Sunday, November 15, 2009

Everyday Leaders

On a cold wintry day in January 2009, US Airways flight 1549 taxied down the runway at New York’s LaGuardia airport. The flight, bound for Charlotte, N.C., was a familiar flight for Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. Within a matter of minutes after takeoff, flight 1543 was floating in the Hudson River, mechanical failure from a bird shot brought the plane down.

In his book, Highest Duty, My Search for What Really Matters, Sullenberger shares not only his life story, but the heroic actions he and his crew took to ensure that not one passenger was lost.

Sullenberger writes, “Through the media, we all have heard about ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary situations. They act courageously or responsibly, and their efforts are described as if they opted to act that way on the spur of the moment. We’ve all read the stories: the man who jumps onto a subway track to save a stranger, the firefighter who enters a burning building knowing the great risks, the teacher who dies protecting his students during a shooting.

I believe many people in those situations actually have made decisions years before. Somewhere along the line, they came to define the sort of person they wanted to be, and then they conducted their lives accordingly. They had told themselves they would not be passive observers. If called upon to respond in some courageous or selfless way, they would do so.”

I believe Sullenberger describes what makes leaders tick. The courageous acts that so many people demonstrated that fateful day is characterized by daily decisions long before they were placed in the situation. Everyday leaders- who are they and what is unique about them? Let’s examine.

Everyday leaders exemplify courage. Not only did the crew of flight 1549 act with courage but so did emergency personnel on the scene including ordinary citizens on the ferry boats that came to the rescue of the passengers and crew.

“Courage is not the absence of fear,” said Ambrose Redmoon, “but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” Everyday leaders who came to the rescue of the passengers set fear aside and did what had to be done.

Your organization may not be facing a life or death emergency like flight 1543, but courageous actions are being called upon for sound leadership, a fresh approach, a new vision. Summon the courage within you and dare to lead.

Everyday leaders assess risk and respond. In the initial moments after the bird strike, Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles had to rely on their extensive training and instincts in order to pull off the impossible.

At the controls of a descending, crippled airplane, Sully had to make split-second decisions that would mean the difference between life and death for all on board. The distance to nearby airports and the rapid rate of descent of the airplane compounded an already difficult situ`tion. Sully had no choice but to put the plane down in the Hudson River. While not the optimum choice, it was the right one, and all were saved.

Risk can be frightening in some circumstances. Everyday leaders understand what E.E. Cummings noted, “Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” When channeled properly, risk can get you out of your comfort zone and propel you to the next level. Don’t fear risk, embrace it.

Everyday leaders bring out the best in others. Whether it was air-traffic controllers, the flight crew, emergency service personnel; everyday leaders rose to the occasion to bring order out of chaos. The way they acted “on the spur of the moment” is testimony to the power of the human spirit, in times of adversity, to do the right thing.

As an everyday leader, you are the guardians of servitude and the custodians of courage in the time of need. You tap the resources of your leadership not out of impulse, but from what you have nurtured all along.

Booker T. Washington said, “Character, not circumstances, make the man.” That is true in leadership. The events and circumstances of that January day did not make Sully Sullenberger a leader and a hero, it just revealed it. Character is what shows others the type of everyday leader that you are. Lead on.

© 2009 Doug Dickerson

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