October 18, 2009

I’m more than a bit fond of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger — and not just because I’m a frequent flyer. Yes, he landed his disabled plane in the Hudson River with flawless precision earlier this year, a feat referred to by many as a miracle. But I’m truly taken by the leadership qualities he’s demonstrated then and since.

Then there’s the matter of staying calm in crisis. This is what Sullenberger shared in a recent article for Parade magazine:

“It wasn’t until about 90 seconds before we hit the water that I spoke to the passengers.
I wanted to be very direct. I didn’t want to sound agitated or alarmed. I wanted to sound professional. ‘This is the captain. Brace for impact!’ ”

Think about that. At a time when every second mattered and his every brain cell needed to be focused on a precise sequence of actions, the captain was mindful of the tone of his voice and the choice of his words. He understood what great leaders, great bosses know: their emotions are contagious.

Most managers won’t find themselves in Sully’s life-and-death situation, but they do face stress, pressure, deadlines and an occasional crisis. Some respond poorly; they may shut down or blow up, may be indecisive or rash, may cause panic, confusion and errors. Sadly, they may also fail to take responsibility for their own poor performance, blaming the circumstances instead.

I know how important “calm in crisis” is to employees. Newsroom managers in our Poynter leadership seminars receive narrative 360-degree feedback from their colleagues. We begin with a general question about the manager’s strengths. We leave it wide open for the respondents to describe attributes they appreciate. Clearly, when a manager is cool under pressure, colleagues take note.

Here are some examples from a recent seminar:

  • “She is good at staying calm and coming up with a plan in stressful situations.”
  • “He remains calm and even-handed even as he supervises a very large and difficult group of reporters…”
  • “She approaches potentially explosive situations with calmness and reason…”
  • “… is the voice of calm in a newsroom that can become frenetic when big, breaking news develops.”
  • “She is strongest in the area of keeping cool, fair and balanced in the heat of battle — a critical and rare skill for a manager.”

Isn’t it a shame that an employee thinks keeping cool is uncommon for managers? How many “bad boss” experiences generated that perception?

Great bosses work hard at keeping calm under pressure, knowing the effect they have on the product and the performance of those who look to them for guidance. They know that Captain Sullenberger didn’t just successfully land a plane; he led 154 people to safety.

Want some tips on how to keep it together under pressure? I share them in this podcast: “What Great Bosses Know about Know about Calm in the Storm”:

Poynter’s “What Great Bosses Know” podcast is sponsored by The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. Poynter’s leadership and management expert Jill Geisler shares practical information that’s valuable for bosses in newsrooms and everywhere.

You can subscribe to this podcast via RSS or to any of our podcasts on iTunes U.

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Jill helps news managers learn how to lead her favorite people in the world - journalists. Good journalists, she points out, question authority and resist…
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