Early on in this most difficult year for the global corporate community, business leaders were given exemplary lessons about the personal qualities and practical imperatives that define leadership. On Jan.15, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger successfully ditched
Flight 1540 on the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 passengers aboard.
The dramatic climax occurred a stone's throw or two from Wall Street, then as now struggling with a few crash landings of its own.
We don't have to surmise what those lessons in leadership are. There's a black box bearing eloquent testimony.
The first lesson is all about speed and transparency. After deciding immediately that it was not feasible to land at LaGuardia or head for New Jersey, Captain Sullenberger advised his stakeholders - i.e., the people on board - that they would have to land on the river and that they should "brace for impact." There was no sugar-coating, no temporizing. There was no instinct to shift blame (to the birds, to mechanics, to whomever).
Importantly, Sullenberger was imparting the bad news all at once. He respected his stakeholders enough to trust them with the unvarnished truth and, because he did so, his subsequent assurances were all the more credible. When, in those agonizing moments, Sullenberger told them that they were indeed going to make it, they had every reason to believe. When he said they'd be ok if they listened to him, he had already built up a trust bank based on candor. Wherever he directed, his stakeholders would follow.
The incident redefines courage for leaders of every stripe. Most of today's beleaguered executives are not cowards by traditional measure. They'd rush into a burning building to save its occupants. But by contrast, if already inside a slowly smoldering building, their instincts are often to hunker down and take no action at the first, second, or third signs of smoke, or to even begin to plan what to do . Tradition says, "Wait for the next quarter and hopefully our better results will make everyone forget."
That's not leadership, its followship.
Heroic courage, as personified by Captain Sullenberger, is all about being ceaselessly responsive to every situation and doing the right thing all the time in peacetime as in war. As Sullenberger says (in his autobiography Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters), "We never know what moment in our lives we'll be judged on." Corporate leaders likewise cannot know what momentary lapse will set off a chain reaction of intractable consequences.
For Sullenberger, as for those who command global companies, the imperative is therefore to use peacetime to continuously develop the skills and instincts essential in a crisis. "For 42 years, I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience," Sullenberger told Katie Couric. "On Jan. 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal."
To be sure, leaders are made, not born, but they cannot suddenly be made in the urgent instant when they're needed. As such, those entrusted with the fates of their companies must ask themselves if they're making similarly regular deposits in the leadership development fund.
Ultimately, such personal and professional attributes engender a critical rethinking of priorities -- a quintessential goal-switching -- that is essential in crises. As a student of pilot psychology during a crisis (and an investigator during an official inquiry into a Los Angeles accident that led to improved procedures and training), Sullenberger is keenly aware of studies showing how many pilots wait too long to eject from a distressed aircraft because they fear punishment for losing a multi-million dollar vehicle.
In other words, they'd rather die than face the reprimand of their superiors for a lost plane. They wait too long as they try to save a doomed aircraft before deciding to switch goals and save themselves. By contrast, Sullenberger adapted in seconds. His goal immediately changed: Save lives and sacrifice a machine. If highly trained military pilots wait too long at the cost of their own lives to switch goals, how will your subordinates react in a crisis when faced with having to give you bad news and suggest a sacrifice?
Business leaders already find themselves at just such a crossroads, especially since the Great Recession of 2008. The years ahead will confront them with additional challenges to jettison old goals and short-term returns once deemed essential. They will need to define new goals based on long-term value, overcome institutional inertia, and ensure their own credibility as fully accountable stewards of their precious cargo.
Richard S. Levick, Esq., is the president and chief executive officer of Levick Strategic Communications, a crisis communications firm. He is the co-author of Stop the Presses: The Crisis & Litigation PR Desk Reference and writes for BulletProofBlog.com. Reach him at email@example.com.