The Wisdom of “Sully”

Last January, one of the most amazing aviation stories in history occurred:  US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River, and all aboard survived. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot of that aircraft, recently spoke at the Commonwealth Club of California. The interview was replayed on Minnesota Public Radio today, and among other things, Captain Sullenberger  discussed airline safety.

As someone who flies frequently for business, and has a family history with the airline business (I took my first flight—from Minneapolis to Anchorage—at 9 months old) I was very interested in what Sully had to say.

He made two comments that were really important about safety:

1. “Safety is too important to be managed by exception.”

In my work with construction companies, I have often found that safety standards are established based on best-case scenarios. If an individual feels that a situation—though within the minimum standards—is still unsafe, s/he can stop work and make it safer. However, that depends on an individual being both accountable, aware and brave enough to stop the show. Unless things get really unsafe, we’ll keep working.

I agree with Sully: safety must be managed to the safest possible standard. The margins for safety should be broad enough to include as many situations and factors as possible, not simply depend on the individual to identify those situations that are remarkably unsafe.

2. “Safety must be a core function of everyone.”

Although safety in the airline business is important, Sully believes that it has to be part of everyone’s thought process: before financial and other considerations. Again, the reality of the construction industry (especially in today’s economic environment) is that money, schedule and quality often take precedence over safety. Unless safety has a seat at the big table when decisions are made, it will always be an afterthought.

Late in the interview, Sully was asked what personal characteristics made him what he is. He replied that he always had a passion to be the best at whatever he did and he had a curiosity that made him a life-long learner.

Pretty good things for all of us to embrace, no matter what we are doing. Passion and curiosity can take us a long way in life, whatever challenges we face and dreams we strive toward.


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