iOS app Android app More

Adam Hanft

Adam Hanft

Posted February 11, 2009 | 03:30 PM (EST)

Deconstructing The Cult of Sully -- More than a Hero, a Holdover


I'm watching Chesley Sullenberger and his crew on "Sixty Minutes" and I'm thinking that the five of them represent everything that our society is losing.

I'm thinking that their national deification, warranted as it is, also tells us about a deep loss at the center of our soul.

When we look at them, we see the grace of experience, and the burden of responsibility. We see a kind of unironic dedication that's leaching out of our lives every day. And their apotheosis - the Inaugural and Super Bowl recognition -- is a sign we are mourning that slow drip.

Who cannot find a metaphor in the example of a pilot who refuses to leave his sinking plane until he checks the cabin two times to make sure no passengers are left?

Compare that to the pilots of our largest financial institutions who -- bonuses protected and dry -- leave their sinking ships without looking over their shoulders at the thousands they've left to drown.

Both Chesley Sullenberger and Vikram Pandit (substitute Dick Fuld or John Mack or your failed pilot of choice) had to deal with what Nicholas Taleb has called a black swan event: something rare and unexpected.

How do you deal with it is a matter of instinct, training and humbleness.

In her Sixty Minutes report, Katie Couric -- with her carefully calibrated blend of purring innocence and sheathed ginsu-knife potential -- pointed out that combined experience of the crew was over 100 years.

But that's not the way we are operating any more. Every day, more and more organizations are hollowing out -- moving past, and marginalizing their Sullys. Anything can be outsourced, a quick study can come in and figure it all out in a couple of days, anyone who actually reads the manual is a schmuck headed nowhere, fast.

So we find young people who are rattling around in big companies, adrift. They used to be able to find someone stuck in an office somewhere who knew the company, someone who knew how to land a problem when the engines die.

But they're lucky to find someone who has twenty minutes more experience than they do.

Pride in duration and respect for sequence isn't just non-respected, it's mocked. I hear it all the time (often from myself): "Can't we just skip the process and cut to the chase." Or that ultimate slam: "He's a real process person."

But guess what? It was process that saved those 155 people: The mindless routinization of airline speak, the drone of the repeated safety drills, the pilot's authoritative but emotionless messages from the cockpit, especially the epically parodied "put your seatbacks and tray tables in the upright position."

We have come to believe our own PR, that we're smart enough to skip the required courses and succeed based on our own genetic gifts...

So while we're jetting around the world to change the world, these dreary-dull creatures of habit are happy doing the same drill every single day.

But suddenly it's all changed. The heroes who get the standing ovations are the Process People. Saving Flight 1549 was only possible because the crew was trained and trained and trained again, until they reached the point when experience becomes reaction.

But we exult in our culture of the amateur. Everyone knows as much as everyone else. There are no mysteries to be wrestled into comprehension. A blogger can replace a sharpened journalist. Spend fifteen minutes on the Internet and you can diagnose your friend's medical problem better than the internist who wasted 10 years of his life in case there's a black swan lurking in his blood count.

And if Malcom Gladwell tells us it's true, we must be right. We're all gifted with a Blink response that lets us justify the unthinking wisdom of the gut. Consideration, discipline, shutting out the noise to focus on the decision --- why, how old-school.

Well, autopilot is great, financial models and smarty-pants algorithms are great, too. But when that flock of black swans gets swallowed up by your engine, you need someone to land the plane who didn't learn it on emergencylanding.com.