Monday, January 19, 2009

Decide, Act, Lead

Aircraft commander Chesley Sullenberger has been rightly hailed a hero for his successful landing of his powerless Airbus in the Hudson river last week. Mostly overlooked in all of the coverage of this event, however, is what made his piloting so successful.

I would submit that there are a fair number of pilots in the airlines, graduates I suspect of military flight training, who are mechanically capable of making a successful water landing of their aircraft just as Captain Sullenberger did. This is not in any way meant to minimize what he did. On the contrary, what he did was magnificent. But, the skill level of many of our pilots, courtesy of the foundations of their training in Air Force and Navy flight training, is so high that many are, I am certain, capable of the same thing.

But, the important issue is what happened between the time of the bird strike and the water landing; specifically, the decision to land the aircraft in the water, and having done so, to land it near a series of water taxis. Simply put, it was and is Sullenberger’s decision-making that is exceptional. That decision-making is what makes great pilots. And it is what makes great leaders.

So, what lesson can be drawn from that? The lesson to be drawn has its roots in how a pilot like Sullenberger acquires that decision-making ‘skill.’ And the answer is, if you will, practice. Great pilots are not simply great ‘mechanics,’ who know how to physically handle the aircraft. Instead, great pilots (and great leaders) are constantly considering the situation around them, analyzing as many aspects of the situation as they can, and constantly asking ‘what if.’ This is something they do every day. They are also very critical of themselves, constantly considering and evaluating what they have done and asking themselves why something worked, why something else didn’t, and in both cases what else they might have done to make it better. They will do this with every little thing.

It is this combination of experience – the being there – and active consideration – the endless asking of what ifs – that is a key component of great leaders.

Of course, in most cases no one around them ever sees this; it is all kept inside and the outward appearance is calm, quiet and self-assured. But, inside, great pilots, like great leaders, are constantly taking apart every situation and reassembling it. Good pilots will take a look at any accident or aircraft incident, and as a general rule the aviation community is much more conscientious about analyzing incidents then any other professional community, and they will ask themselves: What would I have done in the same situation? What would I have been looking for and queuing off of in order to make that better decision and make it earlier? What incidents have I been involved in where I might have made this mistake and what should I have done?’ The list of questions goes on and on.

The point is this: great leaders don’t simply know what the ‘right thing’ to do is for a given situation, as if by magic. Nor are great leaders the ones who have had ‘great’ experiences. As I’ve said before, the batboy and Earl Weaver both had the same experience: they both stood in the dugout and watched 162 games. Experience without active consideration means nothing.

Rather, it is the combination of experience – the being there – and active, aggressive consideration – the endless asking of what ifs – that is a key component of great leaders. No matter what you are doing, flying an airplane, running a one man business, leader of ten thousand, or a million, you need a process in which you review your decisions, and the decisions of those around you – good and bad – so that you may understand what worked, what didn’t work, and Why. Great leaders learn from experience, they improve their decision-making; they have mastered the transition from observation to decision to action that is the key for leadership in a crisis. If you don’t you will never understand the reasons for either your failures or your successes. If you do, you will find yourself, like Captain Sullenberger, ready to handle the situation no matter how dire.


At February 3, 2009 at 2:53 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Several comments:

1. I fear it stretches a point to claim Captain Sullenberger is a hero. No doubt he a very skilled pilot. No doubt he is a fine gentleman. But, a hero? He did what he was trained to do in the situation where he had to do so. Not in any way to demean his skill or concern for his plane and passengers, but I don’t see how calling him a “hero” does anything but debase the word and demean those true heroes who have “gone above and beyond the line of duty.” What he did was squarely within his line of duty and was an act competently performed as practiced and anticipated. If being competent and saving lives is all that is needed to be a hero, then we need an entirely new word for those who go beyond that. Sorry, just have the proverbial wild hair about the too common use of certain words and acts. (Don’t get me started on standing ovations at the Symphony!)

2. I fail to see the applicability of decision training to the concept of leadership within the context of this example. What else could he reasonably have done? Land in Manhattan? Nope. Try to turn and land back to LaGuardia or another airport? Everything I’ve read indicated that was not a choice. Land in the East River or Long Island Sound? Honestly, I think his decisions were dictated by the circumstances. Perhaps I am wrong, but it sure appears that way. Not exceptional decision making, then, but rationale decisions based on training and the circumstances at hand were the hallmarks of his choice.

3. Paragraph 2, above, notwithstanding, I heartily agree that decision making is a key component of being a leader, but I would say it is not a quintessential component. That is, one may make great decisions and not be a “leader” in any usual form of the word. But, a leader who consistently makes bad decisions may still be a leader. History is filled with “leaders’ who made lousy decisions. Even generally acknowledged great leaders have made, in addition to perhaps great decisions, terrible decisions, though perhaps not fatally bad decisions. However, I submit it is not clear if those bad decisions ante-date or post-date the great ones. It seems to me to be all over the board. Perhaps this gets back to Robert Townsend’s contention that all leaders (CEO) should be run out of office after 5 years!!

In any event, I would be interested in you thoughts on what leadership is in its essence? And, perhaps more to the point, what is the essence of good leadership v. bad leadership? From there perhaps we could explore the indicia of same and the impact of power, circumstances, toadyism and the like on the psyche of the leader over time?


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