Friday, January 23, 2009

Leadership Lessons from Captain Sully

As I sit at my computer to write on January 20, I reflect on the incredible historical significance of this day. We ended staff meeting a few minutes early to catch what we could of the inauguration on TV. I have watched every inauguration as long as I can remember, beginning a journey of prayer for every president who serves our nation in this proud tradition of democracy. But I noticed that something new welled up in me today, something deep and emotional. Just a handful of years ago, I had trouble imagining that someone other than a white male could be elected president of our great country. I have always been offended at the racial prejudice I witnessed in my dear home of Alabama growing up, and have often been frustrated that we seem to move so slowly. Yet here we are.

My thoughts then move past our history of prejudice to the demands of leadership in general. I am thankful for those who are willing to serve such a high office (and I’m glad I don’t have that job!). It would be tough to be leader of our nation in such a challenging time. Then I remember that the mark of true servant leadership is not that things always go well, but how well we navigate things when they don’t go so well.

This leads me to reflect once again on the event last week that can teach us much about servant leadership. For those who weren’t in worship on January 18, I am referring to the “leadership lessons” I proposed that we can learn from “Captain Sully”. You know the story. Last Thursday, an airplane landed in the Hudson Bay due to some excellent flying skills on the part of Chelsea Sullinberger, after a flock of geese shut down both engines of the plane. All 155 passengers made it. Here is what we can learn:

1) Sometimes geese fly into your engine. There is no way to engineer life so that nothing bad happens, and things will not always go your way. People will disappoint you and tragedy will happen. Maybe somebody needs to make a bumper sticker that says “Geese Happen.”

2) A strong leader calmly does your best to navigate the situation to safe waters. Was Sully a bad pilot? Absolutely not! Why do we think that if we have problems, there is something wrong with us? Problems are a part of life. They are “opportunities waiting to happen.” The very definition of excellence has to do with what happens when things go badly.

3) The point is the journey, not the destination. I watched many survivors interviewed, and not one of them complained because they did not reach their destination! They were grateful to be alive. We, too, are on a journey together, and the trip is what’s important in life. Life is not about success, achievement, and having everything you want. It’s about the path.

Whether we are thinking of the highest of offices in our country or the lowliest of servant duties at church or in your family, there is much to be learned from Captain Sully.