On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 suffered an emergency landing on the Hudson River in New York City. The movie, Sully, a #1 box office hit, tells the harrowing story of how Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger expertly piloted 155 people to safety in an emergency crash landing on the Hudson. A bird strike had annihilated both of the plane’s engines causing the emergency landing. 

Experience to Lead Principal, Dick Richardson, was one of the passengers on the miraculous flight that day, and for the first time ever, he is offering his first-hand account about the leadership lessons we can all glean from Sully in a special multi-part blog series.

As a consultant in the executive leadership development space with 35 years of experience, I am always looking to learn more and I wanted to share with you what I’ve learned from Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. Not just from meeting Sully and getting to know him personally, but most of all, being one of the 155 passengers of US Airways Flight 1549. This was an extremely rare plane crash that ended in the positive and hopeful story that most of us know by now, the story that has become one of the top-grossing movies in America.

Lesson 1: Simplicity

If you’ve seen the movie, there is a scene where the flock of Canadian geese strike the plane’s two engines. The result was that the engines went up in flames, and alarm bells began to sound in the cockpit.  I would venture to say that if it were any one of us sitting in that captain’s chair, that event most likely would have reduced us to a sheer state of panic or worse yet, complete inaction.

Likewise, in Corporate America, there are times where we all face unexpected issues and disruptive issues, such as floods, an IT data breach, client attrition, and subsequent revenue loss.  All the warning alarms sounding at the same time. It’s all too easy to get tied up in knots over the noise and complexity. The gears of decision-making grind to a halt, and paralysis sets in. In those moments, as an executive and as a leader, what do you do?

Let’s examine and digest the example set by Sully’s behavior and decision-making.

Lesson 2: “Just Fly the Plane” Focus

There is a scene in the movie where there is a man who is training young Sully to fly. His parting words to Sully were: “Whatever happens, just fly the plane.”

When Sully and his co-pilot were faced with the bird strike, life hung in the balance with every passing second. Sully had to wrap his head around the reality of the situation and decisions had to be made quickly.

In the moment, Sully employs simplicity so beautifully. He reduces the problem down to its basics. Sully decides to go into the water (despite the air traffic controller’s pleas about available runways nearby that the Captain knows he cannot reach successfully). At that moment, Sully only cared about three things: altitude, air speed, and the angle of attack.

Sully’s co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, also recognized that everything is going to come down to basics. In the last few seconds before they land the plane in the chilly Hudson River, Skiles only calls out the altitude and the air speed numbers. As a result, Sully doesn’t have to look away or break his attention.

Lesson 3: Reduce Complex Situations to the Simple

When faced with complexity, there is great value to identifying the three things that are most important. I’ve seen this approach be effective– time and again – in working with people like Lou Gerstner, the Chairman of the Board and the Chief Executive Officer of IBM. He always reduced problems to three things and he kept it to a really short list. This approach is used by the world’s top leaders and the most effective organizations.

Our job as leaders is to make the complicated simple. From the standpoint of those of us who were on that plane, we thank our lucky stars. We think back to the incredibly simple and effective instruction from the Captain: “Evacuate.”

In business, as in life, less is more. When you keep it simple, it makes “bracing for impact” easier, and it helps you prepare for, lead through, and recover from disruption.

“People say that he is an excellent pilot. It was his choice to shed distractions that shows it best.” – Vanity Fair

Join Experience To Lead in our new leadership experience, “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.

See Part 2 of the “Lessons from Sully” series.