On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 suffered an emergency landing on the Hudson River in New York City. The movie, “Sully,” currently the number one movie in America, tells the harrowing story of how Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger expertly piloted 155 people to safety in an emergency crash landing on the Hudson because of a bird strike that annihilated both of the plane’s engines.

Experience to Lead Partner, Dick Richardson, was one of the passengers on the miraculous flight that day, and for the first time ever, he is offering his firsthand account about the leadership lessons we can all glean from Sully in a special multi-part blog series from Experience to Lead entitled, “Brace for Impact.”  Be sure to read part 1 before continuing.

Flight 1549 wasn’t just a five-minute journey from the LaGuardia Airport to the Hudson.  Sully’s entire life led him to safely land the plane in the Hudson River.  The hard truth is that most leaders go through life doing what’s right in front of them, and not preparing, or bracing, for all the impacts ahead.  Thankfully, Captain Sully was prepared and as a result every single person made it out alive.  Here are three quick lessons you can take away from his leadership:

Lesson 1: Preparation is Key

At the time of the emergency landing on the Hudson, Sully was facing a lot of life’s challenges.  Because of his financial difficulties, he started an aviation safety firm to supplement his salary as a pilot.  His company, Safety Reliability Methods, was an extension of his passion to prepare pilots and managers for safety hazards.

Sully had not only prepared himself for an emergency crash landing, but he had been preparing himself to be a consultant in the airline safety arena, and he was getting himself ready to help prepare organizations. He was readying himself in unusual ways for an incident such as this, aside from all the ways pilots typically prepare themselves for the unexpected. In business, it’s important to not only plan for disasters, but also to prepare oneself emotionally for change and disruption.

Lesson 2: Make Small Deposits Over Time

“I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education, and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.” – Captain Sully

While in the Air Force, he was a member of an aircraft accident investigation board.  He studied the psychology behind keeping an airline crew functioning during a crisis.  Sully had more than 40 years and 20,000 hours of flying experience.  All of the time he spent flying and studying were “deposits.”

When Captain Sully safely landed the plane on the Hudson River, considered impossible by many, he made one huge “withdrawal”.  He had been preparing for an incident like this his whole life.  There are three parts to this preparation:

  1. Physical Preparation
  2. Recognize all of your available resources, so that you can make the best use of them when you’re faced with a crisis
  3. Remain calm as Sully did on that fateful day

Lesson 3:  Appreciate The People Who Make It Happen Everyday

Sully was sequestered for four days by investigators and was not allowed to talk to the media directly after the crash landing. The media swarmed him when he was finally able to go home to his family.  His first words were: “This was a team effort and everyone did their jobs.”  Although everybody was treating him like a celebrity, he refused to be called a hero.  Sully repeatedly gave credit to his co-pilot, the crew, and the ferry boat captains that rescued everyone.  He was completely focused on helping others, even when he had an untold amount of pressure on him as the ensuing investigation unfolded, and even as he was only able to sleep one or two hours a night.

“I do remind everyone that it took the efforts of many to achieve this successful outcome. Everybody on the airplane’s lives changed that day.” – Captain Sully

Join us in our new experiential leadership program, “Brace for Impact,” designed to help you better manage through disruption. This unique offering is developed and facilitated by US Airways Flight 1549 survivor and Experience to Lead Partner, Dick Richardson.

Read part 3 of the lessons from Sully.