies and their companies' well being.

In the coming weeks, CIO Insight will unveil a new research study on 2009 IT spending, as well as insights from three top CIOs--Ramon Baez of Kimberley-Clark, Paul Johnson of BB&T and Jim Knight of Chubb--on managing in tough times. Their experiences and advice, like Sullenberger's, should be immensely instructive in today's economic reality.

In the meantime, take to heart Sullenberger's actions, and apply them wherever you can.


9 Comments for "Leadership Lessons from "Sully" Sullenberger"

  • tom January 24, 2009 12:05 pm

    Refer to the (ex) CEOs of Northern Telecom and Merrill Lynch to see what I'm talking about! Great (selfless!) leaders are these two!! And they are surely not in the minority...No wonder capitalism is dying!

  • Mayank Bhardwaj January 21, 2009 8:45 am

    Rather an out of context comparison. A landing on water vs. the daily grind of a CIO. As a former combat soldier and a current corporate warrior, I would say that. What Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger did was the equivalent of what one would do if you went into a skid on the road. Show presence of mind, takes the parameters into account and implement a trained reflex. A CIO, on the other hand, battles the daily grind of balancing varying external circumstances vs internal factors. Many of these factors are not even known and most of them are definitely outside his sphere of influence and hope that the sum of it all fits the emerging scenario.

  • John Kador January 19, 2009 3:17 pm

    What impressed me is that after all the passengers were evacuated, the captain walked up and down the aisle of the airplane not just once, but twice, to make sure that no one was left behind. With the plane at risk of sinking, there was a real possibility of the captain going down with the ship, yet he put personal safety aside on behalf of the those he served. That's integrity, a quality missing from your list, but absolutely essential to effective leaders.

  • Karen Lojeski January 19, 2009 1:31 pm

    The trend in these comments and in the thousands of data on leadership that we have collected is clear: many individuals and employees at all levels are fed up by the cognitive dissonance between pithy pieces of advice and the true actions of today's leaders. I am all for a good article but as one writer pointed out, be careful about how you use your metaphors. Leaders like "Sully" are a rare breed and as you say, there are things that can be learned. But they start out with an underlying sense of a shared future and fate with others and not a self-centered view of the world where only they matter. The leadership crisis in this country is well-documented and if we are to improve the situation, we need to first select leaders that have a desire to serve others as well as themselves.

  • Ed January 19, 2009 12:57 pm

    As a MBA student a number of years ago, Dr. Drucker made all these statements and more.

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