An economy that’s shedding nearly 600,000 jobs per month is in complete free fall – just like an airplane that’s lost both its engines. So in this time of economic crisis, it’s worth looking for lessons from the one man who really knows how to handle a crash: Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger.
After all, the man saved the lives of 155 passengers on the stricken US Airways Flight 1549, received congratulatory phone calls from Presidents Bush and Obama, scored excellent seats for the Super Bowl, and, on Monday, received the key to New York City from Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Surely he has something to offer lawmakers entrusted with the fates of 300 million Americans.
It turns out, Sully’s crash landing was more than just a miracle on the Hudson. It was a case study of leadership in a crisis. Washington politicians would do well to ask themselves one question: What would Sully do?
Here are the top five lessons from the crash of flight 1549:
1. Don’t panic: Sullenberger told CBS’ Katie Couric that he immediately knew he was in a life-or-death situation: “It was the worst sickening pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling I’ve ever felt in my life,” he said. But he didn’t let that fear keep him from acting calmly and effectively. On the cockpit recording, Sullenberger’s tone of voice is even and controlled as disaster loomed.
Lesson: You can’t lead from the fetal position. There are both Democrats and Republicans who would prefer not to have to revisit the notion of a financial rescue package, especially after the debacle of the Troubled Assets Relief Program last year. Sully didn’t want to crash into the Hudson, either – but he didn’t have a choice.
2. There’s only one pilot at a time: The instant his engines cut out over New York City, Sullenberger turned to his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, and said “my aircraft,” taking control of the airplane. Stiles responded quickly and simply: “your aircraft.” Notice what the two men did not do: They did not argue over who was in charge, or whose theory of crash landing was better. They had only one chance to get it right, and Sully was in the captain’s seat, so he made the call.
Lesson: Leaders have to be allowed to lead. The back and forth tussling we have seen between congressional Democrats and the White House over who’s responsible for certain planks in the stimulus bill is just the opposite of what we saw with Sully and Stiles.
3. Improvise, Improvise, Improvise: Sully cranked through a list of options with his co-pilot and with air traffic control. Return to La Guardia Airport? Couldn’t make it. Bear right toward Teterboro? Still too far. Sully weighed the advice he was getting, and made a unilateral decision, telling air traffic control simply: “We’ll be in the Hudson.”
Lesson: Weigh the options, and then move on. Sometimes, the worst choice on the table is the only one available. Both President Bush and President Obama have been making it up as they go along – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Franklin Delano Roosevelt once called it: “bold, persistent experimentation.” For Congress, most economists agree, that means do something – this problem won’t solve itself without a lot of collateral damage.
4. Experts matter: Sullenberger was perhaps the ideal pilot to handle the Hudson landing: He’d flown for more than 19,000 hours, ran his own transportation safety consultancy, and had participated in several National Transportation Safety Board accident investigations. Contrast that with Washington, where all 535 lawmakers on Capitol Hill have an opinion – whether they know what they’re talking about or not. President Obama himself bemoaned this tendency in the stimulus process: “These days, everybody thinks they’re economists,” he joked.
Lesson: Some people are better qualified than others – sometimes you’re the pilot, and sometimes you’re the flight attendant.
5. Don’t worry about public opinion – success makes for great numbers: Couric asked Sullenberger whether he thought about the passengers while he was struggling to land the plane. Sully said, in essence, no. Instead, Sully was focused on the task immediately in front of him. “I knew I had to solve this problem,” he said.
Lesson: The passengers – and the American people – are along for the ride. As difficult as this is to swallow in a democracy, a fast-moving crisis simply doesn’t allow a lot of time for deliberation. Hesitation can mean disaster. Imagine Sully conducting an opinion poll – if asked, surely some of the passengers would have wanted him to try for Teterboro, some for La Guardia, and some for the water landing. By the time he’d decided what to do, it would be too late to do it. What’s more, it’s sometimes better to make a bad decision than none at all. After all, maybe Sully could have landed at Teterboro and saved a $60 million aircraft as well as the lives of the passengers and crew. We’ll never know. But debating the option any longer would surely have cost the lives and the plane.
The problem with all this is that democracy doesn’t work like a dictatorial airplane cockpit: it’s messy, indecisive and combative. That’s almost always a good thing, except in some situations that require immediate and decisive action. That partly explains why Sullenberger is getting ovations and the ever-lasting gratitude of his passengers, and Congress’ approval ratings are in the cellar.
What’s scary about the Sully model is that you only know if it works after the fact. Until the moment of impact, everyone – co-pilot, crew, passengers – is operating on faith. If Sully had been the wrong guy for the job, or if a sudden gust of wind had tipped a wing into the river too early, we’d be learning the opposite lessons now: Sully should have consulted more, delegated more, or listened to the air traffic controller. It is exactly the same with the stimulus.
Still, Washington politicians too often feel entitled to a hero’s welcome before they’ve actually done anything heroic. Sure, Sully and his crew headed for the photo ops and celebrity television interviewers – but only after they’d saved the day.