Business Lessons from Captain “Sully” Sullenberger

Business Lessons from Captain “Sully” Sullenberger

What would you do if you only had a precious few seconds to make a life or death decision? Surgeons, soldiers, and pilots make such choices every day. Those of us in less pressurized professions can learn how to cope with the stress that often deluges us.

Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger III marked his place in aviation history in the accident most of us remember, piloting US Airways Flight 1549 to a safe landing in the frigid Hudson River after a flock of birds got sucked into the plane’s engines, causing them to conk out.

It was a miracle on the Hudson. All 155 passengers aboard survived. Interviewed by CBS, “Sully” made it sound routine. He said he quickly considered all his alternatives, selecting the only viable option.

Two things struck me while listening to “Sully.” The first: he made a decision and stuck with it. “I was confident I could do it. I just knew it was possible.” Confidence and retaining the ability to make decisions under any and all circumstances is an acquired trait. I’ve seen it only amongst rare individuals in my 25 years in marketing.

I will suffice with one example. Two years ago, two of the top team Dirshu personnel were unable to execute their roles at Dirshu’s first-ever US convention just before it opened, due to family emergencies. The convention was also held in the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. In short, there were good reasons why things could have spiraled out of control, but at the end of the day, the team regrouped, the convention was filled to capacity, and everyone left with a burst of renewed inspiration.

My second takeaway from “Sully” was how he harnessed the emotional impact of his emergency to his advantage. “We have always practiced for emergencies that might arise. This one was so sudden and so extreme that I had to suppress my natural adrenaline rush, quickly channel it, and not allow it to distract me.”

There is a science to this process, says Geoffrey James, an contributing editor:

“Neuroscience has recently revealed that remaining calm under pressure is not an inborn trait, but a skill that anybody can learn.”

The normal physiological response to a perceived attack or threat is for the brain to secrete hormones and tell the nervous system to prepare the body for drastic action. The symptoms: shortness of breath and severe agitation, in short, a “flight or fight” syndrome.

This happens too in the everyday workplace when one is sharply criticized, put on the defensive, or caught unprepared, leading a person to either flee from confrontation or lash back. Neither reaction is appropriate in business settings.

Jon Pratlett, a boutique business consultant who utilizes neuroscience in leadership training advises people to stop in their tracks and breathe deeply, for up to 10 seconds. It’s not an eternity. You will bring more oxygen into your lungs and bloodstream, and signal your body and brain that it’s now unnecessary to increase the intensity of your fight-or-flight reaction.

Next, Pratlett says reflect upon and re-label your feelings to channel your energy into clear thinking. Performers are trained to convert stage fright into energy, so they sound powerful and in control. This changes a negative emotion into a positive one.

Fear of a negative outcome can be changed into anticipation of a positive one.  Frustration can be changed into desire to achieve a better outcome. Worry (about yourself) is transformed into concern (for others). Don’t feel pressured, feel courted. The fact that someone’s confronting you shows that you’re valuable to them. “When you re-label your emotions,” says Pratlett, “you are using controllable parts of your brain that this is not a fight-or-flight situation but instead a “stay aware and watchful” situation, or even “sit back and enjoy.”

With increased marketplace demands and intensifying competition, “leaders need to show more composure than ever before in the workplace,” business consultant and motivational speaker Glenn Llopis told Forbes.

Llopis says leaders who don’t allow emotions to cloud their thinking, don’t take things personally, yet respond decisively and act like they’ve been there before, can critically evaluate the cards they’ve been dealt and face problems head-on: “A show of composure also puts those you lead at ease and creates a safe and secure workplace culture where no one need panic in the face of adversity.”

Bottom Line Action Step: Train yourself to stay calm and show grace under pressure.

Yitzchok Saftlas

Yitzchok Saftlas is the CEO of Bottom Line Marketing Group, a premier marketing agency recognized for its goal-oriented branding, sales, and recruitment and fundraising techniques. Serving corporate, non-profit and political clientele, Bottom Line's notable clients include: Beth Medrash Govoha, Dirshu and TeachNYS. He can be reached at

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