The qualities of leadership, from Chesley Sullenberger


Passenger jet taking off. Image courtesy of hpgruesen, Pixabay.

On a cold January day seven years ago, two pilots and three flight attendants walked onto a passenger jet in New York and prepared for a flight to Charlotte, North Carolina. It was to be an ordinary flight of a few hours. One hundred and fifty passengers would come on board, settle into their seats, chat with people nearby, and watch flight attendants Donna Dent, Doreen Welsh and Sheila Dahl go through the usual safety demonstration while the plane moved away from its gate.

Less than five minutes after takeoff, no one’s life on that flight would ever be quite the same again.

A bird strike quickly knocked out both engines. The pilots, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles, managed to skillfully land the jet in the Hudson River, an incredible feat. Everyone on board survived.

I’ve listened to audio tapes of the interchange between Sully and the tower, and Sully’s voice is amazingly calm despite the tremendous stress he must have been feeling. But it’s what happened afterward that is equally amazing. Both Sully and Jeff Skiles used their unexpected fame for a good purpose by being advocates for flight safety.

It couldn’t have been easy to relive the Flight 1549 story in all those interviews. I can only imagine what that was like.

I have not met Sully personally, but he has my admiration since it appears to me that he coped with his new fame with integrity and grace. He was also careful to emphasize that landing Flight 1549 was a team effort, another quality that makes me like him.

Sully also became an author. With coauthor Douglas Century, Sully wrote a book called Making a Difference: Stories of Vision and Courage from America’s Leaders, which examines the qualities of true leadership. He interviews men and women from a variety of fields, including Tony La Russa from the sports world, Jim Sinegal from business (he is Costco’s founder) and Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the D.C. public school system.

The book is a fantastic read, especially for people who aspire to be the type of leaders who inspires and motivates people. The interviewees in the book talk about their personal lives, the difficulties they faced and their triumphs. They talk about what drove them, the life events that motivated them, how they became leaders in their particular fields and how they inspired other people. The stories in the book are interspersed with some personal accounts from Sully, which are equally fascinating to read.

What becomes clear in the book is that it’s not always easy to be a leader and face hardship (especially the life-threatening kind) and opposition. But the leaders in that book handled it well and made important changes happen.

The movie aired last night, with Tom Hanks as Sully and Clint Eastwood directing (see video below). There’s also a “60 Minutes” excerpt where you can see the crew and the passengers in Charlotte. (Video credits: Warner Brothers and CBS, YouTube.)

Here’s to you, Sully. May we see more good leaders like you.



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