Leading in Turbulent Times:

On January 15, US Airways Flight 1549 took off from New York airport, bound for North Carolina. However, less than 10 minutes into the flight, the plane hit something, causing a double engine failure and threatening the lives of all 155 people on board. Unless decisive and courageous action was taken, disaster was inevitable. Five days later, on January 20, President Barack Obama took over the reins of the country, facing a situation not unlike the one in which Flight 1549’s Captain Chesley Sullenberger found himself.

The US Airways incident offers valuable lessons from which Obama can draw upon for the next four years. The first comes from Captain Sullenberger himself. Upon news of the double engine failure, air traffic control advised Sullenberger to land at a nearby airport. However, he decided to take a different approach, choosing instead to land on the Hudson River. When it comes to solving the current economy’s woes, President Obama may also have to buck conventional wisdom. The sheer magnitude of the stimulus packages being proposed will necessitate the need for creativity in deploying this capital effectively and responsibly. With a little ingenuity, it may even be one of Obama’s best ways to fulfill campaign promises around alternative energy and to wean the US away from its dependency on oil.

The second lesson from the US Airways incident comes from the coordinated response of rescue efforts. Everyone pitched in, from local authorities to the Coast Guards. The task was clear and priorities were synchronized, enabling people to quickly and efficiently do their parts to successfully overcome the frigid conditions. Obama’s most valuable assets during the campaign were the people he mobilized to work on his campaign team, his massive financial base, and his extensive volunteer corps. Obama has already alluded to our collective responsibility and the need to take action. Yet, we have no clarity of task, nor are the priorities spelled out. Where are we being called to help? What exactly are we supposed to do? While it is understandable that Obama needs time to craft a strategy, he should act quickly to capture the momentum and before the crisis deals a paralyzing psychological blow to the nation.

For our third lesson, we return to Captain Sullenberger who issued the directive, “brace for impact”. Unquestionably, the impact of the last 12 months has taken its toll on the economy and 2009 will be a tougher year. Creating a communications strategy to keep America abreast will be paramount to success. Our greatest presidents have gained credibility not only because of their brilliant actions, but also because of their forthrightness in engaging the American people in spite of bad news. Obama is to be commended for having begun this process before his inauguration with weekly addresses. The American people will similarly respect Obama if he remains candid and transparent about the steps his Administration takes even when they involve tough tradeoffs.

The 155 people aboard Flight 1549, prepared themselves for the worst, but they also hoped for the best. Ultimately, they survived due to the skill, speed and selflessness of all involved. Today, Obama faces a similar challenge in mobilizing the experience, talent and optimism of Americans to avert an economic disaster with sobering global implications. By making courageous decisions, issuing clear directives and maintaining an open and honest dialogue, he would have taken the first steps needed for a successful landing.

February 2, 2009
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