My last post focused on children, teenagers and adults facing moments of choice when they’re targets of or bystanders-witnesses to harassment, bullying and abuse. People who repeatedly turn away from that call to step up usually develop terrible long-term consequences including increased stress, insecurity, discouragement and depression; increased blame, shame, guilt and negative self-talk; and loss of self-confidence and self-esteem. The valor of Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger focuses us on a different but just as critical a set of choices our kids and teens face as they grow up.
In a Wall Street Journal article, Jeffrey Zaslow, co-author, with Captain Sullenberger, of his book, "Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters," Captain Sullenberger faced a number of difficult situations when he was growing up. He responded to these moments with powerful choices that led him to be prepared to act effectively in the moment when both engines of his Airbus A320 on US Airways flight 1549 went out and he ditched the plane safely in the Hudson River.
Sullenberger’s choices did not begin when danger was thrust on him; they began when he prepared himself for the dangers of real-life, long before he developed his flying skills.
His youthful choices led him to develop the character and skill he needed when a moment of truth was thrust upon him and lives were at stake. Some of the choices he made long before he captained that flight:
- Act when someone is helpless in the face of danger. For example, when he was 13 he watched the news about Kitty Genovese, a New York woman who was stabbed to death while her neighbors ignored her screams and didn’t even act to call the police. Sullenberger decided then “that if I was ever in a situation where someone such as Kitty Genovese needed my help, I would choose to act. No one in danger would be abandoned. As they’d say in the Navy: ‘Not on my watch.’”
- Work hard to protect people’s lives; don’t be a bystander. Sully says that after his “father killed himself in 1995, ‘His death had an effect on how I view the world. I am willing to work hard to protect people’s lives, not to be a bystander, in part because I couldn’t save my father.’”
- Accept what’s happening and work to better the situation. After their struggles with [his wife’s] infertility and the arduous journey of trying to become adoptive parents, Sully says, “The challenges [we] faced made me better able to accept the cards I’ve been dealt.”
- Be prepared. Study how things can go wrong and plan ahead to overcome potential problems. In order to see what went wrong and to figure out what to do better, he examined many plane wrecks in person and read many transcripts of cockpit vice recorders taken just before crashes. The lessons he chose to learn: “Be vigilant and alert.” He saw that Charles Lindbergh’s “success was due almost entirely to preparation, not luck.”
- Develop the right mindset. He says, "In so many areas of life, you need to be a long-term optimist but a short-term realist… You have to know what you know and don't know, and what your airplane can and can't do in every situation."
- Sacrifice lower priority goals for more important ones. "By attempting a water landing," he says, "I would sacrifice the 'airplane goal'—trying not to destroy an aircraft valued at $60 million—for the goal of saving lives."
- Compartmentalize. Focus on the immediate task; don’t be distracted by extraneous thoughts. “Sully says his family did not come into his head. ‘That was for the best. It was vital that I be focused; that I allow myself no distractions. My consciousness existed solely to control the flight path.’”
Captain Sullenberger is justly praised for what he did as an adult on the day he saved 155 lives. And I see a hero in the 13 year-old boy who started and continued to make wonderful choices in response to the difficult situations he faced; preparing himself for the moment when the duty to respond was thrust on him 40 years later.
We never know how many lives will be on the line when our call to action comes; we must develop the will and also the skill so that we can respond effectively. We must also prepare our children to recognize and respond successfully when their calls to higher duty come. Facing bullies or witnessing bullying is only one of those situations.