The 2009 ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ was a prime example of successful leadership in a complex situation. Here’s what business leaders can learn from Captain Sullenberger’s cool-headed crisis management.

In an episode that is now famous almost a decade later, on January 15, 2009, at 3.24pm, flight US Air 1549 took off from LaGuardia Airport in New York on a routine flight to North Carolina. Ninety seconds later, it was hit by a flock of geese. The pilot, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, a veteran of 43 years of flying, would later describe the sound of the geese hitting the plane as louder than the worst thunderstorm he had heard growing up in Texas. With both engines down, the plane stopped climbing and losing all forward momentum. With a full tank of fuel and 150 passengers on board, the Airbus 320 was headed for disaster.

The captain took control of the stricken aircraft and tried without luck to switch on the auxiliary power. Reacting instantly to the situation, he contacted Tower Control with a Mayday signal saying: ‘We are turning back towards LaGuardia.’ He was cleared straight away, but then made the choice not to turn back to LaGuardia. He quickly deduced that he wasn’t sure of making it back to the runway. Seconds later, he checked with Tower Control if there was any other airport available in New Jersey and asked for the coordinates for Teterboro. He was cleared for that too. Once again, he worked out that he would not make it there either. After what was a protracted silence in the cockpit that cabin attendants later described as like being in a library, the captain calmly told Tower Control that he was ‘going in the Hudson’.

Once he had done that, Sullenberger pulled off a remarkable feat. He landed the Airbus in the river. Lowering the nose gently to counteract the loss of airspeed, he glided the plane to the northern end of the Hudson where he had seen boats that would come in handy for rescuing the passengers. Keeping both wings perfectly horizontal, with an airspeed just sufficient to make the landing and keeping the nose just above the water, the 320 hit the water, scooted along for a while and came to a standstill. The two cabin crew members heard the captain give a one-word order – “evacuate” – and they leapt into action. Every single passenger was escorted out onto the wings as they waited for rescue. The captain walked twice through the length of the aircraft even as the plane was starting to fill with water. Only when he was sure that no one was left behind did he leave the sinking aircraft.

Complexity and mindfulness

Captain Sullenberger’s landing provides powerful lessons for leading in complexity. Complexity increasingly defines the business landscape. It is the opposite of linearity and happens when unforeseeable factors converge together to create a situation that is not only unpredictable, but immune to the traditional rules of decision making. It’s where command and control leadership just doesn’t work. Complexity has three main characteristics. One, a complex system is self-organizing, which means it consists of agents whose actions cannot be controlled or predicted (like the geese that hit the plane). Two, it is adaptive, which means that the diverse agents make decisions to interact with each other and cannot be controlled. And three, it is emergent, in that the result will always be greater than the sum of its parts. The outcome ‘emerges’ as the situation evolves. In a nutshell, complexity is the absence of data points and information that we traditionally rely upon to take decisions. It does not mean that there is no information. There may be weak signals that are hard to pick up as long as we are stuck in the mindset that we traditionally rely upon.

Leading in complexity

It requires a Mindful Mindset so that the leader can sense and actualize emerging possibilities that would otherwise be inaccessible. The leader’s state of mind becomes the vital link in addressing a complex situation, accessing a field in which decisions get taken without complete information and action happens effortlessly. It is more a process of discovery than the implementation of a strategy. To use the words of economist Brian Arthur: ‘For the big decisions, you need to reach a deeper region of consciousness. Making decisions then becomes not so much about “deciding”, but about letting an inner wisdom emerge.’ Access to a Mindful Mindset is not easy.

Nokia was the world leader in the telecom industry in 2008, with an enviable profit picture and the largest global sales of mobile phones. With a ringtone that had reached iconic status, a powerful global brand and the cinematic backing of Keanu Reeves flipping open a new Nokia phone in The Matrix, the company seemed destined for long-term success. Today, it is battling to win back the market it has lost to Apple and Android. What went wrong is precisely what had led Nokia to its success: expertise in the cell phone manufacturing business. Over time, this had become an orthodoxy – a fixed mindset – that began shaping the decisions and judgment calls taken by its leaders. Once companies form an orthodoxy, it becomes the locus around which routines and processes get organized.

Nokia’s orthodoxy prevented its leaders from anticipating the radical disruption initiated by Apple through its development of a digital eco-system involving developers and designers. Android soon followed suit. Android was a ‘weak signal’ in 2008 when Google bought this Silicon Valley startup, but by 2010 it had become a major disruptive force. The market had begun moving away from hardware manufacture to user experience, and Nokia’s Symbian was falling short of what the developers wanted. When the threat of Apple and Android became evident, Nokia reacted to the pressure of complexity by going back to what it knew best: manufacturing quality cell phones and tweaking its operating system, Symbian. What Nokia leaders needed to do at that time was radically disrupt their thought processes and respond to the challenge posed by Apple and Android from a completely different mindset that could tackle the complexity. It needed someone at the top to step back from the situation and ask some fundamentally challenging questions, that dealt with purpose and meaning, that would guide Nokia through this challenging phase. Instead, the questions were all around functionality, technical improvement and manufacturing. What was needed was leadership at a Mindful level; instead reactivity and logic ran rampant.

Mindsets – reactive, logical and mindful

The challenge of complexity highlights a fundamental problem in the way leaders respond to disruptions. In fact, the ability to perceive clearly, interpreting the perception without bias or the need to be right, and choosing a response that generates positive impact is the number one leadership challenge of our times. The perceive-interpret-respond equation is a powerful leadership function and forms the basis for an organization’s strategy and how it is led. What and how leaders perceive influences the information they pick up. Bias and deeply ingrained orthodoxies shape our perception to the point that all perception becomes a projection of what we know, thereby filtering out the huge amounts of information available.

The second stage – interpretation – poses another hurdle. The brain is now under biological pressure to be right. Once a perception has been formed, there is a biological impulse to select the information that can prove the original perception right. This is the second stage of the filtering process aided by a strong emotional urge to be right, and is part of an ancient reward mechanism in the human brain. Based on this, we form our response to the situation. We don’t have to proceed in this automatic way. Fortunately for us, our brains have the ability to step back and move up the mindset ladder to change the equation. The secret? Higher levels of awareness.

The reactive mindset (M1)

When we are faced with complexity, the brain has a tendency to immediately default into a Reactive Mindset (M1) whose sole purpose is survival. Higher thinking functions become sub-optimized as the brain prepares for danger through an automatic mechanism that has been working smoothly for millions of years. Much needed adrenalin and cortisol flood the body as the brain starts reacting to the perceived threat. In M1, the brain addresses problems on one-to-one correlation and is primed for fast and efficient action. However, this means it is unable to deal adequately with complexity. Also, because the brain now operates on an ancient autopilot mechanism, the emotions that start surging through makes it vulnerable to old habits and fears. In an interview, Captain Sullenberger mentioned how after he took control of the aircraft (a positive M1 reaction to danger), he had a strong ‘physiological reaction’ (an uncontrollable M1 reaction). His first thought was ‘Why is it happening to me?’ (an obstructive M1 victim reaction), by which he meant that he had not thought his career would end in him crashing an airplane. M1 rearranges the biochemistry of the body and prepares it for what is known as the fight-or-flight mode. The body starts producing glucose, immunity and digestive systems shut down, pupils dilate, the heart pumps furiously and the brain locks onto the perceived threat. Higher-level cognitive functions shut down to make way for the brain’s ancient survival mechanism to take control. (Women react differently, with ‘tend and befriend’ hormones instead).

What was remarkable about the captain was that he able to make a quick exit from the M1 mindset after it had served its purpose of kick-starting his reaction to the danger. He quickly climbed up from the reactive mindset M1 to the logical mindset M2 in a matter of seconds, as he desperately needed to seek new information and think of a solution to the problem. He said later in an interview that ‘it just took some concentration’. Strange as it may sound, thinking is a counterintuitive process when in the grip of M1.

Mindset M1 is not just activated by danger or crisis; it can also be activated by hubris. Nokia’s biggest obstacle to dealing with the sudden complexity in which it found itself was its very success. Hubris had taken over and as it always does, it dulled the vital function of higher awareness in its leaders, thereby diminishing the ability to pick up weak signals. It had also perpetuated the deadly executive malady of the need to be right. Once, reacting sharply to the suggestion that Nokia partner with Android, the executive VP of marketing at that time retorted: ‘Nokia joining Android is like Finnish men peeing in their pants for warmth during the winter.’ Brain MRI scans would have registered a spike in the reward areas of the brain, which get activated when dearly held view-points are further endorsed.

The logical mindset

Captain Sullenburger was cleared to turn the plane back to LaGuardia, but he had to quickly step back in order to think. And he had to do it all over again for Teterboro. Running a complex algorithm in his mind involving plane speed, distance from base, turning radius and angle of elevation meant that the brain had to be free of distracting emotions and the fear of failure. He had to keep calm and not succumb to the temptation to turn the plane back. He had to find a solution without falling into the trap of the familiar, which in this case was heading to either of the two airports. M2 allows the brain to perform two important functions: one, it frees us from the immediate grasp of needing to act under emotion and, two, it allows access to new information. This is exactly what he did.

But the logical mindset M2 brings its own limitations. While it opens up the doors to new information, it does not have an easy mechanism to shut those doors after. Without awareness, information begets more information, thus opening up a new trap. The problem with M2 is that once it starts taking in information, it becomes a victim of the same. Once an organization gets stuck in M2, it turns into an information sink. A magnet for consultancies, information-hungry organizations in M2 get flooded with analytics, KPIs and a process for everything under the sun, until data becomes overwhelming. What happens is the proverbial paralysis, and what suffers is the ability to take quick decisions. Something else happens: leaders get into a state of ‘cognitive depletion’, which starts affecting them at a behavioral level. Cognitive depletion is known to produce selfish behaviours. Selfishness includes, among other behaviours, the inability to listen to any other point of view but one’s own. Focused on detail, we miss the wood for the trees. Habituated to satisfying the ‘how’, we stop asking ‘why’. Logic overused dries up the emotional and purpose channels that help leaders stay inspired and, in turn, inspire others. Tackling complexity requires huge reserves of mindful energy: mindfulness of the role one is being called upon to play, of the nature of things as they are and as they ought to be, and of the need to have an impact.

The mindful mindset M3

Sullenberger did not have the luxury of wallowing in M2. He had used it to free himself from the M1 grip and he had gone through the process of using information to select and reject two options until he had no choices left. He had to make yet another shift: this time to a mindset that is characterized by a state of Mindfulness. In M3, the brain sheds the burden of habit and becomes highly sensitive and adaptable to the emergent. Thought becomes clear, emotions are intelligently deployed and a strong belief in the possible guides the brain to action. The gap between stimulus and response that was hijacked by the need to be right in M1 and by need for information in M2 is suddenly freed up, allowing the leader to be guided by a sense of higher purpose and meaning. Sullenberger made the calm pronouncement to tower control: ‘We are going in the Hudson’ – and brought all his skill and expertise in landing the plane on water.

Sudhanshu Palsule is an educator in Duke CE’s global educator network and co-author with Duke CE CEO Michael Chavez of Rehumanizing Leadership: Putting Purpose Back into Business. An adapted version of this article appeared on the Dialogue Review website