Sully: the Ultimate Leadership Handbook

us airlines emergency landing on the hudson river, handbook
The last, well admired, Clint Eastwood masterpiece, is not only one of the top ten movies of 2016, according to the American Film Institute, but it may be recommended as one of the most effective and practical management guide too.

Chesley Sullenberger (Sully) is the famous pilot driving his US Airways Flight 1549 to a successful emergency landing on the Hudson River in January 2009, in which all 155 passengers and crew survived with only minor injuries.

Although commonly recognized as the heroic rescuer of all his passengers, Sully was immediately inquired by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), to check if the correct procedure had been followed and if a more conservative landing strategy (eg. turning back to the closest airport, as normally required in this kind of accident) would have reduced the crash risk. At the end of its analysis, the board concludes that Sullenberger acted correctly in selecting the best of the options available to him, even if not among the recommended choices.

Actually, if Sully would have followed the usual correct process, nobody would have blamed him, but the plane would have crashed, just before arriving back to the airport.

Then a good general question would be: what is the correct process? How has it to be designed?

This question may be even more relevant for global enterprise organizations than for public compliance boards.

Usually global companies are forced to design their organization processes to ensure to be always accomplished, independently of the specific person responsible for the execution.

Particularly for multinational large organizations a solid execution discipline is mandatory to consistently run the operations, but Sully is telling us that this is not enough.

  1. Sully’s fist lesson: the single person really matters and, in some circumstances, they should take the responsibility to act in different ways! That sounds like an odd consideration, but we may have to agree that individuals in large organizations usually prefer to act according to expected procedures, taking no responsibility to do differently, because the failure event is perceived much more blameful than the flat compliancy, even if unsuccessful.

    Think of today’s dream of managing entire businesses through a blockchain-orchestrated system of processes: this idea is still based on the assumption that any single person, involved in a specific negotiation workflow, would act exactly in the same way.

    Balancing process execution and individual creativity is likely to be the key organizational duty of a good manager, which should encourage employees to pursue right goals and not just to be perfectly compliant to the company’s procedures – which is usually easier to do.

  2. Sully’s second lesson: he never slams NTSB for inquiring him. He easily could, leveraging the warm general respect around him, but he didn’t, as he’s well aware that procedures and regulations are there to save lives and the NTSB role will always be the key one to ensure safe travels.

    Rather, he works to prove how, in that specific circumstance, his decision was the correct one, to minimize the risk of crash, so that NTSB was eventually convinced not only to absolve him, but even to update its own aviation procedures by including Sully’s maneuver too.

  3. Sully’s third lesson is about his own humanity: soon after the landing, he is the last one to leave the plane, after ensuring no one was still on board. Even more, when asked to join the NY authorities for congratulating him, he kindly declines the offer, as there is still no certainty that no one was missed.

    Sully’s main goal looks to be not his own personal success, but his passengers’ safety. In the last touching live scene, when the real passengers meet the real Sully, one year later, we realize the special feeling of confidence between them. Indeed each one can now fully rely on that manager, as Sully clearly showed how important each single person is for him.

We can summarize below the three key management lessons from Sully:

  1. Person matter, not just processes
  2. Organizations are to be improved, not just criticized
  3. Act for the common good, not just for your personal success

By the way, after been hailed as a national hero in the United States, today Sully is one of the most influencing aviation procedures consultants and international speakers on airline safety.

Giuseppe Marengon

Author: Giuseppe Marengon

Over 30 years of operational, consulting, and sourcing experience in the Manufacturing, Retail and Transportation industries, gained from a range of positions in worldwide-classes ICT solution providers.

Since 2014, Giuseppe has been responsible for the HPE Industry solution portfolio and business development in South Europe. In this role he designed and launched the HPE Smart Traveler platform to enable the customer digital transformation journey for the Travel and Retail enterprises.