Just a second while I pick my jaw up off the floor.
OK, there we go — today on the second day of Smartsheet’s Engage conference, the keynote was delivered not by one of the company’s top executives or a prominent customer, but by Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, whom you might remember as the pilot who landed US Airways Flight 1549 safely in New York City’s Hudson River in January 2009 after it struck a flock of Canada Geese shortly after takeoff. Sullenberger’s quick thinking was immortalized in the 2016 film Sully, in which he was portrayed by Tom Hanks.
In addition to an exhilarating recap of everything he experienced during those fateful few minutes — when his decisions and actions turned certain tragedy into a piece of national lore and led to the survival of 155 passengers and crew — he also shared insights on leadership, how we treat and think about others and more.
Continue on for a few highlights from his speech, which drew multiple standing ovations from the packed crowd of more than 1,000 people at the conference. First, we’ll hear about his values, and then we’ll learn how those values shaped his decision-making process that day.
On how education helps us innovate and stay ahead of change: “My grandparents were all born in the 19th century, and yet all four of them attended college, and that was remarkable, especially for women at that time. My mother was a first grade teacher for 25 years in the small Texas town where I grew up. I received from them wonderful gifts: a life-long love of reading and learning.
“I had the good fortune to grow up in a safe, stable environment, in which education was valued, ideas were important and striving for excellence was expected. What I’ve tried to do in my life, and what I’d encourage others to do is never stop investing in yourselves. Never stop learning; never stop growing professionally or personally. As the pace of change globally only accelerates, most of us cannot get through an entire working lifetime with only a single skill set. Instead we must keep on learning, growing, stretching ourselves, sometimes reinventing ourselves, as I’ve certainly had to.
“And we have to know how to innovate. My favorite definition of innovation is actually a very simple one: Change before you are forced to, by competition, by regulation or circumstance. And the more and quicker you’re able to do that, the better you are able to turn adversity into opportunity. And that’s true whether you are facing a sudden crisis or a sudden possibility.”
On the importance of critical thinking: “We have an obligation as citizens to be intellectually curious. And to act on that. We have to be literate, and we have to be scientifically literate. We shouldn’t forget that the purpose of science is to provide humankind with a more complete and accurate understanding of reality, and that is an inherently altogether worthwhile thing to do. In other words, if you don’t understand the data you can’t use it. So we have to be capable of independent, critical thought. We need to be good citizens and make important decisions based on facts, not fears or falsehoods and certainly not on big lies even if they are told loudly and often.”
On leadership: “It’s the responsibility of leadership to create the culture, create the environment in which we can and are willing to do our best work. To do that, you need to do two things: you need to remove barriers. You need to arm them with the skills, the tools they need. The human skills not just the technical skills. Be able to create and lead teams and make decisions to manage the workload, and you also need to share in the success. Every once in awhile, everyone who works with you or for you needs to needs to know in some substantial way, that the hard work they’ve done has contributed to the success of the organization.”
On the moment he knew something was wrong: “Like almost every other flight I’d had for 42 years, on Jan. 15, 2009, Flight 1549 was completely routine and unremarkable for the first 100 seconds. And then it became our ultimate challenge of a lifetime. I knew it as it was happening; I saw the birds about two or three seconds before we struck them. But at that point we were traveling at 316 feet per second, so I saw them the equivalent of two or three football fields ahead of us, but not enough time and not enough distance to maneuver a large, heavy, fast, jet airliner away … And then we were upon them, and they filled the wind screen as if it were Hitchcock film and then I could feel and hear the thumps and thuds as we struck them.
“Then the thrust loss. As birds went into the engines, the thrust loss was sudden, complete, symmetrical … And then I could hear terrible noises I’ve never heard in an airplane and feel terrible vibrations I’ve never felt in an airplane as the engines were being destroyed. It felt as if the forward momentum of the airplane nearly stopped in mid-air, it felt as if the bottom had fallen out of our world when the thrust was lost.”
On making the call to land in the Hudson: “I took control of the airplane and began a left turn knowing that there were only three options: two runways that might be reachable but turned out were not and the only other place in the entire New York Metropolitan area, one of the most densely developed areas on the planet, that was long enough, wide enough, smooth enough was the Hudson River. That relative lack of ambiguity helped us. I knew what the cost of failure was, I knew what that meant for us and I knew what the options were, it was just a matter of wisely choosing between them. Had I turned toward the airport that turned out to be unreachable it would have been an irrevocable choice, ruling out every other option. So before I did that I had to be sure I could get there.
“The stress and the workload were so intense, I couldn’t do the math on altitude and distance. So I resorted to a more fundamental method of solving the problem, which I would describe as a visual conceptual process. Having paid attention to managing the total energy, the height and speed of jet airplanes for decades, I was able to look out at the area near La Guardia Airport and decide no, that’s too far, and be right. One of the remarkable things about this flight and this crew is that we got so much so right, so quickly, and under such surprising and startlingly difficult circumstances.”
On landing the plane: “When we landed it was a hard landing, but the deceleration, while rapid, was uniform. Based on the forces we felt when landing, when we stopped moving it was obvious that the airplane was intact, it was stable, it was floating. People were going to be OK at that point. And in the most amazing coincidence, at that moment (First Officer Jeff Skiles) and I turned to each other, at the same time, in the same words said to each other, “Well, that wasn’t as bad as I thought.”