Monday, September 5, 2011

"Heroic" pilot takes a nice, long ego trip, and gets rich while he's at it

Sullenberger sullied his name with his shameless opportunism

Dear Sully Sullenberger:
    It was sweet of you to "carefully select" me to receive your leadership DVD  for only $595, plus shipping and handling. Thanks but no thanks. I wouldn't pay $5.95 for it. And anyway, I'm not leadership material.
    I'd rather be a follower, if I could only find a principled, heroic leader. You, sir, don't meet my criteria.
    When you accomplished your "Miracle on the Hudson" in 2009, skillfully landing your crippled aircraft in the river, you didn't risk your life to save others. You saved your own life, and incidentally saved those of your passengers and crew, by being poised, experienced and focused. That's admirable, but it's not heroic. 
    Even though all you did was fulfill your duty -- in an unforgettable setting and with undeniable dignity -- you eagerly embraced the title of Hero, and milked it for all it was worth. You acknowledged that the nation needed a stalwart protagonist. The news media are always falling all over each other trying to find some heretofore unknown person who will touch our hearts, elicit our tears and boost their ratings. You graciously served as a vessel for our collective emotional hunger.
    You didn't stop there, though. You weren't about to let us use you as an inspirational figure for free. You've turned your soft landing into hard cash. You've made yourself a millionaire by exploiting our respect for you. You charge as much as $40,000-plus to give a speech! That's not heroic -- it's just plain tacky.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning.
    Oh Sully! my Sully: I think you really were the modest and serious-minded professional you portrayed yourself to be when this whole episode went down, so to speak. I was as charmed by you as everyone else -- even NBC's Brian Williams -- was.
    But when the fawning, glittering world of celebrity opened its doors to you, you rushed right in, happy to assume godlike stature and to dispense your wisdom, for a price, on everything from family relationships to health-care economics to science, teamwork, disaster preparedness, business strategy, motivation, crisis management, courage, education and "peak performance" (to name a few "areas of expertise" on your Washington Speakers Bureau list). 

WSB describes you as an "international hero" and "a focused, unflappable and deliberate leader." The WSB stable includes former heads of state, astronauts, athletes, Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winners, actors, media personalities and tycoons. Your deft piloting maneuver, with Manhattan as a glorious backdrop, enabled you to fit right in with the biggest stars in this show called Life.
   "Sully’s deification, which began almost instantly, moved from the Presidential Inauguration (where he was an 'honored guest') to the Super Bowl (where he got a standing ovation) and continued....(with appearances) on 60 Minutes and David Letterman to discuss his 'masterpiece' landing," an article in New York Magazine said. Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave you the key to the city of New York. Then you were Grand Marshall of the Rose Bowl Parade.

Mastering the "royal wave," amid roses and thunderous cheers.
    Only one brave soul dared to rain on your fragrant parade. Al Slader was the co-pilot of United Airlines Flight 811, a 747 that was en route from Honolulu to New Zealand in 1989 when a cargo door failed, blowing out several rows of seats. He credited your triumphant feat in large part to luck.  
    "It was pure chance that Sully had been trained as a glider pilot," Slader said. "It also helped that the sky was clear and the winds light that day. If Sully had been a mile or so in almost any other direction across the river, he wouldn’t have made it."

Sully's "masterpiece" landing had the nation in a swoon of hero worship.
    As a "true American hero" (according to your web site), you wrote the obligatory, "inspirational" New York Times best-selling autobiography (with the help of high-end ghost writer Jeffrey Zaslow, who helped terminally ill professor Randy Pausch draft his much-acclaimed book, "The Last Lecture").  
    Your own book, "Highest Duty" (your site declares). is a "remarkable true-life story" that the Washington Times says, "Screams to be required reading for all young people, or anybody else who needs confirmation that courage, dignity and extraordinary competence can still be found in this land."

What really matters is fame and fortune.
    You followed it up with "Making a Difference: Stories of Vision and Courage from America’s Leaders" (May, 2012), in which you "embarked on a personal quest to meet with distinguished Americans from diverse fields with varied styles of leadership but who all embody the credo of 'leadership by example'." Aligning yourself with the vision and courage of others is what I call Gilt by Association.

Basking in reflected glory.
    Then, like Rudy Giuliani, and so many of our other so-called heroes, you decided to monetize your status further by launching an ambitious, prestigious entrepreneurial venture. You became founder and chief executive officer of Safety Reliability Methods, Inc. (SRM), a consulting firm "dedicated to management, safety, performance, and reliability. SRM’s expert analysis will identify ways to greatly improve safety, performance and reliability and will strengthen your bottom line. SRM’s approach can be applied to business, government, aviation, health care and other fields. SRM has the expertise and experience to improve your operations and enhance your opportunities for success."
    Well, it's certainly enhanced your opportunities, Sully. It's transformed your moment in the sun into an enduring place among the stars.
    Even so, I get the feeling that you don't quite believe your own hype. And that genuine self-doubt -- that painful awareness that you are a rather ordinary man playing one who is extraordinary -- is far more attractive than your pumped-up "heroism."

    Postscript: Oh great -- now Sullenberger is in TV ads pleading for donations to the "nonprofit" St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. This shameless institution pays its CEO over a million dollars a year and doles out equally outrageous salaries to its other executives while its research and patient care suffer (

How can anyone with a heart divert funds from her life-and-death battle?