A standing ovation when he entered the stage. Softball questions from hardball New Yorkers. Heartfelt coos and ooos and ahhs and a second standing round of applause. Three years after his heroics on the Hudson River, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger still has the Big Apple eating out of his hand.
I'm at a loss for how to explain the phenomenon that is Sully, who can do no wrong in the eyes of an adoring public and say no wrong despite producing millions of 'em in two books and countless public appearances. But let me try.
Sullenberger still says all the right things. He is consistent in reminding audiences that he was not alone in the cockpit that day in January 2009 when geese flew into the engines of the USAirways A320 forcing him to put the plane down in the river. He continues to insist that if everyone who played a role that day hadn't been so gosh darned good at their jobs the "miracle" might have turned out quite differently.
And yet, he is not self-effacing, as his first book, Highest Duty, makes clear. The subject matter of book number two, Making a Difference, Stories of Vision and Courage from America's Leaders expands on the same theme. There are qualities that make people great leaders. Sullenberger sees himself among them and then he narrows the definition of the term. Leaders worth following are those who hew to core values and recognize that the goal is not personal achievement but the public good. Leadership, as defined by Sully, is qualitative. Leaders want to make the world a better place.
Full disclosure: Making a Difference arrived at my doorstep today and therefore is opened and as yet, unread. My comments are based on his appearance last night at New York's 92Y. He was there along with former New York City police commissioner Bill Bratton, who is profiled in the book. The large crowd paid to hear what Sullenberger had to say, then they formed a lengthy line to buy the book.
Making a Difference is intended to illuminate the qualities that make great leaders -- keeping in mind that Sully sees leadership through the prism of "greater good." Is it any wonder that one member of the audience felt the need to ask him why he doesn't run for president?
Despite time and media overkill, Sullenberger is one of the few public figures who has not shown his feet of clay which give his words significant import. And because he is not a politician, he doesn't have to weigh in on issues that can get sticky like gay marriage or banking regulation. He's free to keep the dialogue just where he is most at home -- at high altitude.
This leads him to speak in platitudes occasionally, but always articulately and with a sense of humor. He had last night's audience enthralled for the entire presentation. They roared with appreciation when he responded to the moderator's teasing comment about his prototypically authoritative pilot's baritone. Sullenberger quipping in reply, "Is my voice authoritative enough to convince you to turn off your portable electronic device?" And Sully stunned a few in the crowd when he confessed that for months after the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 he suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome that left him unable to sleep for more than a few hours at a time.
But what I found most inspiring was when he concluded his comments saying that despite the hoopla that followed the happy landing of Flight 1549, he thinks his greatest accomplishments lie ahead.
The Miracle on the Hudson took a hardworking professional -- faceless and nameless beyond his own small circle -- and gave him a global voice that retains impact to this day. Miracle of miracles what he had to say was worth hearing. It still is.
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