Managing Under Duress in 2009

The heroic actions of pilot chesley “sully” sullenberger in guiding U.S. Airways flight 1549 to a safe landing in the Hudson River last month offer lessons in leadership for any executive. As businesses–and their CIOs–hope to make a safe landing post-recession, looking at the skills Sullenberger summoned is a good start.

Sullenberger clearly isn’t your everyday airline pilot. A former Air Force fighter jet flier, he has participated in National Transportation Safety Board investigations, started a safety consulting firm and serves as a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Catastrophic Risk Management.

But more important than his stellar CV are the actions Sullenberger took in not only guiding his troubled passenger jet to a safe landing, but in ensuring that the passengers and crew were evacuated before he exited the craft.

Preparation: Like any pilot, Sullenberger was trained to fly and land under duress. But he went further. He researched and studied crash situations and even consulted others on the matter. He’s also a certified glider jet pilot, which means he knows how to maneuver a craft with no engine power.

Poise Under Pressure: According to reports, Sullenberger selflessly walked the aisle of the plane twice to make sure everyone was out. He knew his first priority once the plane hit the water, and he followed protocol to a T.

Execution: Not only did Sullenberger have to act fast when his plane encountered engine trouble on takeoff, but he also had to warn his passengers (the now-famous “Brace for impact” warning he made through the intercom) and then help them evacuate.

A few people have commented to me that Sullenberger’s experience is nothing like what a CIO goes through each day. They’re missing the point: Successful leaders and managers take lessons from everyone and everything they observe. Sure, IT leaders don’t have to worry about passengers and crew in a life-threatening scenario, but they do have to worry about the long-term viability of their IT strategies and their companies’ well-being.

As CIOs look ahead into 2009, these lessons should be top of mind: Prepare for the worst, keep your poise if/when the worst happens and execute on your plans to make the most of it. IT leaders have some of the toughest jobs in today’s economic climate, and their bosses will be looking for some epic performances.

Read through our package “Managing IT Through Tough Times” (page 20), and you’ll take away some lessons from three prominent CIOs: Paul Johnson of BB&T, James Knight of Chubb and Ramon Baez of Kimberly-Clark. Check out our Expert Voices interview, “Keeping the IT Trains Running” (page 25), in which Amtrak CIO and veteran IT leader Ed Trainor elaborates on the economy and provides tips for executing your IT strategy in 2009.

CIOs giving voice to the pressing concerns in IT leadership–that’s the mission of

CIO Insight, and I’m thrilled to play a part as its new editor. In the coming months, you’ll see new features on the issues that affect CIOs the most. And you’ll hear straight from the best IT leaders and thinkers around.

2009 presents a huge challenge for CIOs. Sullenberger’s actions offer a great guide, and learning from your CIO community should set you on the right course.

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