Recently we watched the movie Sully, about the miracle landing of a commercial airliner on the Hudson River in 2009. It’s an extraordinary film, tightly edited, superbly acted, and with some great examples of good leadership. Here’s some of what I took from it.
1. Humility: toward the end of the film, one of the transport investigators says to Sully that he is the X factor, the only reason that the plane landed without any loss of life. He disagrees. He names his crew, the passengers, air traffic controllers, the first responders, each of whom played a part in ensuring there was no loss of life. Sully was being treated in the media as a hero but by personality and by choice he didn’t seek or hog the acclaim. He could easily have taken all the credit – this movie is named after him, after all – but he chose to share the credit. Slightly before this scene, Sully and his co-pilot take a break from the transport investigation interrogation and Sully says to his colleague that he was very proud of him, the co-pilot was a hero. Great leaders know they don’t need the fame, but they do need other people.
2. Doubt: one of the key themes of the film is the transport investigation into the plane landing. Investigators persistently believe that Sully could have safely returned to LaGuardia airport, or gone to another airport, and so saved damaging the plane (despite no loss of life) in the Hudson River. Sully clearly had had a great success. But he still doubted. He replayed what he did and what he could have done differently. He genuinely thought his 40-year career could be over. I know preachers are often overcome with self-doubt after delivering a sermon. Doubt differentiates human from machine and each decision could play out in a hundred different ways. But, and this is clearly pivotal to this story, Sully wasn’t paralysed by doubt, at the time or later. Landing a plane with neither of its engines working doesn’t leave a lot of time for extensive analysis. But what Sully had was the instinct born out of experience. And therein is the antidote to doubt. Sully trusted his instincts, rightly as it turns out, and as is powerfully demonstrated in the film. And trusting instincts comes with experience too.
3. Teamwork: as it took a pilot and co-pilot to land the plane, the cabin crew to calm and help evacuate the passengers, and each passenger to help one another to the exits, so it took seven ferries and hundreds of New York Police to save all 155 souls in 24 minutes. Each player had a role, each had a strength, each knew what to do and how to work with others. It was a superb example of teamwork. And it worked even better because they had a common purpose, indeed an urgency to it.
4. Criticism: at the same time as being hailed as a hero, Sully had to contend with those who thought he could have done things differently, indeed better. Criticism in this circumstance was clearly hard to take, especially when everything else was pointing toward a signal achievement. But as any leader knows criticism is par for the course. There will always be those with unsolicited advice, armchair assessment, and often trenchant views that are ill-informed. Many of those who criticised Sully were not pilots and none had successfully landed a plane in the Hudson River before. And these criticisms kept Sully awake at night, caused him to doubt, blinded him to his great success. Criticism can do that. It can encroach like darkness into light. But there was an antidote to that too.
5. Support: around Sully were those, including his wife and colleagues, who kept on reminding him about what was going well, what he had achieved, and that they believed in him. Leadership can be a very lonely, even isolating business. But a good leader knows he or she is not alone. There are people who say “I’ve got your back”. Having people around us who can help us see the daylight is an essential element of being a leader.
6. Humour: Sully’s co-pilot is asked by the transport investigator if he would do anything differently. He smiles and replies, “I’d do it in July [rather than the frigid temperatures of an American winter in New York].” The ability to laugh at yourself as a leader is as important to laugh at what’s in front and around you. Seeing the funny side is a good way to sanity.