In January 2009, I was working in New York City, so I certainly remember when Captain Chesley Sullenberger preformed an astoundingly successful emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River, leaving all 155 passengers and crew not only with their lives, but just minor injuries.
But when I say I remember it, those are only superficial memories of the early news reports. I did not delve deep into the incident or study it closely. A few weeks ago, however, I watched Sully — Clint Eastwood’s movie on the ditching and its subsequent aftermath — and I gained a much deeper understanding of what happened, and an appreciation for the pilot.
The point of the story — brought to light in the NTSB investigation that occurred after the water landing (Sully refused to use the term “crash”) — was that the recreated simulations in which pilots under the same conditions knew what was going to happen, and could thus react with the correct course immediately, were flawed. In the film’s climax, Sully explains (or rather pleads) that when you don’t know what’s coming — and when what ultimately does come has never happened before — it takes time to assess the situation, weigh the options, and come up with a decision of how to move forward. Now, the appropriate duration of that time interval could be debated based on the circumstances and the experience of the person in question, but what is not in question is that those faced with unprecedented events do not know what to do instantaneously, they need a minute.
What we can assume is that the longer the experience of the “leader,” the shorter the necessary deliberation; while the more extreme or unusual the circumstances, the longer the duration. And those two forces can interplay dynamically to determine whether the leader did all they could be expected to have done. Did they, in short, perform sufficiently or did they choke? Did they blow it?
Pilots — and all leaders — face weeks, months and years of handling the vanilla, the run of the mill, the everyday. But it is in handling the everyday, and the minor incidents which go along with them, that we build up the experiences necessary to handle the singular, the anomalous.
To take a far less dramatic example, we produce, on average, one webinar per week, and we’ve done this for years. Most of the time, everything goes according to plan, but when you are dealing with multiple (and very busy) folks, all connecting online and on the phone at the same point, and counting on Webex to behave flawlessly, things happen. But with our years of experience comes confidence in handling the curveball that will come down the pike when dealing with live events where there are no do-overs (just ask Mariah Carey how fun this can be). With all that experience, we manage to land that plane safely every time, even if once in a while those behind the scenes know it was done on the water.
As a leader in your organization, it’s important to remember that you don’t really get paid for the day to day — you don’t get paid for handling the ship when the sea is calm. You get paid for putting your neck out there on some big strategic decisions, by owning them. And you also get paid for making the right decisions when all hell is breaking loose — whether that has to do with your network going down, an unhinged super-surgeon who just hates IT, or some cataclysmic ransomware attack. You are paid to keep your head, analyze the situation, and to bring your team and organization through the storm safely.
Did you ever have the feeling that your whole life prepared you to deal with a certain incident? Well, it did, and it continues to do so. If you don’t think your test has come yet, keep your eye on the horizon. It will.