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6 Lessons On Decision-Making From Captain Sully

January 3, 2021
Leadership Advisory

“Wrong choice…would have been catastrophic” Capt. Chesley Sullenberger
on Larry King Live

The heroic split second decision-making of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger spared the lives of 155 people when he successfully landed his airliner in New York’s Hudson River.  Business leaders navigating their organizations through the current financial crisis can learn a lot from Captain Sully.

Got 9.5 minutes to spare right now?  Grab your mouse, click on the picture below and watch this amazing story of calm decision-making under fire.

Captain Sully had one minute to decide how to solve his problem.  Was this to his advantage or disadvantage?  Does having more time to make a tactical decision reduce the quality of the outcome?  It certainly can if we hem and haw, second guess and fear making the wrong choice.  The advantage Captain Sully had was being forced to tap into his years of experience without time to think about it.  He acted in an unconsciously competent way and described it well when he said, “I was sure I could do it.”

Lesson #1:  Know when to take control. I love that moment when, following protocol, Sully said, “my aircraft”.  How many times have we watched our leaders hestitate to take control of a situation or make a decision?  Those are merely people with titles; they’re not leaders.  Stepping up and taking charge is the task and responsibility of leaders.  And, those who do it best do it without regard for self and with deep commitment to do what’s best for others.

Lesson #2:  Decide direction expeditiously. Captain Sully considered three options for landing in less than a minute.  He then decided, “We’re going into the Hudson.”  Once he made that decision all other options were cut off. Decision means to cut or take away.  Once the other two options for landing the plane were taken away he and the crew could focus completely on making a successful water landing.

Lesson #3:  Do not multi-task. Concentration and focus is the discipline of champions and heros.  When asked if he prayed, the captain said he was concentrating on landing his plane and he “thought of nothing else.”  Focus is seeing all the options clearly, but concentration is executing those options intently. You will not lead your company through this economic crisis if you are distracted by trying to be and do too many things.

Lesson #4:  Be a calming force. Forcing calm during a crisis situation requires tremendous mastery over your own emotions.  Captain Sully explained this as forcing himself to use his training and a lifetime of preparation for this unplanned event that he felt should not be happening to him.  Thoughts of “why me” and “what if this doesn’t work” were subordinated to acting on the skills and capabilities learned and honed over a lifetime of piloting airliners.  This is really about trusting yourself to test your limits.

Lesson #5:  Give clear instructions. Ninety seconds before flight 1549 hit the water, the captain announced, “brace for impact”.  He said he was comforted when he heard the flight attendants in unison yelling the repeated instruction to the passengers because he knew the team was on the same page.  How many injuries were averted and deaths prevented by this amazing team effort?  We will never know because everyone lived.  Are you giving timely and clear directives to your team?  Are you on the same page?

Lesson #6:  Preparation is the mother of competence. I am moved by Captain Sully’s quite confidence when he said, “I was sure I could do it.”  There were no second attempts, no “do-overs”.  Just one shot.  Pull it off and everyone lives.  Fail and everyone dies.  He believed his life was preparation for that single event.  Captain Sully was prepared for the task and he executed on what he knew without thinking about it.  That is all about being competent.  Are you prepared to lead in the moment of crisis, without having to think about it?

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