Two Captains Talking Over Dinner

Posted 05.11.2009

Readers in the Washington, DC area are probably familiar with the annual White House Correspondents Dinner.  The latest edition took place over the weekend.  Often described as DC’s version of the senior prom, the dinner is an opportunity for journalists and politicians to dress up, make jokes at each other’s expense and to gawk at all of the celebrity guests that are invited by different media organizations. In addition to the biggest celebrity, the President, the guest list included Eva Longoria Parker, Sting, Natalie Portman, Steven Spielberg and Jon Bon Jovi. 

No doubt, there were some interesting conversations going on and, as you can see on this You Tube clip, the president delivered a pretty funny stand-up comedy routine. 

Captphillips At the risk of coming across like a complete leadership geek, however, the conversation at the dinner that I would have most loved to be privy to is the one that might have happened when two of the celebrity guests got together to compare notes. Captain Richard Phillips, the freighter captain who was rescued from Somali pirates by Navy SEALS, and Captain “Sully” Sullenberger  of US Airways "Miracle  on the Hudson" fame were both at the dinner.  I have no idea if they Captsullyspent any time together (I hope they did.), but that would have been one very interesting conversation to listen in on.  Wouldn’t you love to  hear them compare notes on how they led in a crisis and how they’ve handled the acclaim that has since come their way?

Here’s a short list of what I could see them talking about and what we can learn from these two leaders.

Forethought:  Both Phillips and Sullenberger performed as they did because of experience and training.  While neither of them had been captured by pirates or ditched a jetliner in the Hudson before, they’d both had extensive training and experience that enabled them to respond appropriately in their situations.  They both had likely addressed relevant “What if?” scenarios in their minds regularly over the years and, when the real life situations developed,  they were able to quickly move to contingency plans.  Good leaders always have back up plans in mind.

Responsibility and Decisiveness:  When the US Airways jet lost power from the bird strike on its climb out of LaGuardia, the co-pilot was on the controls.  At that moment, Sullenberger  immediately said, “My aircraft,” and took clear accountability for what was about to happen.  Likewise, Phillips, as captain of his vessel, offered himself as a bargaining chip to the pirates in what was supposed to be an exchange for a pirate who had been captured by Phillips’ crew in the initial attack on the Maersk Alabama. The pirates reneging on the deal was what led to Phillips being held hostage in a lifeboat for five days. Good leaders understand the responsibility that comes with their role and, in a crisis, aren’t afraid to make decisions based on that responsibility.

Both of these leaders showed great amounts of resourcefulness.  In Sullenberger’s case, not only did he determine that the Hudson was his only available place to land, he intentionally put the plane down on a section of the river where he knew that tour boats would be close by to help with the rescue.  Phillips showed resourcefulness of a different kind.  After making an unsuccessful escape attempt by jumping off the lifeboat and swimming away, he was somehow able to keep a dialogue going with the pirates that enabled him to stay alive until the SEALS rescued him.  Whether they are looking externally or internally, good leaders stay aware of the resources available to them and use them to full advantage.

Sharing the Credit: Sullenberger and Phillips both became instant heroes.  They have both been very careful and intentional, though, to share the credit for their success with their crew mates and their rescuers.  For Sullenberger, it was his co-pilot, flight attendants and the tour boat crews.  For Phillips, it was his shipmates and the SEALS.  Neither captain has given the slightest hint that he thinks it’s all about him.  Good leaders understand that you don’t do it alone.

In the midst of White House visits, congressional appearances, special events and all kinds of media attention, both Phillips and Sullenberger have maintained their dignity.  My guess is we may see a book from each of them (and good for them if they each write one), but I doubt we’re going to see them going over the top to cash in on their fame. They’re both good leaders who are in it for the mission, not the glory.

So, that’s my take on what these two guys might have talked about on Saturday night.  What else inspires you about Sullenberger and Phillips that you would add to the list?  What have you learned about leadership from watching them?