Movie: Sully. 2016 film based on the autobiography Highest Duty, co-written by Chesley Sullenburger and Jeffrey Zaslow, about the safe landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. Stars Tom Hanks. Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Executive coaching message: Action and accountability.
This was a jaw-dropping story when it happened… we turned on our TV sets to see Captain Chelsey Sullenberger land a passenger jet on NYC’s Hudson River with all 155 souls intact.
I am always interested to see how stories like this are told, even though we all know the ending. How will it be made dramatic in the telling? The drama comes from the conflict between Sully and the Commission of Enquiry whose task it was to determine whether or not Sully did the right thing – or was it a matter of pilot error, indeed lunacy.
What can we learn about how to lead under pressure?
This is not a story about team leadership. It is a story about the expertise and experience of the leader making the difference between 155 people living or dying and using the authority of his expertise to drive a hostile Commission of Enquiry.
1. Sully was deeply experienced. His expertise enabled him to take action quickly under extreme pressure. Intuition and judgment successfully applied under pressure are the product of deep knowledge and experience.
2. Sully respected the accountability process and committed to it with the same rigor and energy he had brought to the cockpit. He was confident about his action and accepted the accountability that went with it no matter how uncomfortable.
3. Sully used his expertise to drive the Enquiry process to interrogate the “facts” provided by computer simulations then human simulations. He would be accountable but he would ensure that the process would be real world not just simulated.
4. Sully used his authority of position and experience to protect a formidable presence in the Enquiry such that he was able to establish that in fact he had taken the only action available that would have saved all the lives.
5. Sully knew he was part of a much larger group than just himself. His copilot and all the rescuers were just as essential to the outcome. But it was Sully who made the big call to do the water landing.
This is a very watchable and intelligent film with a great performance from Tom Hanks as Sully. It reminds us that while there are undoubtedly transferable leadership skills, the authority of expertise, combined with drive and passion cannot be matched.