Highest Duty

Published: October 23, 2009

By Jim Lichtman
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On January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenberger had to make a series of critical decisions in 208 seconds.  As a result of his actions, he saved the lives of all 155 individuals on a crippled US Airways flight that had to ditch in New York’s Hudson River.

In an interview (washingtonpost.com) conducted by Doug Feaver, Sullenberger talks about the qualities essential in leadership described in a book by Sullenberger entitled, Highest Duty.

“There wasn’t time to learn the lessons I had to learn in the 208 seconds I had,” Sullenberger says.  “I had to have already done decades of hard work before that to get ready to handle this.

Q: Is leadership a choice?

Sullenberger:  “Yes.  And I think you have to approach that choice in a way that works for you and for the people in your care..  the way that works for me is leadership by example.  I want to behave in such a way that my values are evident to those around me.   I don’t want have to try to tell them what I believe.  I want to be able to show them what I believe.  I want my actions to match my words.”

Q: You wrote that you thought that what you had done in this particular situation was the result of many, many years of experience in different aircraft, different human experiences, different human exchanges.

Sullenberger:   “Well, it’s sort of a building block process.  I described it, at one time, as making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training, and the balance of that account was sufficient that on January 15, I could make a sudden, large withdrawal.

“So, I drew upon a lifetime of experiences; everybody I ever met, every teacher, instructor I ever had; every incident I heard about that someone else experienced that I took the lesson from, was in the back of my mind that day.”

Q:  Are there daily lessons from non-heroic people who find themselves in leadership positions?

Sullenberger:  “I never saw combat.  My service was just after Viet Nam.  I had always wondered, if I met some ultimate challenge… would I be strong enough, smart enough, quick enough, courageous enough to keep my people safe?  And I never knew the answer to that question.

“I think in the days prior to January 15th, I spent 99.9 percent of my life living as a regular person, anonymously, like everybody else…  I had hoped that maybe I had made enough small, individual contributions that made differences in some little way… Of course, now since January 15, people are going to remember me, if not exclusively, certainly primarily because of the events on January 15.

“I think the life lesson for most people is that we can still make a difference a little bit at a time, but, we have to choose to do so.”

Shortly after January 15, California State University at Fresno Library Dean Peter McDonald reported that he got a call from U.S. Airways Captain Chesley Sullenberger “…about the books he’d borrowed that were stuck in the hold of a downed plane.”  Sullenberger asked for an extension or at least a waiver on additional fees.

“Here is a national hero,” McDonald said, “you would think would have more important things to worry about.  I’d trust my life to a man like Sullenberger.  Of course we’ll waive the fee.”

The library not only waived the charges, but planned on placing a bookplate dedicated to the pilot inside a new copy of the book that Sullenberger checked out.

And what was the subject of one of the books the modest hero checked out?  Professional Ethics.

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