13 Leadership Lessons And Quotes From Sully

A Reel Leadership Article

On January 15th, 2009, the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 had a choice to make. Do we try to make it back to LaGuardia, land at Teterboro Airport, or make a crash landing in the Hudson River.

Captain Chelsey Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles made unheard of decision to land the plane in the river.

Leadership lessons from Sully

Sully is the story of Captain Sullenberger and the challenges he faced as he was brought before the National Transportation Safety Board to review his processes and what went wrong.

The pilot of Flight 1549 was grilled and vilified by the those on the board. They felt something could have been done differently.

We don’t know if there was anything else that Sully could have done. He only had 208 seconds from the time the birds hit to the time he safely landed the plane on the Hudson River.

Through the telling of his story, we can find copious amounts of leadership lessons. Let’s dig in.


CATION: Sully movie spoilers ahead

Leadership Lessons And Quotes From Sully

1. Leadership decisions may haunt you

The pilot, Captain Chelsey Sullenberger, had a split-second decision to make. Fly the disabled plane to an airport or land the plane on water.

He chose the water as the only viable option.

While he succeeded, the coming months saw Sully questioning whether or not he made the right choice. He agonized over the decision he made. To the point his decision haunted him.

Leadership isn’t easy. You’re going to have to make some tough calls.

People will question you on these calls and you’ll stew over them in your mind. They’ll begin to haunt you.

2. Leaders have to make split-second decisions

Sully didn’t have an hour to decide where to land Flight 1549. He had seconds.

In those seconds, he had to process years of knowledge and apply them to the situation at hand.

You’re going to have to make split-second decisions as well. While most won’t be life or death, they will have consequences.

Know that you have years of experience behind you to make the right call. Process the information and choose a direction to go.

3. Captain Chelsey Sullenberger

Engineers aren’t pilots

The NTSB investigation panel heard from engineers who said Sully could have landed the plane at LaGuardia. From their data, things should have been differently.

Sully had a different opinion. After years of flying, he knew what had happened with the plane and how long he hadn’t.

The engineers might have their data, he had his experience and gut to let him know what to do.

A lot of times we’ll want to collect data and run through the possible scenarios. We want to engineer exactly what’s going to happen.

The problem with this method of leading is that there are variables that aren’t accounted for. That’s why you’re a leader.

You get to make the decisions when the crap hits the fan. Be a leader, not an engineer.

4. Leaders can become overwhelmed

Early on, we begin to see Sully crack. It’s after he made the amazing water landing and before the NTSB hearing.

He’s repeating himself. He’s unsure of what’s going on. And he’s forgetful.

His experience left him overwhelmed and unable to cope.

There are experiences in leadership where we can become overwhelmed.

I remember a time in youth ministry when we got word that one of our students had passed away in a drunk-driving accident.

Hearing the news floored me. I couldn’t believe we lost a student. I was unsure of how to proceed.

Being overwhelmed is a part of leadership, especially when hard news hits. The key to leading well is to continue moving forward when you’re overwhelmed.

5. Leaders face imposter syndrome

Sully had nightmares about the accident. He even dreamt that Katie Couric challenged his status as a hero.

Was he really a hero or was Captain Sully a fraud?

Those thoughts rolled through his mind.

Leaders can struggle with the imposter syndrome. We can feel like we’re not good enough or that we don’t know what we’re talking about.

That’s okay. You’re going to feel this way.

However, you can’t let the negative thoughts guide you. Instead, refer back to your past successes and realize you’ve accomplished a lot.

You still have a lot more to accomplish.

6. Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger

I don’t feel like a hero. I was just a man doing his job

What we do as a leader can make us look like a hero. Does that really make you a hero or just someone who’s doing his job?

My thought is that you can be both.

As a leader, you have a job to do. Do it.

You’ll also have situations that require more than the average man or woman would do. Going above and beyond can make you a hero.

7. Lieutenant Cook

A pilot never stops acquiring new skills

This is great advice to leaders everywhere. Once you’ve reached the level of a leader, that’s not the end of your education.

You will always need to learn new skills. Never stop learning.

8. Leaders can be misunderstood

In one scene, we see Sully looking out the window. What is he doing? He’s visualizing what could have happened had he not made the plane landing in the Hudson River.

While gazing out the window, another man approaches him and calls his name. Sully can’t hear him. He’s in another world.

The man then berates Sully.

He doesn’t understand the pain and struggles Sully is facing. He’s in pain over the decision. He’s trying to figure out if he made the best call.

Sadly, we will all be misunderstood at some point. People won’t realize what you’re going through and believe you’re ignorant or unaware.

Rather, you’re contemplating and trying to figure out what has happened. Don’t be discouraged when you’re misunderstood.

9. Leaders care for others

Once Captain Sully landed Flight 1549, he stayed onboard the plane. He watched and guided passengers to the emergency plane exits.

He even went through the plane row by row to ensure that there were no passengers left behind.

His duty as a pilot was to care for the passengers on the plane.

Your responsibility as a leader? To care for those you lead.

Great leaders care for their team members and make sure they’re taken care of. Even before their own needs.

10. Captain Sullenberger

If the mayor wants to say hello, he needs to come down here. We’re still working.

When the mayor heard of the safe landing of Flight 1549, he wanted to have a word with Captain Sullenberger.

The captain had other thoughts. He felt that he still hadn’t completed his work. There were still people he needed to tend to.

There are a lot of people vying for your attention. They’ll approach you and ask you for your time.

And you’ll be apt to give it to them. After all, leaders help people out.

However, we can’t ignore the work at hand. You have a job to get done. Make sure it’s done.

11. Fortune cookie fortune

A delay is better than a disaster

There’s always pressure to be first to market, the first to 1,000 church members, or the first to share an idea. We feel it’s the way to ensure success.

Still, you may be headed towards trouble by rushing headlong into battle.

Taking time to assess the situation, repair anything that is wrong, and then move forward can avert disaster. Make sure everything is good before you hit the ground running.

12. There’s a difference between simulations and real life

The NTSB continuously told Sully and his co-pilot Skiles that the simulations said they could have made the landing at either airport they had the option of landing at. Sully knew this wasn’t accurate.

He constantly pushed back and told them the simulation was wrong. Even at the final hearing where they performed 2 human simulations and saw success.

In the viewing of the simulations, Sully saw something was wrong. There was no account for the human element.

Once they attributed the human factor into the flight simulations, both simulations crashed and burned.

As a leader, you have to account for the human factor in all that you do. People are going to go off-script and make choices that may seem irrational.

Those decisions may be. But that’s the human factor.

Be ready and willing to engage with those on your teams that have to make decisions. Don’t think the simulations or trials that you have run are the end.

13. Data can be wrong

One of the big contentions the NTSB investigation had was that Flight 1549 still had partial use of the left engine. That’s what the computer had told them.

Sully’s experience had told him otherwise. There was something wrong with both engines and he wasn’t going to be in the air much longer.

At the end of Sully, they were able to retrieve the engine. Guess what they found…

That engine was bad. Sully was right and both engines had failed on Flight 1549.

We rely so heavily on data that we never stop to think the data could be wrong.

Realize data isn’t perfect. There may be information the computer hasn’t logged that you haven’t factored in.

Question: Have you seen Sully? If so, what leadership lessons did you find in the movie? Haven’t seen it? What was your favorite leadership lesson from my list? Share yours in the comment section below.

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