US Airways Captain Sullenberger, Leaders, and Strangling Tangles

Wed, Feb 11, 2009

On January 15, 2009, US Airways flight 1549 took off from New York's La Guardia Airport. By all accounts, this was a routine takeoff, like many that occur day in and day out. However, on this particular flight, something unexpected occurred that required leadership, quick thinking, and skill. The plane hit a flock of birds, disabling both engines. Captain Chesley Sullenberger III deftly guided the plane for a safe landing in the Hudson. All passengers survived. This miraculous story offers great insight for leaders who want to avoid catastrophes, or what I call Strangling Tangles.  A Strangling Tangle is a complex business challenge, further complicated by messy human dynamics that leads to a precipitous drop in revenue or even business failure.

Captain Sellenberger was able to avoid a catastrophe, according to San Francisco Chronicle, staff writer Henry K. Lee, because of his ongoing training, experience, and retraining.  A retired United Airlines pilot, who had successfully averted another airline disaster, commented that Sullenberger and his crew had a tremendous amount of collective knowledge about their equipment, their location, and their area. In other words, they knew their aircraft, their craft (flying), and what to try and not try. Sullenberger was able quickly assess the situation and try out a series of actions that he knew could work.

Business leaders almost always are experts in their industry and product or service line.  The truly great leaders who are able to avert Strangling Tangles also are dedicated to the craft of leadership. They train and retrain themselves and their leadership  teams, so that they understand the levers available to them-organization design, structure, culture, rewards, metrics, communication, and how to engage their workforce so that they constantly know as much as possible about the business environment. Because they know their business, their industry, and the business conditions as experienced by a wide array of their stakeholders, they are more able to react quickly when the unexpected occurs.

In his bestseller Blink, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the ability of some individuals to accurately assess a situation and take appropriate and positive actions. This seeming ability to make quick decisions in the blink of an eye is actually honed by years of experience and training which leads to mastery. Captain Sellenberger is a master airline pilot who reacted boldly and correctly in the blink of an eye. He reached that level of mastery after years of focused effort and according to his wife, "a love of flying."

Are you committed to mastering the art of leadership? Contact for a free ten minute consultation on how we can help you and your leadership team accelerate your success.

Marcia Ruben Ph.D, PCC, CMC

Marcia Ruben Ph.D, PCC, CMC

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