Capt. Chesley Sullenberger

The airline pilot of “Miracle on the Hudson” fame recalls the 2009 incident and life since, as written about in his text Making a Difference; he also talks about traits that come into play in a moment of crisis.

In 2009, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger gained worldwide recognition when he safely landed a disabled airliner in a NY river in what was dubbed the “Miracle on the Hudson." Now retired, he lectures on airline safety, and helps develop related protocols, and helms a management, safety and performance consulting company. He also serves as CBS News' on-air aviation expert and has written two books: a best-selling memoir, Highest Duty, and its follow-up, Making a Difference. Sullenberger graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy and served as a fighter pilot before becoming a flight leader and training officer.


Tavis: On January 15, 2009, remember where you were?

Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger: I do [laugh], because you mentioned it, yeah?

Tavis: [Laugh]. I suspect you do. Captain Chesley Sullenberger, known as Sully, because it’s a lot easier to say to his friends and now me, became an instant American hero following what will forever be known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

Now retired, he serves as an aviation and safety expert for CBS News and is the author of the new text, “Making a Difference: Stories of Vision and Courage from America’s Leaders.”

Captain Sullenberger, I finally get a chance to meet you and shake your hand and say what an honor it is to meet you.

Sullenberger: Great to meet you, Tavis.

Tavis: Glad to have you on this program after all this time. Does it feel a little weird when everybody knows who you are now?

Sullenberger: It does.

Tavis: Before you ever get to know who they are?

Sullenberger: It does. Of course, it’s amazing what you can learn to get used to. We’re so privileged to be the public face of a good event. You know, the intensity of the public attention is so amazing.

I can’t imagine how awful it would be if it were for something bad. We’re the shepherd of a very good news story and we feel a responsibility to it because of the way it makes people feel.

Tavis: How have you gone about – well, I know how you’ve gone about it. We can see how you’ve done with it.

But when you knew that you were gonna be the caretaker of this historic moment, this feel-good moment for so many Americans, what were your goals then in terms of the kind of caretaker you wanted to be?

Sullenberger: You know, one of the biggest surprises for all of us directly involved with this in the first days was that, unlike most news stories, this one didn’t fade away with the end of the news cycle.

When we first figured that out, certainly my first officer on that flight, Jeff Skiles, and I felt a really intense obligation to use it for good, to further aviation safety and the status of the piloting profession and other things that we cared about for decades. We felt that was our new mission in life and that mission continues.

Tavis: So how did this text, “Making a Difference,” come about?

Sullenberger: You know, when we became a member of the world stage and had the ability to travel the world and meet world leaders and hear their very personal stories and inspiring stories, I had to put them on the page. I had to share them.

Tavis: Did you have any idea in the days following the story that the story would continue to have the kind of legs that it’s had that would give you the kind of access you’ve had to these kinds of world leaders?

Sullenberger: I remember that night, the night of the Hudson River landing, calling home and talking to my wife Lorrie and saying, “I think our lives have changed forever.” But I had no idea how much, how soon and for how long.

I think in that instant, for everyone on the airplane and their families, our lives changed instantly, completely and, if not forever, for a very long time.

Tavis: Have you ever thought about whether or not – not that you could change history because you can’t. I mean, what’s done is done at this point and, thankfully, it turned out the way that it did in this instance.

But there are so many people who find themselves in the national spotlight on the world stage, to use your phrase, who aren’t really ready for that, number one, and wish that they could exit.

Ever had thoughts about not the mission, but that you wish that you weren’t in this spotlight, that you could go back to being who you were prior to it? Are you okay with all this?

Sullenberger: You know, it’s hard. I mean, this was a huge stretch for all of us and we had to very quickly learn an entirely new way of living this entirely new life and a huge life as a public figure.

It required us to step up and up our game and rise to the occasion and develop entirely new skills to be able to be public figures, you know, to be articulate enough and to be able to speak publicly and confidently.

It was a huge stretch for all of us, but, no, I’ve never wished that part of it would change. I felt like I had an obligation to use it for good.

Now my daughters who had then just turned 16 and 14, if you were to ask them in those first few weeks and months if they would want it to continue, they would have wished it all away if they could.

It was too much of a change. It was too hard for them initially, but I think they too realize that now it’s their source for wonderful opportunities.

Tavis: When you started talking to these leaders, which we’ll talk about more in detail in just a second ’cause there’s a variety of them, when you started talking to them, what were the parallels that you noted between your leadership as a captain of an airliner and their leadership as captains of their respective ships, so to speak?

Sullenberger: You know, I chose a very diverse group of people, but also people that I admired and respected. I did expect to find and I did find some common themes that weaved throughout all these very personal moving stories and bring into clear focus at the end, but I also wanted to be challenged.

I wanted to find people who didn’t agree with everything I thought and I wanted to find surprises and we did. But I think at its core, all these people viewed the world essentially the same way, as an opportunity for good, and they were willing to act on it.

They have real core values and then choose to live according to them. They’re able to, as one of them said, check their egos at the door and do things for the right reasons, to serve a cause greater than their own personal needs.

Tavis: The world obviously is an opportunity. Every day we wake up, we have an opportunity to do some good, but there’s so much bad that you have to navigate to get to the good.

I raise that only because I sense that so many people are, at worst, losing hope, at best, just uncertain and fearful of an uncertain future.

So what say these leaders about how to take what is a fearful situation these days and do some good in the context of it?

Sullenberger: Well, one of the tools, I think, that a leader has to use is what I call realistic optimism, taking a long view and knowing that, based on having done the hard work, having acquired the actual skills, ultimately we can achieve our goals.

Ultimately, we can survive. Ultimately, we will all do what we need to do while, at the same time, holding onto a very different idea and being able to acknowledge an immediate and very difficult reality.

Being able to articulate a vision of a possible future and how each of us can work together to get there, I think, is the key in a case like that.

Tavis: Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all want to be led. I mean, it’s who we are.

Sullenberger: And we deserve to be led.

Tavis: We deserve to be led. Tell me more about it when you say deserve to be led.

Sullenberger: You know, I think when people are in important positions in big organizations, they often get tied up with the minutia of managing money, managing things. They often forget that people deserve to be led. I think that’s a critical difference.

People really are our most important resource and people who don’t realize that and choose not to live that way, choose not to lead that way, are paying a price for that in many of our companies, many of our organizations.

It may not be apparent to them because they’re not accounting for the costs of not having a cooperative workforce, not having people who are well led, not having people who are energized and being fulfilled at work and who are more productive and innovative because of it. But it’s a real cost nonetheless.

Tavis: So I take your point that people deserve to be led. Back to my original thesis, at least, we all want to be led whether we acknowledge it or not.

I raise that only because, for the leader, so much of your success or failure in the eyes of the led has to do with how you manage crises. President Obama knows this better than anybody now, and any president will attest to this.

It’s not about what you promised when you got into office. It’s about how you managed the crises that happen on your watch when you’re the leader of this nation.

The same, I suspect, is true of an airline pilot. It doesn’t matter how many successful flights you have. That becomes pretty routine. We expect you. You don’t get Brownie points for this. We expect you to take us off and land us safely.

The real test of your leadership comes in a crisis moment. Obviously, you passed with flying colors, but talk to me about what these leaders have to say about how leadership is defined in those moments of crisis.

Sullenberger: You know, one of the things that we say is that there’s really no difference between being an effective leader and being a completely integrated human person.

So it’s a matter of living your life according to certain values. It’s a matter of preparation. It’s a matter of mastering your craft and then mastering yourself.

So paradoxically, it’s doing the right thing consistently on every flight on a day-to-day basis over many years that provided the firm foundation on which we could improvise to very quickly solve a problem we’d never seen before and never specifically trained for.

Out of a 42-year career and 20,000 hours in the air, I never knew on any given day when or even if I might face one day some ultimate challenge or, put another way, I never knew on which three and a half minutes my entire career might be judged.

I think many of the people in this book view their lives the same way. Not each of them was challenged with a specific cathartic event, but many of them were.

I think for the reader, one of the real takeaways is that everyone can learn to be a leader and everyone can learn to be a better leader, that you don’t have to be born, that these things are absolutely learned.

Tavis: How do learn how to become better leaders?

Sullenberger: Well, we certainly have to start with a firm foundation. We have to certainly start with a set of core values that we can live by and we have to find others that we respect and then kind of model our behavior on them. If we can, find mentors who can actively help us.

Tavis: How much of your preparation – you said something a moment ago that I think I know what you meant, but it sounded oxymoronic for me.

On the one hand, I get how all the preparation for all those 20,000 hours in the air, doing things the right way and by the book and just being on top of your game puts you in a better position to improvise in that moment of consequence.

The tricky part, though, is that nothing you’d ever experienced was anything like what happened in that particular moment.

Sullenberger: But we had trained for parts of it.

Tavis: Okay.

Sullenberger: And we had created this in commercial aviation. We’d made it so ultra-safe and one of the reasons is, we’ve created this very robust safety system in which we operate, in which we have people who have a shared sense of responsibility for the outcome.

We have very well defined roles and responsibility that each member of the crew adheres to. We have got in the habit of applying best practices consistently on every flight. So we didn’t have to completely reinvent the wheel, only a part of it.

Tavis: Nothing, of course, was like what you experienced on the Hudson that day. But just out of curiosity, what was like the most challenging, the most difficult, situation you found yourself in as a pilot prior in your career to that Hudson moment?

I mean, a bird hitting the windshield? I mean, what had been the most difficult challenge for you as a pilot before that moment?

Sullenberger: Oh, I have to go way back, you know, almost 30 years before to when I was a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force to find anything that’s even remotely like what happened to us. Even then, it pales in comparison.

So really in my entire experience, I’d never before been significantly challenged in an airplane where I doubted the outcome. I had never experienced anything that I didn’t know the answer to. This, however, was completely different. This was something that was unanticipated. It was novel.

We had never specifically trained for it and it required, in 208 seconds, the time we had from when we hit the birds and lost the thrust in the engines. Until we had landed, we had 208 seconds to solve a problem we’d never seen before.

It was difficult. It required every ounce of my being to physically suppress my body’s natural physiological response to this where my blood pressure, my pulse, shot up and my perceptual field narrowed because of the stress and then be able to think clearly and come up with a way to solve this problem.

Tavis: You’re not the first leader or the last who will ever encounter something that he or she has never dealt with before.

So to the point, what do leaders do to make a difference when they’re confronted with something that they have never seen or even thought about prior to?

Sullenberger: They do a couple of things simultaneously. First, they survey their experience for something that’s even a little bit similar while at the same time looking for things that are unique about this particular situation.

So being a perfect generalist while at the same time being specialized in the areas that are important, I think that’s key.

Tavis: What’s a leader do when he or she is tested by problem A, B or C and they survive it, but they didn’t handle it perfectly?

I mean, you’re such an unusual case because, as far as we know, at least, you all did everything right to put that plane down to save all those 155 lives or whatever. Nothing, to our eyes, at least, was done wrong in that instance. You managed it perfectly.

But that’s so unusual. Most leaders do not manage major crises perfectly. You look back on it and you see I could have done this, I should have done this, and even if they survive it, what does that do for your leadership when you don’t handle it perfectly?

Sullenberger: Well, we all have to learn from that. Even in this flight, there were things that could have been done better, absolutely.

It was by no means perfect, but the fact that we got so much so right so quickly under those conditions is a real testament to our experience and our training for me and the entire crew. But for thousands of hours, for 30 years before that as an airline pilot, I had tried to make each flight better than the previous one.

I had paid attention to managing the flight path of the airplane, knowing whether I was higher or lower than desired, faster or slower than I wanted to be, and having paid attention and cared enough to try to constantly improve and to be a continuous lifelong learner is what helped me that day.

Tavis: What say you about – again, you’re the proxy for all these leaders that you spoke to for the text. But what say you about being – I want to use a biblical phrase, although I don’t want to prosethelytize here.

One of my favorite bible verses speaks of being prepared for a time such as this, being prepared for a time such as this. How much of leadership has to do with being the right person in the right place at the right time? I mean, how many pilots you guys have in the pilots union?

Sullenberger: Oh, about 5,000.

Tavis: 5,000. So any one of 5,000 pilots could have been at the helm of that aircraft that day. What say you about leadership being partly being in the right place at the right time and being willing to accept the mission that you have been given?

Sullenberger: Well, I think each of us feels a real dedication to our profession. Each of us feels like we have a real obligation to fulfill our professional responsibilities.

Again, doing that on a daily basis makes it second nature. It makes it something that you know you will do regardless of what the situation is.

I never knew I’d be tested. In fact, that late in my career, I assumed that I wouldn’t be significantly tested. But it could have been any one of us and I think many of us would have done something similar and we would all feel that same obligation too.

Tavis: How do leaders keep their emotions intact? Again, you’re a good example of how to do that.

Sullenberger: With great effort. It was hard. I mean, when my sudden physiological stress reaction shot up so intensely, it required great effort to have the mental discipline to compartmentalize and focus and to roughly shove that aside and be able to focus on the task at hand and ignore the stress.

But it’s a kind of professional calm that we as pilots learn to somehow summon up from within ourselves and use to good effect.

Tavis: What do these leaders you spoke to say to you about not being sidetracked? That’s not a fair word, but being distracted by selfishness, narcissism or saving one’s own behind?

I raise that because you might have been that day, to your point about your physiological reaction. You might have been afraid for your life. Certainly the passengers had to be afraid, but you might have been afraid for your own life and that’s true for so many leaders.

No matter what profession they’re in, they make choices, they make decisions or don’t make choices or decisions, trying to cover their own hide, trying to save their own job, trying to save their own career. How does that factor into being a good leader making decisions that aren’t just about saving yourself?

Sullenberger: That’s one of these common themes I’m talking about. That’s why I chose these people because I knew they had the moral courage. I knew they had the integrity. They’d demonstrated them in some important ways already.

They were willing to serve a cause greater than themselves. They were willing to do the things that are good for the group for the long term and not just for themselves for the short term.

That’s a conscious choice that we have to make and it’s an important choice. That really lays the foundation for everything else. That frames the problem.

That gives you a real clear world view about where to start, what’s right, what’s wrong, what I’ll accept, what’s in accordance with our organization’s value and what’s not.

Tavis: I’m not sure that’s so common. If you were to ask the American people in a poll – I have not – whether or not that was common, I think they might agree with me that part of what concerns us about leaders today – that’s a big term, over-generalization.

But part of what concerns us about leaders is we don’t always get the sense they’re in it for us. They’re in it for themselves. They’re, first and foremost, trying to save themselves.

Sullenberger: Sometimes they’re not. That’s one of the important issues I talk about in the book is executive competition. This is not a political book, but I don’t shy away addressing important issues that people care about, that are affecting how our society works or not.

When a few leaders are so able to insulate and isolate themselves, separate themselves, from everybody else and insulate themselves from the outcome for their organizations, if they’re able to preserve their wealth, preserve their own self-worth to the exclusion of everybody else, then we’re not all in this together and it’s obvious to everybody. That has a corrosive effect.

Tavis: Yeah, I’m glad you raise that. To your point, it’s a brilliant point. It’s not just executive, but that’s a good example.

But what say you and these other leaders about the growing divide, the growing gap, between, shall we say, the rich and the rest of us or the have gots and the have nots, between the leaders and the people?

Whatever phrase you want to use, there still seems to be a growing gap in this country between those who make decisions and those who are impacted by decisions.

Sullenberger: Well, I think we need to look at not just what people have in terms of things or in terms of money, but the opportunities. We should make the opportunities more equal.

We should make sure that more Americans have the opportunity to fully realize the American dream and I think we’ve seen those numbers shift for the worse.

One of the conversations I had, by far the most intellectually stimulating one, was with former Labor Secretary, now professor at Berkeley, Robert Reich. We talked about just these same issues and how we seemed to have lost this sense of community, this sense of civic virtue, and there comes a cost with that.

When we don’t have a shared experience throughout our society, when we don’t have these civic values that we share, we lose part of the glue that holds our society together.

Tavis: So that’s Robert Reich. What do you learn from a great baseball manager like Tony La Russa about leadership?

Sullenberger: A lot. You know, it’s interesting. He called my house. I was still in New York preparing for the first interviews the day after this Hudson River landing three and a half years ago. He called the house and talked to my wife, Lorrie.

He called not because of the flight, but because his staff at his animal rescue foundation which he’s very passionate about had recognized my name and had told him that not only had I landed the airplane in the Hudson the day before, but that my family and I had for several years been fostering kittens and puppies for his animal rescue foundation until they were old enough to be adopted.

So he liked that and that’s why he called. So we got together on a number of occasions and talked about how he is able to personalize along with his coaches his approach to his players and create an environment of trust and respect.

So even in this sense of entitlement among professional athletes as you often see, he’s able to make each member of the team the go-to guy, so you’re not relying only on the stars to win a game. So it was so much fun to see him lead his Cardinals to another World Series win.

Tavis: There are lessons obviously in here for leaders. What are the lessons in here for the followers? The lessons for everyday people?

Sullenberger: You know, there are so many leadership books out there, literally shelves full of them, but many of them are written by or for CEOs or salespeople. This book is written for everyone, whether you have a big job and a fancy title or not.

These are things that we can all learn and we can all learn to do better. It’ll help you be more fulfilled at work, be more effective at school, at home and at work.

Again, it starts with right values and putting others and their needs of the group ahead of only your own needs.

Tavis: So many of the persons you talked to in this book have been guests on this program. I’ve been honored to have them in that very chair.

One of them you talked to is Michelle Rhee. What did you learn from Michelle Rhee about being a leader when the message that you have to deliver is terribly unpopular?

I mean, whatever one thinks of Michelle Rhee, like her or loathe her or agree or disagree, she expressed her point of view; she stood on that when it was very unpopular in Washington.

Sullenberger: She has moved the conversation about the education problems along greatly. One of the things that really impressed me very early in the conversation with Michelle is that she talked about her first job as a teacher in an inner city school.

She admits that, at the very beginning, she wasn’t a very effective teacher, but when she saw how the opportunities that these children had or didn’t have were so determined by where they were born, to whom they were born; it just really offended her sense of right and wrong.

It seemed un-American to her and it was clear to me that she’s doing it for the right reasons. As I say in the book many times, she doesn’t just know the what and the how. She knows the why, and it’s for the kids.

I think that, whether you agree with her methods or not, it’s clear to me that she’s doing it for the right reasons. She’s doing it for the kids and not for the adults. That’s one of her big messages. What we should do in education should benefit the kids.

Tavis: Your subtitle got my attention, “Stories of Vision and Courage from America’s Leaders,” because courage can be defined in a number of ways.

It takes courage to do a variety of things, sometimes the wrong thing. That’s another conversation for another time. But the vision thing, as former President Bush might say, the vision thing oftentimes trips people up.

Is it your sense that our leaders today – an over-generalization. Is it your sense that our leaders today really have and possess the vision thing?

Sullenberger: I think many times they aren’t able to. Let me tell you what I mean. I think that the incentives in our society are aligned to focus on the near term in the financial world, on Wall Street, in Washington certainly.

It’s much more difficult to do what we all should be doing, at least occasionally, to take a longer view and to look at things that will benefit us not just at the next election or the next financial quarter, but generations from now.

We’re facing difficult, complex problems that will require generations to solve, so we need to realign those incentives.

That’s something else I talk about not only with Robert Reich, but with the founder of Vanguard Funds, Jack Bogle, about the way incentives should be aligned to occasionally be able to take a longer view, to not just look at the short term.

That would go a long way to solving many of the problems that we face. That, and changing the way our elections are financed.

Tavis: I know you’re happily employed at CBS and on the book tour and all kinds of other good work with animals and the like. But just because I’m curious, how many times you been asked to run for office?

Sullenberger: I was asked just this morning [laugh]. So more than once. You know, my answer is that I really believe that I can do more good, I could be more effective, outside government than within. I think I have a free arena. I think I can have a greater voice.

Tavis: Well, I wouldn’t argue that at all, certainly on the freedom part. It ain’t easy to be free when you’re bound by money and you’re bound by folks.

Sullenberger: And you’re constantly fund-raising for the next election.

Tavis: I respect that answer. The book from Captain Sullenberger, “Sully” as we can now all call him, is called “Making a Difference: Stories of Vision and Courage from America’s Leaders.” A good read, I recommend it.

Captain Sullenberger, an honor to meet you once again. Thanks for the text. Good to have you on.

Sullenberger: Good to be with you. Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you for coming. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

Narrator: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: July 2, 2012 at 1:54 pm