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Michael Useem
Scholar

Michael Useem

Michael Useem is Professor of Management and Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Not a five-minute journey

The account of Captain Sullenberger's landing of his suddenly powerless Airbus A320 on the Hudson River has become widely appealing for many reasons. Among the most enduring is likely to be what his masterful piloting of the stricken aircraft with 155 people on board tells us about leadership on the line.

In witnessing leadership decisions when they are at their most stressful and most fateful, we often learn most about what really matters in others - and ourselves.

In less than five minutes from takeoff from New York's LaGuardia airport, Sullenberger successfully brought his aircraft with no working engines to a soft landing on the Hudson, a feat that required a laser focus on the precise execution of an inventive maneuver.

Without extensive personal experience, without disciplined focus, without a willingness to make momentous decisions - including instantly deeming the river the only feasible landing site - the descent could have been disastrously different.

From Sullenberger's public commentary and his new book, Highest Duty, we come to appreciate the highest calling of leadership: An absolute focus on the ultimate mission of the endeavor, whatever the chaos, fears, or even terror of the moment.

In the graphic description that we now have of those critical minutes in cockpit of USAir flight 1549, we witness an individual whose leadership will long be remembered -- and take note of the qualities we should strive for before we are suddenly called to exercise them.

First, we will want to be a master of our technical discipline. Landing the Airbus A320 depended on a deep understanding of how the suddenly impaired aircraft would operate without power.

Second, we will want to be a master of our self-discipline. Remaining steely in the Airbus cockpit required a riveting ability to ignore all distractions and to focus totally on air speed, glide path, and impact angle.

Third, we will want to be master of making good and timely decisions. Bringing the 155 passengers to a safe landing demanded a rapid-fire set of exacting and exactly timed actions.

"Flight 1549 wasn't just a five-minute journey," Sullenberger has written. "My entire life led me safely to that river."

In learning about those five minutes and the entire life that prepared him for those minutes, we may be that much better prepared for those future moments when our own leadership is on the line. Thank you Captain Sullenberger.

By Michael Useem

 |  October 19, 2009; 5:28 PM ET
Category:  Leadership personalities Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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