Captain “Sully” Sullenberger: Luck Has Nothing To Do With It

Most of us probably remember very clearly the incredible news story and pictures depicting the commercial airliner that landed in the icy cold Hudson River in New York City in January 2009.  It became known as the “Miracle on the Hudson” because all one hundred fifty five passengers and crew survived.

Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s story was re-energized recently with the release of the feature film “Sully,” starring Tom Hanks as the Captain. Movie trailers present him as a strong and sensitive character, who in the aftermath was scrutinized perhaps unfairly for what took place during the two hundred and eight seconds between take off at LaGuardia Airport and the landing in the river.

Captain Sully’s actions on that day are often extolled as heroic.   He was the brave super human in this dramatic crash landing that mercifully wasn’t a tragedy.  He performed a seemingly insurmountable feat under the kind of crushing pressure most of us will thankfully never, ever experience. The amazing fact that all escaped with their lives leaves us all to proclaim him forever a hero, a lifesaver, a miracle worker.

But how did he really do it?  Why was he even able to do it? What was it that qualified and empowered him to perform this landing successfully when the odds were undoubtedly stacked against him? Was it just luck?  Not if you consult Leadership Theory.

There are many theories of leadership. Lots of research has been performed over the last century to attempt to encapsulate and explain leaders and leadership.  Some theories are to do with understanding the leader and followers in certain situations.  Others are based on leader behaviors. But when we consider the case of the leadership of Captain Sully on that cold January afternoon in 2009, we should look to the leadership theories centered on innate qualities and skills.

The Trait theory of leadership is centered on innate qualities of a leader.  While there is no definitive list of leadership attributes despite nearly a century of research, there are some qualities that are common across many studies: intelligence, self-confidence and determination. It seems perhaps obvious to assert that these qualities were present in Captain Sully on that day. It can help us explain his ability to perform.  If these qualities were weaved within the fabric of Captain Sully’s being and imprinted in his “leadership DNA”, then even under the stress of the event, these qualities were available for him to summon up when most needed.

The skills theory of leadership is concerned with the skills of the leader.  The schooling, training, knowledge and experience that has built up over the years. Captain Sully had been piloting commercial aircraft for 30 years before the event, and had been in the military before that. He also had special training in aviation safety and airline accidents, and helped develop safety protocols. This helped him problem solve to quickly develop his plan. He had a deep understanding of the aircraft and how to safely operate it, as well as an ability to understand the limitations of the aircraft given that it had no engine power. Of additional importance was conceptual skill, problem solving and judgement.  Conceptual skill is the ability to work with information and ideas to shape an outcome. Captain Sully had lots of skills and knowledge available to him, but his ability to organize and apply that knowledge to the immediate, urgent situation is what led to success.

It certainly was not just one trait or skill that we acknowledge as the one that saved the day. Captain Sully had an amazingly terrifying opportunity to call on the combination of every skill and trait in his arsenal in order to save himself, the crew and passengers on that day. He did so within seconds, a further testament to his career lifetime of trait and skill building. He said it best himself when he famously said during a 60 minutes interview with Katie Couric in February 2009: “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

Luck had nothing to do with the successful outcome of this incredible accident, and for that, we credit the leadership of Sully Sullenberger.


  1. Kathleen Shonaiya September 28, 2016 at 6:35 PM #

    Thank you Cynthia!

  2. Cynthia Ward September 25, 2016 at 9:53 PM #

    Wow – I really enjoyed this. Really well written and I like the two theories you synthesized; they really made a lot of sense with this analysis.

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