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I recently watched the movie Sully starring Tom Hanks. Most people will remember the actual event on January 15th, 2009 that the film is based on but I didn’t know anything about the pilot or the investigation that followed. Not only did I really enjoy the movie, I thought it provides some great examples in leadership.

For those who don’t know, or remember, what happened this is about US Airways Flight 1549 that landed in the Hudson River, New York. Three minutes after takeoff the plane struck a flock of birds which took out both engines. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger decided there wasn’t enough power to reach nearby airports so opted for the river with all 155 passengers and crew surviving. During the investigation the board initially believed the decision to land in the river was a pilot error but as it continued Sully was cleared of any fault.

Was decisive and quick in his decision

Sully had been flying for many decades having 20,000 hours of flying experience. You could say there are not many other pilots who have as much experience as Sully, he may not have been through the exact events of that day before but he knew how to assess situations. Sully was able to evaluate the different scenarios quickly and be decisive enough with his decision to carry it through. There would have been immense pressure during this thought process with everyone’s life stake.

Most decisions leaders make are not life or death so there is not an exact parallel even though we can be in high-pressure environments. However, a leader’s thought process can be the same, much like the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act loop that provides a framework to make decisions. Of course, the information needed to be able to make these decisions usually comes from within the teams so leaders need to be close to them, knowing what they are doing and their progress. Further to this, it’s important to know the people too as decisions can be based on their capabilities. Having a good understanding of the technologies used in the applications/services will help as it can factor in assessments. I could go on listing items that help make quick decisions, but being close to the team and understanding their challenges will help when tough decisions need to be made quickly.

Last one to leave the plane

“The captain goes down with the ship” is an idiom many will recognize and the expectation is that the captain is the last one to leave because of the responsibility they have for everyone in their care. There are many examples where captains have gone down with their ship trying to save others but, unfortunately, there have been times when this hasn’t happened e.g. Costa Concordia. Basically, they are risking their lives for the lives of others and when put into that situation the evidence shows not everyone can do it. Sully took responsibility for everyone in his care, searching the plane, wading through water, making sure no one was hiding or left somewhere.

Applying this to leadership doesn’t mean they should always be the last ones to leave the office each day! I believe it’s not hard to find selfish people in organizations, this makes true leaders stand out as they are the opposite because of their selflessness. They put others before themselves and are able to let the team focus on their mission by shielding the team from distracting information. As we know, not everything goes to plan, this is where the leader takes accountability over the teams and takes the blame instead allowing any criticism through to certain people in the team.

Couldn’t rest until everyone was accounted for

Not only was Sully the last one to leave the plane but he couldn’t rest until everyone was accounted for and been made aware of any serious injuries. He was obsessed with getting the number 155 which included all the passengers and crew.

“Need to know who’s hurt and how badly. And I need a count. 155 is my number, passengers and crew.”

It was only when Sully found out everyone had been accounted for and there were no serious injuries could he relax and allow himself to be checked over for any injuries.

Leaders should be driven by the welfare of their teams and be aware of their needs. As mentioned earlier, it’s about knowing your team and staying close to them. Situations can change quickly, inside or outside of work, so a leader should be watchful for any signs. Knowing people’s norms is essential to observing if something is out of character. Then, if there could be something wrong, the leader should be able to handle the situation in an appropriate way. It means caring for each person in your team and act in a way that anyone can approach you and feel comfortable opening up with any concerns.

Withstood the pressure of the investigation

As the film portrayed, during the investigation Sully’s decision to land in the river was heavily scrutinized with the Board believing the accident may have been pilot error. Preliminary data showed that one engine was running at idle power which would have given enough power to return to the airport, but Sully insisted that power was lost in both engines. Also, two flight simulations were run live in the investigation room showing the both of them land safely, however, Sully rightly argued they are not taking into consideration the human factor. After then adding a 35-second pause both simulations crashed before reaching the runway.

Sometimes our own sanity is put to the test by others! The reality is some decisions will be questioned and leaders have to respond with their rationale. This can be uncomfortable and put the person under extreme pressure. There are human battles against doubt and imposter syndrome that need to be overcome so leaders need courage as well as humility as these situations play out.

Then there is how leaders act with the decisions of those in our teams? Giving people autonomy is important, part of this means they need the space to fail safely to help them grow through their own learnings. Of course, creating an environment to fail safely is tricky as it can be a balancing act between giving freedom and guarding against changes that could negatively impact customers. Leaders need to be open with the team and assume positive intent when entering any discussions where things didn’t go according to plan. The starting point should be believing that no one wants to make the wrong decision so it’s trying to understand the process to see if something was missed.

Didn’t take all the credit, said everyone is to thank

As the ordeal of the investigation ended Sully would have experienced an immense relief and possibly even proud for sticking to his version of the events that day. No one would have begrudged Sully for accepting the praise that was given to him:

“I can say with confidence, that after speaking with the rest of the flight crew, with bird experts and airplane engineers, after running all the scenarios and talking to each of the players… …there is an X in this result. It’s you, Captain Sullenberger. Take you out of the equation and the math just fails.”

But Sully disagreed:

“It wasn’t just me. It was all of us. Jeff, Donna, Sheila, Doreen. The passengers, the rescue workers. Air traffic control. The ferry boat crews and the scuba cops. We did it. We survived.”

Sully wanted to publically recognize others that also made a difference that day. Everyone played their part and it was a team effort that made this even less disastrous.

For leaders, the emphasis is less on self and more on others. A leader is nothing without the work of their teams, this means recognizing the good work the teams and individuals do. Unfortunately, there are too many stories where managers have taken the glory for themselves and kept the real stars hidden away. This is a recipe for unhealthy teams and an anti-pattern for leadership.


Of course, this is based on a movie script and parts would have been dramatized, but I still believe we can learn from it nonetheless.

Sully was right in the sense that everyone plays their part in any success, but it’s the leaders who create an environment that gives everyone a chance to be themselves and maximise their strengths.

According to Wikipedia (yes, I know!), Sully said: “the training he received from a local flight instructor influenced his aviation career for the rest of his life.” The point is, the majority of leaders can identify someone who greatly influenced their career/life. That guidance helped Sully become the person he is and the same for other leaders. Sometimes we need to re-evaluate who we listen to or read to help us grow and improve. Humbly admitting our weaknesses along the way will make us more receptive to those who are trying to help.

Leadership is about building trustful relationships with the people around us so that we can work for each other and rely on the unity of the team when the pressure is on. Is there anything you can learn from the leadership that Sully displayed during this incident? I believe there are always leaders in our organization or lives that can inspire us, most of the time they are not the loudest person around, but they’re there closely working with their teams and more than happy to help those who seek guidance.

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