Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.
At the intersection of what we do and why we do it we find other people. In our stories of challenges, overcoming the odds, and facing our fears we discover it’s not about us.
Seated in 8F aboard Flight 1549, from New York to Charlotte, N.C., Korn Ferry’s Gerry McNamara had no idea how his life would change. Two minutes after takeoff came a series of loud bangs and flames shooting from the engines—then silence and the odor of fuel.
The only communication from the cockpit was, “Brace for impact!” and the flight attendants began chanting, “Brace! Brace! Brace!” For four harrowing minutes, after striking a flock of geese and losing both engines, the plane descended rapidly.
Gerry described for me this surreal moment as people faced their greatest fear—everyone was going to die. He saw some passengers crying; others were heard praying. Some were frantically sending text messages—a final chance to say, “I love you.”
His thoughts on his family, Gerry tightened his seatbelt to the max, so if the plane broke up on impact, at least his body would remain intact.
The aircraft hit the Hudson River, a violent landing at 140 miles per hour that sent water over the windows. Panic gripped the passengers, and people climbed over seats to get to the exit doors. “It was pure instinct of self-preservation taking over until fears were brought under control,” Gerry told me.
A former U.S. Marine Captain, Gerry sprang into action. He became part of a “squad” of seven out on an airplane wing who stuck together to help others—including rescuing someone who had fallen into the icy waters. Miraculously, everyone survived.
When Gerry, who heads our Global Technology Officers practice, described again for me this week the “Miracle on the Hudson,” the near-death of an emergency landing did not bring out the most emotion for him. Instead, he choked up when he related his homecoming the next day: “Relatives, friends, neighbors kept streaming by. I felt the depth of how much these people mean to me, and how much I mean to them. I’m asked all the time, ‘Did your life pass in front of you?’ It’s true—it did. And all I saw were the people I care so deeply about.”
Growing up, my son, Jack, was never comfortable flying. Whenever we flew, the first thing Jack did was pull the laminated safety card from the seat pocket and study it carefully. A few years ago, when our family was on a flight that made a mid-air evasive maneuver to avoid a head-on collision, Jack’s nervousness grew.
Then something unexpected happened. While home for several months during the pandemic and continuing his studies at West Point, Jack got his pilot’s license. He’s certified in fixed wing and also learning to fly a helicopter.
Jack didn’t go through the countless hours of training, preparation, and practice just to become a better military officer. He also faced what was once a fear.
Indeed, in everything we do, our attitude is truly our altitude. Here are some thoughts:
This week we celebrated Labor Day, which in the United States is a day to honor those who have worked for what we all enjoy. In the midst of a year that has been unlike any other in our lifetime, this observance takes on special meaning and significance.
It is a moment to pause and appreciate what we have, what we’ve done—and what we’ve overcome.