Dealing with a Stressful Work Situation: Lessons from Captain Sully’s Landing in the Hudson

By Terry Barber

Yep, we live in some crazy and stressful times. Who has not lost just a little bit of sleep worrying about a job/career or stressing about the demise of our 401k’s? Even so, nothing compares to the stressful situation that Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger faced just a few short weeks ago, when the plane he was flying crash-landed in the Hudson River. Now that a little bit of time has passed and we have had time to reflect on his remarkable feat, there are a few lessons that were lived out by Captain Sully and his heroic crew—that we can all apply to our businesses and jobs during these challenging times.   

Lesson 1: I was absolutely in awe of the Captain’s sense of confidence and well-being while he had every reason to be consumed with fear. He was not unaware of his potential fate—the loss of not only his life but the lives of more than 150 passengers and his crew. Yet his voice remained calm, and his spirit was positively reassuring. In the midst of your stress right now, which emotion would your associates use to best describe you? More important, which would you want them to use? Are you a person who brings gasoline to a fire, or water? Despite the tremendous pressure to give in to fear, it really is a choice to be a conduit of confidence. Choose to be calm, even when you have every reason not to be.

Lesson 2: In anticipation of potentially dangerous situations, Captain Sully had learned to be prepared for the worst. And yet, he always expected the best. In the interviews following his dramatic Hudson River landing, he was asked by more than one reporter, “What were you thinking?” The good captain simply replied, “I must and I can land this plane safely!” This kind of thinking comes only after intense training. You don’t land an airliner safely in the Hudson by working only on touch-and-goes on a calm, sunny day. Captain Sully’s flight training certainly involved a mix of potential scenarios,  planning to land in one place, but learning to be prepared to land at another, even if it is the most unlikely place on the planet. He learned to be both disciplined and flexible.

Are you disciplined? What are you training yourself to do next in your career? What are those latent desires and dreams you had before you became vested and comfortable? Allow them to surface again, and nurture them. Invest in yourself, and use these uncertain times to be absolutely and totally prepared to begin the next phase of your career—or perhaps a new career. After all, you may have to land where you had not originally planned. Like Sully, expect the best—but be prepared for the worst.

Lesson 3: Just before Captain Sully touched down on the Hudson, he announced to the cabin, “Brace for impact.” As soon as the words left his lips, he recalls, he heard his flight crew giving safety instructions to the passengers through the flight deck door. At that point he knew that they were all on the same page and that they were going to make it, and together, they did.

After the landing, when he was being proclaimed a hero by the media, it would have been very easy for Captain Sully to take all the credit and get all the glory. But instead he allowed his crew to share the applause for helping to get every single passenger off safely.

Who do you work with that you can express appreciation for today? When all things are equal regarding work performance between you and another, many times the choice about who stays and who goes will come down to who acknowledges his team members versus who thinks only of self-advancement and getting all the credit. Be sure to take time to acknowledge and appreciate your team members, particularly during taxing times such as these, when many are being called to go above and beyond the call of duty.

Lesson 4: “It’s my airplane.” These were the words Captain Sully spoke to his first officer as soon as he saw, felt, and smelled the effects of birds being pulled through the engine. At first glance you might think Sully’s words were just a way of being in control. The truth is this was part of his emergency protocol, and his first officer both knew it and complied. During times of intense stress, we are prone to do and say things that are out of character. Things come out of our mouths and then we wonder, “Where did that come from?” Under stress, we are much more likely to become self-consumed and paranoid. That’s why we, too, need an emergency protocol. I challenge you to take a moment and write down three basic beliefs that you can look to when under great stress. Example: “My job is only a portion of my life; it is not my entire life.” Another one might be, “I cannot control my every circumstance, but I can control my response to every circumstance.”  Then, based on your beliefs, define for yourself and your team or co-workers a set of rules for how you will respond to changes in your job or your life circumstances—an emergency protocol—and don’t waiver from it.

High levels of stress can create a real hotbed of emotions, especially in business. Don’t be a victim of these difficult days—be intentional! Be a conduit of confidence. Prepare for the worst, and expect the best. Acknowledge and appreciate your team members along the way. And make sure you have an unwavering emergency protocol. In other words, when your stress level goes up, be like Sully, and create your own Hudson River landing.

Read other articles and learn more about Terry Barber.

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