The quality of confidence – lessons from Flight 1549


Chesley Burnett Sullenberger, was born January 23, 1951 in Dennison, Texas, to a dentist father and an elementary school teacher mother. An exceptional student with a brilliant mind, he joined Mensa at the age of 12.

After graduating from high school, he entered the US Air Force Academy. Already a competent pilot, he was selected to be a flight instructor by the end of his first year. After a career in the Air Force, he became a commercial pilot for U.S. Airways and its predecessors. Logging more than 20,000 hours flying time, his proven competence yielded a high level of confidence in himself, and a confidence in him by those who flew in his flight crews.

All went reasonably well until January 15, 2009. In command of an Airbus A320 leaving New York’s La Guardia for Charlotte, North Carolina, Flight #1549 hit a flock of birds shortly after take-off. Losing power in both engines it quickly became apparent that a return to La Guardia or a diverted landing to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey was not feasible. Informing the passenger to brace for landing, Captain Sulley flew the Airbus to a water landing in the Hudson River. All passengers and crew survived.

Listening to the flight recording (below) is a graphic example of cool confidence under dire circumstances.

Confidence is the ability to take the information you have right now, make a decision, and take action. Indeed, that perfectly summarizes leadership itself – understand what’s what, know what to do next, then do it.

It comes as the result of self-awareness and experience. In an interview with news anchor Katie Couric, Captain Sulley said, “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

When you have self-confidence, it will manifest itself in the speed and certainty of your decisions. Tentativeness and uncertainty does not inspire confidence in those who look to you for leadership. And if your followers do not have confidence, they will not follow enthusiastically, perhaps not follow at all.

If confidence is “full trust; belief in the powers, trustworthiness, or reliability of a person or thing,” then what can you do that will promote that in yourself and your followers?

  1. Celebrate achievements with humility. Bravado and bluster does not inspire confidence. Instead it often provokes others to wonder what you are covering up.
  2. View inexperience with optimism, seeing it as merely things you have not yet had the opportunity to do. Superlative leaders do not view new things with fear, they view them opportunistically.
  3. Surround yourself with experts not sycophants. Find people who will complement you, adding to what you are not or cannot do and be. If your ego is weak and you need people to flatter you, remember that compliments are not the same as complements. The absolute last thing you want is to work yourself into a situation where you’re in way over your head and have few or no resources to get yourself out.
  4. Be aware of how you talk to yourself. Some people are too critical of themselves. Yes, we all have apprehensions. Yes, we all have failures. And that’s the point. The feelings you have are universal. You are not alone nor are you unique. Speak honestly to yourself but not with condemnation.
  5. Look the part. Why do you think airline pilots don’t show up for work in Bermuda shorts, Hawaiian shirts, and sandals? Because it would not inspire confidence among the crew or the passengers! Leaders need to look like leaders in the context in which they lead. Whatever the socially acceptable standard is in your industry, meet it.
  6. Act the part. Speak with decorum, avoid unsavory jokes, eliminate offensive speech. Don’t qualify every edict or order by sounding tentative. Being “iffy” works against you.
  7. Don’t fall apart. Keep your head about you in times of crisis or challenge. This is where superlative leadership really shines. Thankfully, few of us will ever face what Captain Sully did, but we will face challenges. Keep your head about you. After all, in quietness and confidence is your strength.


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