In less than four minutes on a chilly January afternoon back in 2009, U.S. Airways Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger made a series of focused, yet impossibly calm decisions that saved the lives of 155 people. “I had to set priorities. And thanks to a lifetime of training, I was able to synthesize what I knew to solve a problem I had never seen before.”
A flock of Canadian geese disabled the Airbus aircraft shortly after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, forcing Sullenberger and his crew to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River. Beyond the extraordinary skill required to land the plane safely in the frigid waters, Sullenberger was hailed for his personal commitment to ensuring that every passenger and crew member was safely evacuated.
As the concluding speaker at the NAR Leadership Summit on Tuesday, Sullenberger noted that he spent those critical moments before the landing neither thinking about his family nor praying, but rather concentrating single-mindedly on getting the plane and his passengers through the ordeal. “I had to focus on the task at hand, despite the stress,” he explained. “I only did the highest priority items and I had to do them well. This required the discipline to ignore everything else.”
In many respects, this was the day he had been training for during four decades as a pilot. “My first thought was, ‘This can’t be happening.’ Things like this don’t happen to me. I had never faced a situation in 42 years that I couldn’t immediately resolve.”
Sullenberger’s feat in the cockpit, widely described as “miraculous,” has led to a new career as an author and on center stage, in which he reflects on the attributes and experience that led to the successful outcome. “Never stop investing in yourself. Never stop investing in learning,” he said. “We have to keep growing and we have to keep reinventing ourselves. And change before you are forced to by circumstances.”
A longtime leader to improve the already exemplary professional standards in his industry, Sullenberger noted that he had been working for years as a safety advocate before he became an instant media hero. “Remember that your reputation is built on one interaction at a time, one day at a time. With each interaction, there is an opportunity for good, ill, or indifference. We have to choose which it is going to be.”