By Rob Weinhold, Chief Executive
On the cold afternoon of January 15, 2009, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger nosed US Airways Flight 1549 into the clear skies above New York’s LaGuardia Airport.
Less than four minutes later, after a “bird strike” from a flock of Canadian geese knocked out two of the jet’s engines, he coolly and skillfully made an emergency landing in the frigid Hudson River that saved the lives of all 150 passengers and five crew members, earning him international acclaim and admiration.
“Within eight seconds of the bird strike,” Sullenberger wrote in his book “Highest Duty,” “realizing that we were without engines, I knew this was the worst aviation challenge I’d ever faced. It was the most sickening, pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling I had ever experienced.”
As to how he was able to focus and execute his duties during one of the most compelling dramas in modern airline history, the answer—personal heroism aside—was surprisingly simple.
“My life is all about routine. It’s about checklists and procedures,” he said in a training video not long after his ordeal. “Be prepared for the unexpected by doing the little things day in and day out. You ready yourself for the big things…”
Clearly, what Capt. Sullenberger relied on heavily during his ordeal is a concept that I teach and call organizational muscle memory. This applies to corporations and businesses as much as it does to everyday citizens in all walks of life.
In the context of preparing for, navigating through or recovering from issues of sensitivity, adversity or crisis, there’s no question that—to use the old cliché—people play how they practice. And what Capt. Sullenberger and his co-pilot did in those nerve-wracking moments in the sky high above New York, was begin working their way down the checklist of airline emergency response procedures put in place for just such an event.
They were doing what they’d been trained to do and followed the protocol as it was laid out to them and drilled into their heads for decades.
Immediately after Flight 1549’s engines failed, Capt. Sullenberger took over the controls of the crippled aircraft from First Officer Jeff Skiles, who began handling the emergency checklist.
Sullenberger quickly focused on the three general rules of any aircraft emergency: maintain aircraft control, analyze the situation and take proper action, land as soon as conditions permit.
As detailed in his book, there is also a variation on those rules that pilots find easy to remember: “Aviate, navigate, communicate.”
“Aviate: fly the plane,” he wrote. “Navigate: make sure your flight path is appropriate and that you’re not flying off course. Communicate: Let those on the ground help you, and let those on the plane know what might be necessary to save their lives.”
Also aiding him was this: as a young pilot in the Air Force, he had studied aircraft accidents to learn from the experiences of the pilots involved.
“Why did pilots wait too long before ejecting from planes that were about to crash?” he wrote in “Highest Duty.” “Why did they spend extra seconds trying to fix the unfixable?”
Sullenberger’s many flights from LaGuardia in the past had also given him an encyclopedic knowledge of the terrain he was flying over, as well as the distances to the nearest airports should he attempt an emergency landing at one.
In the end, his training, military experience and geographical knowledge would help him conclude that all four nearby airports (LaGuardia, JFK, Teterboro and Newark) were unreachable by the damaged aircraft.
Not to be discounted in any re-telling of what happened to Flight 1549 that day is that Capt. Sullenberger had the perfect demeanor to handle the stress of the moment. When you think about leadership, you think about composure. This was a case study in pilot composure if ever there was one.
As the aircraft flight lurched and dropped through the skies, Sullenberger would write in his book, the badly shaken passengers in the quiet cabin reacted in a variety of ways. Some prayed. Some texted loved ones.
A U.S. Army captain and his fiancé kissed and told each other “I love you” and “accepted death together.” A management consultant from Charlotte, North Carolina thought about how he was his mother’s only surviving son, and that his death would no doubt kill his mom, too.
A man who had survived a near-deadly incident on a plane some 20 years earlier took out a business card and wrote “I love you” to his parents and his sister and thought: “This could be the end of my life. In 10 or 20 seconds, I could be on the other side, whatever the other side will be.”
But Capt. Sullenberger remained calm and focused on the task at hand, which was to avert a catastrophe either above or in one of the busiest cities in the world.
In any crisis, people look for direction. Absent that direction, presented in a composed manner, chaos will ensue. But there was no sense of that on Flight 1549.
As he continued to struggle with the damaged plane, Sullenberger radioed air traffic control and said, in a remarkably even voice: “We may end up in the Hudson.” In fact, the aircraft was already descending below the tops of Manhattan’s skyscrapers toward the wide, sparkling river.
Too busy in the early moments of the emergency to fill in the passengers on what was happening, he now intoned: “This is the captain. Brace for impact!”
Attempting to control the aircraft without critical engine thrust, he nevertheless guided it to a hard, slightly nose-up landing. After that, he supervised the emergency evacuation of shivering passengers out onto the wings of the sinking plane, where they were quickly helped into a flotilla of rescue boats.
Perhaps as much as any pilot in history, “Sully” Sullenberger had proven to be prepared for the ultimate crisis of his career.
“One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training,” he concluded during a “60 Minutes” interview with Katie Couric after his Flight 1549 heroics. “And on Jan. 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”
In many ways, businesses should do the very same thing to prepare for a crisis. All organizations should strive to be systems-driven versus hero-driven to cope with adversity.
In other words, there should be policies, protocols and training mandates in place to respond to any crisis that develops. These policies, protocols and training mandates should be reviewed periodically, because how you practice for a crisis is how you plan—and how you “play”—when faced with a calamity, when it really counts.
Heroes emerge, generally, due to the systems and training each organization has in place. If organizations rely solely on the hope that a hero will emerge—and Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was most definitely a hero–they’ll be lucky if one actually does.
But most times in a crisis, there is chaos and no leadership. Which is why companies must continuously go over their “checklists” and relentlessly train and prepare to meet the moment—just as the military does, just as law enforcement does, and just as fire and paramedics do.
Even if it’s a moment they hope will never come.
- Perform a crisis audit. Businesses must create a systemic, not heroic, approach to dealing with issues of sensitivity, adversity or crisis. Immediately engage in a crisis audit, a comprehensive evaluation of what will cost you time, money, customers, careers and, in the worst of scenarios, lives. Take a look from within your organization and across the industry, as the best predictor of the future is the past. Once a prioritized issue list has been created, work your way down the list to reduce your points of exposure. There is no doubt in my mind that playing defense for offensive minded companies is a way to preserve long-term success. The most important elements of any organization’s longevity, particularly when confronted with issues that disrupt business continuity, are to establish effective predictability, planning, training and execution mechanisms. The crisis audit will identify various points of organizational exposure and assist in reducing corporate vulnerability.
- Create a checklist. A crisis checklist is paramount because companies can’t create and people don’t read operational policies during crisis. Develop checklists so people can manage during times of crisis, particularly when they’re being overwhelmed emotionally with bad news and are struggling simply to respond. During a critical time of need, people must act with precision and confidence. In order to drive confidence, most employees want to know they are acting within policy, even during emergent circumstances. An accessible, executable checklist allows for quick, confident activation.
- Be direct. There is often a tendency to soften words or not be direct with ominous news. My experience is that, while initially shocking, people prefer the bottom line right away. Ironically, I call this bad habit “circling the messaging runway” vs. landing the plane. Do not circle the runway with negative or emergent news, immediately land the plane and tell people what is going on. You will earn their confidence and trust more quickly. Also, when you do deliver the tough news, be certain you have some direction for your audience as they will need to understand all that I’ve outlined in the Resilient Moment Communications Model.