What a Calm Act of Heroism Can Teach Us about Risk Management

I remember the day well…

I was in my office on a cold and blustery January day when news came of a plane crash in New York City, but unlike other crashes in times past, there were few injuries and no fatalities.

Later dubbed the “Miracle on the Hudson,” the events of that day were truly miraculous, but also contain lessons risk professionals can apply to better serve their organizations.

A quick recap of the day’s events…

On the afternoon of January 15, 2009, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 departed LaGuardia airport in New York for Charlotte, North Carolina. Shortly after takeoff, Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III and First Officer Jeff Skiles noticed a flock of Canadian Geese flying straight toward them. Before they knew it, some of the birds collided with the aircraft, knocking out both engines. Capt. Sullenberger explains:

Realizing we were without engines, I knew that this was the worst aviation challenge I’d ever faced. It was the most sickening, pit-of-your stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling I had ever experienced.

Over the next three and a half minutes, the pilots, in coordination with air traffic control, had to make a harrowing life-and-death decision in just seconds. Do they turn back to LaGuardia or attempt to land at a nearby airport in New Jersey?

Realizing the plane did not have sufficient power to make any of the alternate airports, Capt. Sullenberger made the decision to land the plane in the Hudson River, which is something few pilots were trained to do and that he had personally never done.

Miraculously, all 155 passengers and crew survived and there were no injuries or fatalities on the ground. There’s no doubt that wouldn’t have been the case had Capt. Sullenberger not exhibited calm in the face of such trying circumstances as heard in this recording of radio traffic from that day.

Capt. Sullenberger exhibited exceptional skill at two of the most important components of emotional intelligence – self-awareness and self-management.

As you can imagine, finding yourself in this situation would be a traumatic experience, not just emotionally, but physically as well. In interviews after the incident, Capt. Sullenberger describes his emotional and physical reaction when he realized the plane’s engines were out.

I could feel an adrenaline rush. I’m sure that my blood pressure and pulse spiked. But I also knew that I had to concentrate on the tasks at hand and not let the sensations in my body distract me.

As explained Justin Bariso’s book EQ Applied, Capt. Sullenberger was exhibiting exceptional ability to understand what he was experiencing (i.e., self-awareness) – and an incredible degree of self-control to manage the situation to a positive outcome.

This skill to acknowledge and manage his emotions didn’t happen overnight.

Up to this point, Capt. Sullenberger had a long and distinguished career as an Air Force pilot, commercial airline pilot, accident investigator, and instructor to flight crews on handling a crisis while in the air. While not specifically trained in the skill of emotional intelligence, his years of training and experience prepared him for this moment.

How does Capt. Sullenberger’s story relate to risk management?

As I’ve mentioned in different articles such as this one on the importance of relationships and others, soft skills like emotional intelligence (EQ) and listening and reading people are just as important to the success of an integrated risk management program as anything else.

Now I’m not implying that you’ll face a life-harrowing situation like Capt. Sullenberger, but there’s no doubt you will experience difficult moments with executives, managers, and other stakeholders in your company as you work to ensure they are making risk-informed decisions.

Being able to demonstrate self-awareness and self-management will play an important yet subtle role in this effort.

Think back to any difficult meetings.

Like me, you’ve probably been involved in tense conversations that evoked a strong physical and emotional reaction. Without good EQ skills, these conversations could easily get out of hand, resulting in both risk management practices and you individually getting left out in the cold during important decision-making moments.

Everyone will have their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to emotional intelligence, so if you feel you are weak in one of these areas, you should be taking steps to improve your skills.

The first step on this journey is to possess what researcher Carol Dweck defines as a growth mindset. As I discuss in this post on Dweck’s research, those with a growth mindset believe they can develop basic qualities like self- awareness and self-management as opposed to a fixed mindset that believes traits are inherent and cannot be developed further.

Bariso goes on to explain in his book that one of the first and most basic questions you can ask to develop self-awareness is “…what situations do I find where emotions work against me?” That question alone can give you incredible insight into your level of self-awareness and EQ, but other questions you can ask yourself include:

  • What effect does my communication have on others?
  • How does my current mood affect my thoughts, decision-making, and actions?
  • What are my emotional strengths and weaknesses?
  • What traits in other people bother me and why?

Taking time to think deeply about these questions and others is the first step to cultivating a learning mindset. Considering these questions should lead you to ask more questions of yourself.

This of course is just the beginning as there are other facets of EQ that you will need to develop or improve upon. But as Bariso explains in EQ Applied, self-awareness is the building block of emotional intelligence.

Maybe it’s due to the spontaneity of the event and its happy conclusion that draws me to the “Miracle on the Hudson” story. While we should never find ourselves in Capt. Sullenberger’s shoes, his story and amazing skill at managing his emotions during such a traumatic event should be a gold star to all of us who seek to improve the increasingly vital skill of EQ.

What are other examples of good emotional intelligence in business or other areas that we can point to and learn more from?

I’m fascinated by real-life examples like this one and how we can take lessons learned and apply them to our organizations’ risk challenges. Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below or join the conversation on LinkedIn.

And if you are struggling to develop your ERM process into a valuable part of ensuring your company’s success, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me to discuss your issue and possible solutions today.

Featured image courtesy of Greg L via Wikimedia Commons

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