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 Principal, Dick Richardson, was one of the passengers on the miraculous flight that day. He is offering his first-hand account about the leadership lessons we can all glean from Sully. 

In the first part of a special multi-part blog series“Lessons from Sully”, we talked about making the complex simple and the importance of shredding distractions. In the second blog, we talked about the importance of preparation and appreciation.  If you haven’t read the first blog, you should do so now.

In the last part of our blog series, we’re going to consider what to do after a disruptive event. For instance, a loss of clients, a data breach, natural disaster, etc. If you’ve seen the movie, “Sully,” you’ll remember that most of the film involves what happened after the miraculous crash landing on the Hudson.

People often go blissfully through life avoiding preparation for negative events. It is helpful to prepare for the unknown and think through possible scenarios before they happen. However, once they occur, here are three key things you can do:

Lesson 1: Become Self-Aware

People experience denial, apathy/paralysis, physical reactions, and in extreme cases, even Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after a disruptive event. “Tune into” yourself and see what you are experiencing, feeling, and thinking.  Research has shown that being aware of what you are feeling can reduce stress. It can be measured physically through your heart rate, blood pressure, and the release of endocrine hormones.

Lesson 2: Manage Yourself Before You Try to Manage Others

Margaret Mead once said, “courage is staying calm three seconds longer than everyone else.” The standard organizational response to crises is to cling to what is familiar and to stick diligently to established policies and procedures.

Immediately after our crash landing on the Hudson, the airline communication told everyone to to keep our receipts. When I received that call I was wearing a Red Cross blanket and clothes from the fire department. I thought “This is the airline’s response?” After a day passed, the airline composed themselves.  A representative then called to check on me and see if there was anything they could do. Although I appreciated their effort, the moment of immediate crisis had already gone by.

Following a disruptive event, cliques quickly form, like in the movie, with everyone immediately “ganging” up against Sully and Skiles. In the real world, employees have already started talking amongst each other at this point. They are asking everyone questions like “What have you heard?” Employees are looking to validate their ideas, suspicions, and experience. A narrative is forming. As a leader this is a crucial time. You must take control or at least try to influence this narrative. It should be your version of the story that is “broadcast,” not false rumors or innuendos.

At this stage, you should assign recovery roles to help get organizations through the event. It is important to get—and remain—self-aware. In addition, effectively manage yourself, your teams, and your organizations throughout this phase and the entire process.

Lesson 3: Establish Rituals to Help Employees Achieve Closure

As the ripples of the disruptive wave start to subside, people, teams, and organizations will naturally move toward stability and homeostasis. But in order to achieve closure and foster the ability to move forward, you will first need to help people put the event behind them.  That’s where rituals can help.

As one example, a business unit of a leading company was closing a division (due to disruptive market events) and transitioning the remaining employees over to a brand new business unit. The leader of the organization gathered everyone together at a hotel, and while making the announcement about the change, he gave them a couple of shovels and a box. 

Explaining that the old division was gone, he said, “In this box, I have things that represent the division,” and he put them all in the box. He continued, “When something dies, you bury it.” He handed out the shovels, and said, “This division is in the past, and now we are moving on to the future.”  Rituals are a critical part of the human response of closure. They are the way we can effectively say “goodbye” to what is in the past, while saying “hello” to the new.

Incidentally, in the case of the “Miracle on the Hudson,” we had a reunion party at a New York City bar a year after the landing. Drinks were free and Grey Goose placed a banner above the bar that said, “We apologize on behalf of Geese everywhere, your bar bill is on us.”



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.