Lorenz on Leadership: Doing the right thing

  • Published
  • By Gen. Stephen R. Lorenz
  • Commander, Air Education and Training Command
Last week, our nation was inspired by the actions of a brave pilot - an everyday American who reminded us of who we are and who we can be.

It just so happens that the pilot of U.S. Airways Flight 1549, Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger, is a classmate of mine. We both graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1973. When I saw his picture on the news, I immediately looked him up in our 1973 yearbook, and there he was, looking sharp in his cadet uniform. 

Mr. Sullenberger learned how to fly in our Air Force, and he served out his seven-year commitment as an officer and pilot. He then began a 29-year career as an airline pilot and safety expert. When you throw in his time as a cadet, he had more than 40 years of training, education and experience to prepare him for the challenge he would face last week. 

He prepared himself well. Like all Air Force pilots, Mr. Sullenberger spent hundreds of hours studying emergency procedures and practicing them in simulators. He obviously continued this practice as he transitioned to the airlines. 

One definition of integrity is doing the right thing when no one else is looking, and Mr. Sullenberger made himself a better pilot by studying and practicing when no one else was paying a lot of attention. His foundation of knowledge and skill was strong because he put in the time and effort required to build it. 

But preparation wasn't enough. When faced with a crisis, Mr. Sullenberger had to execute. He didn't panic. Instead he focused on what he had to do to save his plane and his passengers. Ditching a large aircraft is an incredibly difficult thing to do, and Mr. Sullenberger was able to do it safely. He executed his responsibilities with excellence. 

Once the aircraft stopped in the cold waters of the Hudson, Mr. Sullenberger continued to care for his passengers and crew. New York Mayor Bloomberg described how Mr. Sullenberger walked the aisle of the airplane twice to make sure everyone was out. In doing so, he put service to others before his own personal safety. In the middle of incredible stress and strain, Sully chose to do the right thing. 

In media parlance, the story of Flight 1549 had "legs." Even as the historic inauguration approached, people remained fascinated with the incident, hanging on every detail as recounted by the passengers, ferrymen and rescue specialists. Perhaps this can be explained by the sheer drama of the crash and the fact that it happened in our largest city. 

I think there is something deeper here, however. I believe that, in the face of all the negative news we have endured in recent months, we are looking for a hero - or in this case, a "Sully" - who will do the right thing in the face of adversity. Americans love heroes, especially "ordinary" people who do extraordinary things, because one of our core ideals is that everyday people can make a difference. 

On a very cold day in New York, Sully made a difference. He did it by living according to our core values of integrity, service and excellence. 

We didn't invent the core values in the Air Force. They came from the American people that we serve. Although the headlines may be filled with stories of fraud, greed and waste, it is important to remember that there are millions of Americans who choose to live by these values.

Whether it is the teacher who chooses to stay after class to help a troubled student or the policeman who chases the thief into the dark alley, many Americans choose to live according to integrity, service and excellence. 

The story of "Sully" Sullenberger reminds us of this. In these challenging times, it's good to remember what makes our country great. To Sully, my old classmate: Thanks for landing Flight 1549, walking down the aisle twice and setting an example for us all.