If you have not seen the film „Sully” yet and plan to, don´t continue reading because I´ve got some spoilers (although the outcome is known to most)
The film dramatizes the investigation following the successful ditching of an airbus 320 shortly after take-off from LaGuardia airport in New York due to loss of both engines after a bird strike.
The investigation undermines the captain´s decision to choose to ditch the aircraft in the Hudson river, a choice presenting many risks, rather than returning to the departure airport after following through procedures for such an incident.
Pushing forward this reasoning, they show that computer simulations demonstrated that the crew could have returned safely to the airport. Simulations done at the airbus factory seem to point to the same result.
Yes, it was possible to return to the airport. The pilots in the simulators did it…after 16 unsuccessful attempts, and by taking immediately the required actions to perform a return to the airport successfully.
There are three ideas on leadership we can push on with this example.
Leaders do not indulge in wishful thinking
We always want a situation to end well. Turning around, landing at the airport and going for drinks is the ideal option, but it is not the best one. Character is not only understanding things will not go down as you would wish, but also the strength to choose a solution you find realistic, and being able to cope with the responsibility afterwards.
It should be noted that you do not always need an emergency to indulge in wishful thinking: a manager with a full hands off attitude indulges in wishful thinking by believing that everything in the end will work out regardless of how you steer the ship.
Leaders gather information, process it and act
In the film, the simulations of return to the airport are successful because the crews in the simulators know exactly the situation and immediately take all necessary steps knowing their status perfectly before even starting. In reality, any person needs time to assess the situation and process the options. In the film, the captain asks the simulations to be redone with a 35 second waiting time for the investigators to evaluate his decision fairly.
A leader will never know beforehand the consequences of actions taken and must rely on processing skills to decide a course of action. The situation is evaluated with all the info at hand, including opinion of others, and a plan is sketched out. Comes a time when to stop calculating and speculating, and taking control of events….with the risk of being wrong.
You cannot rewrite the ending of the book without having read it first
All that being said, there is one very important element not to be forgotten. The captain took a very risky decision, but it wasn’t a reckless one: his training, his flight experience, his knowledge of the aircraft was paramount in the success.
Rewriting the ending of the book is about being able to adapt to new situations that were not planned by senior managers, senior marketing or financial officers. It does not translate into a “no-knowledge bravado” attitude that is more reckless than inspiring.
Changing the ending of a book requires the book to have been read and reread first. Understanding situations, knowing your people, knowing your field of business, reading up on past experience of people who were in the chair before, are essential tasks and aptitudes to gain the experience and the depth that empowers to see when the book needs to be somewhat interpreted differently.
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