At 3:31 p.m. on January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 landed—in the Hudson River. Following a bird strike 95 seconds after takeoff that disabled both engines of the 50-ton A320 Airbus, options became severely limited. Understandably, this was a heart-stopping experience for the 155 aboard, all of whom survived the ordeal.
This incident soon became known as the “miracle on the Hudson.” But upon some consideration, was it really a miracle? Or was it, perhaps, something less remarkable? Might success be better attributed to the effective leadership and communication skills demonstrated on that day by the now-famous pilot, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles?
Consider how Sullenberger later described the situation: “… during this dire emergency—with no time to verbalize every action and discuss our situation—we communicated extraordinarily well. Thanks to our training and our immediate observations in the moment of crisis, each of us understood the situation, knew what needed to be done, and had already begun doing our parts in an urgent yet cooperative fashion.” (Sully, pp. 310–311.)
Captain Sullenberger’s words can rightly motivate leaders in any field of oversight; they explain why laboratories today need to prioritize the development of strong communication skills. What characterizes strong leader communications? Effective leaders (1) actively seek to involve those around them, (2) use communications tools effectively, and (3) precisely adjust their messaging to fit the audience.
How does a leader in the laboratory do this? What is it about effective communication between leaders and those around them that brings success? What might we learn from the success of Flight 1549?
1. Active systemic communications, both formal and informal, build strong team bonds
Captain Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles had never met prior to their seven-leg flight assignment that January, so the captain made it his priority to get to know his first officer. Over the three days and six flights preceding Flight 1549, he had several casual, informal conversations with Skiles. Additionally, before each flight, the two formally reviewed safety procedures and ran through all pre-flight checklists. When they experienced the bird strike just seconds after Flight 1549 took off, they determined that both engines had shut down. Captain Sullenberger took immediate control of the flight and concentrated on his responsibility to make a successful emergency landing. First Officer Skiles focused on his task of working the checklist for restarting the disabled engines. For the next three terrifying minutes, each man worked on separate tasks, but they worked as a team, communicating and cooperating in a way that allowed them to make dozens of smart, lifesaving decisions.
Applying this experience to the laboratory setting presents questions. Have we “informally” come to know our team members as individuals through casual conversations? Are our “formal” communications clear and unambiguous? Do we give direction that both leader and team understand? Are all team members informed and involved? Consider, for example, the staff meeting—a necessary part of most organizations today. Do our staff meetings allow for informal communications before and after the meeting, as well as formal communications that focus on plans, reports, and other necessary business? Do we communicate an agenda in advance and follow up with meeting minutes and deliverables? One measure of the effectiveness of our communications is the efficiency of our staff meetings; meetings that do not waste time, that involve the entire team, and that build strong bonds among team members are a reflection of strong leadership.
2. Communication tools, like checklists, standardize important tasks
During the Flight 1549 emergency, all aircraft staff followed well-documented procedures. Captain Sullenberger flipped to the “ditching” checklist. First Officer Skiles implemented the “dual engine failure” and the “engine restart” checklists. Cabin crew members carried out their emergency duties and followed their checklists as well. Similarly, in the laboratory, well-documented procedures standardize tasks and remove ambiguity. These can help a team stay on track, prevent them from overlooking key steps in important processes, and consistently keep all staff members informed of duties and expectations. Do we have processes and procedures in place that specify how performance is measured, how and when bad news is communicated, or what is expected of staff in the event of specific emergencies? Clearly stated and easily located checklists that are thoughtfully developed and precisely written before a crisis occurs can spell the difference between success and failure in managing that crisis.
3. In high-energy situations, precise messaging promotes action
Things are understandably tense during a major aircraft malfunction; losing both engines when climbing out of a metropolitan area calls for rapid, clear communication with several different “audiences.” Sullenberger communicated back and forth with the New York Air Traffic Control Center to locate and eliminate possible landing options (“You can land on Runway 1 Teterboro”— “We can’t do it”), with First Officer Skiles for engine restart attempts and landing alignment (“Got any ideas?”), with the cabin crew to prepare to ditch (“This is the captain: brace for impact”). Even after landing, he talked with frightened passengers, personally walking through the entire airplane and assuring them that it was both safe and essential to evacuate quickly. Each of Sullenberger’s communications was clear and precise and took into account with whom he was interacting at the time. Is our communication with all levels of our organization—from C-suite executives to HR to new employees—easily and clearly understood? Does our leadership training include how messaging can have the most effective impact when our audience varies?
With extroverts and introverts, for instance, communications may require subtle, but precise, adjustments; with an extrovert, a simple “Please get this done, today” may be welcomed for its clarity, whereas an introvert may respond to a less direct approach.
Following the successful landing of US Airways Flight 1549, Captain Sullenberger made an important observation: “With authority comes great responsibility. A captain needs leadership skills to take the individuals on his crew and make them feel and perform like a team.” (Sully, p. 192.) By learning to look for and use opportunities to build confidence and rapport among team members, by developing and implementing clearly stated procedures and standardized checklists, and by tailoring communication approaches to fit the audience, we can successfully equip the individuals on our “crew” to feel and perform like a team.
Leaders in the laboratory setting who accept the responsibility to train and develop effective communication skills will no doubt see impressive, perhaps even miraculous, results.
Sullenberger, Chesley “Sully” and Zaslow, Jeffrey, Sully: My Search for What Really Matters. William Morrow An Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2009, New York, NY 10007.
Aircraft Accident Report: Loss of Thrust in Both Engines After Encountering a Flock of Birds and Subsequent Ditching on the Hudson River: US Airways Flight 1549(PDF). National Transportation Safety Board (Report). May 4, 2010.