Everyone knows the story of the Miracle on the Hudson: the amazing landing that Chesley Sullenbeger and Jeff Skiles executed with a US Airways Airbus A320 on the Hudson River in January 2009. If you don’t know the story, you can read the fascinating book “Fly by Wire” by William Langewiesch – a must read! However, what many of you may not know is an amazing piece of leadership that Sullenbeger displayed shortly before bringing the plane down on to the river.
As Jeff Skiles (co-pilot and pilot flying) flew into a flock of Canada Geese, both engines flamed out and Sullenberger, following protocol, took control and instructed Skiles to start consulting the check-lists. Sullenberger did what every pilot is trained to do from day one: when you run into trouble, fly the aircraft first, fly it away from danger and then tell someone about it (i.e. Aviate, Navigate and Communicate). All of this happened approximately one minute after takeoff. After trying to restart the number one engine (and failing) and rejecting various landing options provided by air traffic control (because the aircraft did not have the height or power to reach La Guardia, JFK Airport, Teterboro or any other viable landing strip in the immediate area), two minutes and 17 seconds after the bird strike, Sullenberger made a decision and stated “We’re gonna be in the Hudson”.
It was approximately 50 seconds later that Sullenberger did something remarkable: faced with this incredibly difficult situation, acting now fully as pilot-in-command and pilot flying and knowing that it is his decision and his decision alone to make regarding the fate of the flight, Sullenberger turned to Skiles and asked: “Got any ideas?“. Skiles replies, “Actually not”. This then resulted in Sullenberger making the ultimate decision to brace for impact.
What that simple statement says about leadership is incredible. All leaders recognize that the main difficulty of being a leader is that, ultimately, the leader has to make the final decision and, effectively, has the make the final decision alone. However, truly inspirational leaders take the time to consult and question those around them in order to ascertain whether they have all the pertinent data required to make a particular decision.
Even at the most stressful of times (i.e. 15-seconds before making a controlled crash landing into a river – it doesn’t get more stressful than that), Sullenberger had the presence of mind to consult with his team and ask Skiles whether he had any other ideas about a solution that he may have missed or rejected too soon. Not that I think it would have made much of a difference even if Skiles did have an idea (since they were only a couple of hundred feet from impact), but the very fact that Sullenberger even asked the question shows the traits of a truly collaborative leader while still displaying tremendous authority and, ultimately, complete responsibility for the outcome.