captain “sully” sullenberger on changing “cockpit culture”

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When Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was beginning his career as a commercial airline pilot, it was the captain’s way, or the highway.

“In the bad old days when I started flying, captains were not good leaders,” Sullenberger said. “They were solo acts. They did not build and lead their teams. They didn’t listen to others. They were autocratic and arrogant. And the accident rate reflected that.”

But in his keynote address to O.C. Tanner’s Influence Greatness conference at Snowbird, Sullenberger said he understood that in order to provide a truly safe journey – from takeoff to landing – he needed to advocate for a big change, and that change needed to bring about a focus on teamwork at his airline.

“I was someone who helped to change the cockpit culture at my airline,” Sullenberger said. “We began to develop a leadership teambuilding course that I helped to develop and I taught the very first such leadership teambuilding course at my airline.”

Sullenberger taught his fellow leaders that they could still have their authority and autonomy, but that with those same responsibilities, they also needed to be armed with what he called “human skills,” and an understanding that the whole could be greater than the individual.

“We were going to make them more capable that if they reached out and took a collection of individuals – and at a large airline we fly all the time, and because airlines are so big, with people we’ve never met before – we teach them how to take a collection of strangers and create an effective team,” Sullenberger said. “In other words, take a team of experts, and make them an expert team.”

This understanding of the strength of teamwork is something Sullenberger credits for helping him and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles to safely land US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River on January 15, 2009 when, shortly after takeoff, a flock of Canada geese struck the Airbus A320 causing it to lose the power of both engines.

“We took what we did know, adapted it, and applied it in a new way to, in 208 seconds, do something we’d never done before, and get it right the first time,” Sullenberger said. “Like much in life, aviation is a team sport and it was of course the efforts of many people who made possible the successful outcome after this flight,”

Sullenberger also spoke of his message to the passengers and crew of his flight, shortly before impact, and the effect it had on the outcome of that day.

“I said, ‘This is the captain. Brace for impact.’ And immediately, even through the hardened cockpit door, I could hear the flight attendants in front, Donna and Sheila, and I am sure Doreen in the back was doing the same, begin shouting their commands to the passengers in unison. ‘BRACE BRACE BRACE. HEADS DOWN STAY DOWN,’” Sullenberger said. “That day hearing those words encouraged me, comforted me. I knew that by saying those few words I had literally gotten the whole team on the same page.”

For Sullenberger, the message for the day was that teamwork can influence the outcomes of everything, and that our goal should be to bring teams together and keep them engaged.

“Imagine if you were going to meet your team for the first time, a group of strangers for the first time, never knowing if you would face the ultimate challenge of a lifetime tomorrow, or next week, or never,” Sullenberger said. “How would you engage them?

By lindsey sine
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