Making decisions is never easy. And split-second decisions are even tougher. One wrong move and you could have a disaster on your hands.

Remember the US Airways plane that made an emergency landing on New York’s Hudson River in January 2009? The aircraft had struck a flock of geese and lost both engines minutes after takeoff. But all 155 people on board were rescued by nearby boats after it landed in the river and there were few serious injuries.

This accident came to be known as a “Miracle on the Hudson”. But the truth is the miracle landing was the result of some quick thinking and intelligent decision-making by the plane’s captain, Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger.

Sully’s story is a great lesson in decision-making, one of the key skills for success at work that you can learn in Harappa’s Making Decisions course. I would recommend you watch American movie director Clint Eastwood’s brilliant film, Sully: Miracle on the Hudson, to understand the power of human judgment in making decisions.

video credit: Warner Bros. Pictures on YouTube

Making decisions is tough, especially when the stakes are high. Captain Sully faced a high-impact decision with big consequences: his decision on where to land the flight would’ve affected not just him but 154 passengers aboard. 

As Sully, played by Tom Hanks, says in the movie, “I’ve delivered a million passengers over 40 years, but in the end, I’m going to be judged by 208 seconds.”

System 1 and System 2 Thinking

The whole timeline between the birds hitting the aircraft and the emergency landing on the Hudson was just 208 seconds. Obviously, that’s not enough time to run a mathematical check or generate a risk analysis report. Then how did Sully take that decision? Did he immediately decide to land on the river, or did he quickly weigh his other options and then choose to go with this one?

I believe Captain Sully’s decision was a combination of System 1 and System 2 thinking, the two ways of thinking Nobel-winning economist Daniel Kahneman introduced in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. System 1 thinking is fast, intuitive, and involuntary while System 2, on the other hand, is more considered, methodical, and relatively slower. It’s the kind of thinking you do consciously and deliberately to analyze situations before moving into action.

Sully later said, "One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal."

Sully’s first reaction, for about 35 seconds, was a brief moment of System 1 thinking, resulting in an emotional and slightly panic-stricken reaction. But after those 35 seconds, he gained his composure and took charge of the situation.

He then switched to System 2 thinking and invoked emergency landing procedures, contacted air traffic control, quickly weighed various options such as landing at the other two airports in the city. After a quick deliberation, Sully even announced that he would take the plane to the LaGuardia airport because that seemed like a feasible option to the air traffic controllers.

But then Sully realized there was no time to calculate the different parameters and went back into system 1 mode. He quickly made an announcement asking the passengers and crew to “brace for impact” before making an emergency landing on the Hudson River.

During his human performance investigation after the accident, he was asked how he calculated the parameters to decide on the water landing, despite being advised otherwise.

Sully's honest reply was that there had been no time to calculate anything and that he “eyeballed it”. He said, “I had to rely on my experience of managing the altitude and the speed of thousands of flights over four decades.”

That’s decision-making. This weekend, I highly recommend watching the film Sully: Miracle on the Hudson to learn all about high-stakes split-second decisions.

Check out the Executing Solutions Course at Harappa Education, which will help you understand the steps to navigate crises effectively. Learn how to deal with crises with agility from our Online Courses.

Prithika Acharya is an associate in the Learning Impact team at Harappa Education. She studied Psychology from Ashoka University. People and ideas that inspire her include Guy Kopsombut, Option B, and Eminem.

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