Much has been written about Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III and the heroic rescue of Flight 1549 that went down in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. Heck, there is even a movie.

When you dig a little deeper into the events of that day, and the crew’s activities during those few short, crucial minutes before landing in the river, you begin to understand how this could have been a disaster of much greater magnitude, and why it wasn’t.

There was an FAA accident probe that dug into moment-by-moment actions, interactions and decisions that ultimately kept the plane from crashing, potentially killing everyone on board. The accident report noted that Sully and his crew’s technical training had little to do with the solution they found. Instead, the report noted that it was the crew’s interactive adaptability that proved crucial:

“Because of time constraints, they could not discuss every part of the decision process. Therefore, they had to listen to and observe each other… [the captain] and the first officer had to work almost intuitively in a close-knit fashion.”

The crew had the benefit of US Airway’s Crew Resource Management program – a program that teaches not only the technical elements of managing an aircraft, but the intricacies of how crew members must work together to successfully navigate the aircraft, particularly when emergencies occur.

It would be easy to say, “They just need to learn how to effectively communicate with each other.” While communications are important, there are other elements that play a crucial role in this exchange. There must be trust – each crew member must trust that her colleagues know their job and how to talk about their role. There must be a willingness to challenge – the ability to quickly search for and agree to better solutions. (In the case of Flight 1549, there wasn’t time to debate!). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, each crew member must be able to read and respond to their peers’ body language and other non-verbals.

This is a huge lesson for leaders. The key underlying factors that saved this plane were not technical. They were not based on one person “taking charge.” They were based on the crews’ ability to fully communicate with one another and do so with no personal agenda. This is the essence of eliminating cross-functional dysfunction.

When you are leading your organization to become more nimble, more innovative, more customer focused, more ‘fill in the blank,’ it’s important that you recognize that it’s your front line employees who are going to make this happen, and make it stick. Across your organization, employees need to be able to come together to challenge the status quo, and make timely decisions, to drive to the kind of organization you want yours to become.

By the way, the crew of Flight 1549 had no procedure to handle low-altitude dual-engine failures. None existed at the time across the industry. They had to make it up “on the fly.” Pun intended. Maybe we need to be more flexible in our approaches to drive innovation and change in our organizations.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


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