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Leadership in the Air


Pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger
On January 15, 2009, pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger made an emergency landing on New York’s Hudson River after US Airways Flight 1549 hit a flock of geese. It was dubbed the “Miracle on the Hudson,” and Sullenberger’s leadership and skill were credited with saving the lives of all 155 passengers and crew members onboard the plane. 

The new film Sully explores that dramatic episode in depth. Released in September, the movie stars Tom Hanks as Sullenberger. Back in 2010, Toastmaster magazine published an article about Sullenberger. Author Craig Harrison, DTM, PDG, interviewed the pilot about a range of leadership-related topics, including crisis communication and teamwork. In light of the new spotlight on Sullenberger, it’s worth reflecting on some of his comments from the December 2010 article.

On the importance of preparation and hard work: “I didn’t have time in those incredibly intense 208 seconds from when our airplane hit the birds until we landed in the Hudson River to learn what I needed to learn. I had to have already learned it. I had to have invested the preparation, put in the hard work and paid attention for decades—during thousands of hours of flying time. The same is true in many other areas of our lives, including leadership: It’s a daily process.” 

On how to improve an organization’s culture: “It’s not just the organizational charts that we develop or the procedures we have. It’s how we lead and treat people, and how we view each other, that really ultimately makes the difference in whether or not we are able to achieve these efficiencies.” 

Toastmasters have also weighed in on Sullenberger’s leadership qualities in the wake of the film’s release. In a LinkedIn discussion on the Official Toastmasters International Members Group page, Jean McAllister, DTM, of Blue Mountains, Canada, noted that when the pilot was hailed as a hero, “he gave credit to everyone who contributed to diverting the disaster. He was humble and thankful to his team.”