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Capt. Sully Sullenberger on Crisis Leadership (Revisited)

Capt. Sully Sullenberger on Crisis Leadership (Revisited)

“There’s a false dichotomy between cost and safety. Are we willing and able to account for the many costs of not having a quality operation: lack of cooperation, poor leadership, waste, and incidents and accidents? If we really and truly account for them, then safety can pay for itself. Getting it wrong is more expensive than doing it right the first time.” – Capt. ‘Sully’ Sullenberger



Note: This blog post originally ran on the Procurement Insights blog back in May of 2012. January 15, 2019 marks the 10-year anniversary of the "Miracle on the Hudson". I’m as struck by his leadership now as I was then. While he is first and foremost talking about teamwork and leadership, he also teaches us about the tradeoffs of cost and risk, preparation and prevention.

My original focus was on the line about a “false dichotomy between cost and safety” but today the idea that “safety can pay for itself” stands out. After all, procurement organizations today are looking to stretch their influence beyond savings. Could a strategic, value driven approach to managing the supply chain have enough of an operational impact on the company that it would outweigh the direct bottom line impact from traditional savings? That is a question that each team will have to answer for themselves and their unique circumstances.


The quotes in the title and opening paragraph are both from Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot of US Airways flight 1549, known as the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’. On January 15, 2009, Captain Sullenberger and his crew landed their plane safely on the Hudson River when its twin engines were struck by a flock of Canadian geese.  It is easy to make the case that he should be looked to for advice on leadership; all 155 people on board lived through the landing and following rescue that ultimately depended on Captain Sullenberger ‘s skills.

Can we make the same case for supply managers? Are we ‘obvious’ candidates as leaders in the organization when problems arise? When asked how he managed to handle the challenging circumstances of flight 1549, Captain Sullenberger credits the right combination of training and teamwork. I believe we have an immediate opportunity to strengthen our skills and reinforce the unity of our project teams. By doing so, we will position ourselves as well as possible to respond to the unforeseen challenges to come.

Procurement’s training and expertise are loosely comprised of supplier management, the strategic sourcing process, negotiation know-how, and implementation experience. While all are valuable, none is important enough to be the forward-looking focal point to rally a team around. Instead, procurement leaders need to have a vision for each category that keeps the entire team focused on a target. As Captain Sullenberger rightly observed, it is less expensive to get it right the first time then to have to try again. In the case of procurement, trying again may mean recovering from selecting an unqualified supplier or having to go back to the market because incomplete data was collected. Those are the crashes we are looking to avoid.

We need to be well trained in process and tactics and possess the confidence to establish ourselves as leaders, but this does not mean telling our ‘crew’ how to do their jobs. Everyone needs to be trusted to carry out his or her part of the rescue. If Captain Sullenberger had focused on telling the cabin crew exactly what to do, he would have been distracted and unable to land the plane safely, unquestionably his primary responsibility. It is important to recognize the knowledge assets and training of the other departments represented on our teams. It is strength rather than weakness for a leader to acknowledge that his team members possess skills that he does not.

The teamwork needed to make a supply management project a success may reach far into the organization. The most immediate team may be made up of procurement professionals and internal stakeholders. By expanding the circle of interest, we often add finance, human resources, legal, and logistics or operations. The dynamics of all these groups working together – or at least on the same project at the same time – can easily distract procurement from the challenge at hand.

One of the advantages on US Airways flight 1549 was a clear hierarchy. The crew was trained to follow the Captain’s orders and focus on their own roles in the emergency landing. In the corporate world, we seldom have such a clear structure within a project team. When a project becomes difficult to the point of escalation, two factors come into question: are the other departments willing to look to procurement for leadership, and is procurement willing and able to step up?

Another advantage on the flight that organizations should learn from is the relationship of trust and respect that existed between cabin and cockpit. Much has been made recently of the relationship between procurement and finance, and those challenges often extend into other areas of the organization. Laying the groundwork for mutual respect must be done in advance of a challenge. Turning to a relative stranger (or worse, an adversary) in a high pressure situation and saying, ‘Trust me’ is as likely to elicit a blank stare as a willing follower. Each one of us owes it to our employer to establish good working relationships with our colleagues well in advance of the moment we need to test them.

No one relishes a project in critical condition, but within the scope of supply management, procurement needs to be prepared to take the lead. The time to get ready is now. Every day is an opportunity to strengthen our training, broaden our experience and build the internal relationships we may need to lean on sooner than expected. We have the capabilities and can build the teams, so the sooner we realize our own potential and fulfill it, the better.


Further Reading

Craig Harrison, ‘Crisis Leadership – The Sully Sullenberger Interview’ 

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