Give people their own hammers

Stan D. Soderstrom | Aug 03, 2021


I recently had the honor of interviewing Captain “Sully” Sullenberger. Like most people, I learned of Captain Sullenberger in 2009, when he landed a disabled airliner on the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. But by the time I interviewed him — at Kiwanis International’s Education and Leadership Conference in Salt Lake City this past June — part of my interest in him came from what I’d learned more recently.

There were many fascinating outcomes of that famous incident 12 years ago, but the most remarkable is the fact that all 155 people onboard survived. In Sullenberger’s subsequent book, "Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters," he gives credit for that 100% survival rate to the people themselves: his crew, the passengers, control tower personnel, the rescuers and numerous others.

For Sullenberger, it was more than a matter of sharing credit. He understands that his performance in the cockpit resulted from preparation and training — not just as a pilot, but as an ethical leader.

In the book, he writes about growing up in a rural setting in North Texas. His family of four didn’t have much of what we today call “expendable income,” but they had enough to buy a one-bedroom farmhouse.

And each member of his family owned a hammer. Of course, owning a hammer does not make you a carpenter. That process begins when someone teaches you how to use a tool. Thanks to Sullenberger’s father, the whole family — mother, father, son and daughter — worked together to enlarge their house with a series of additions. And they learned as they worked together as a team, as a family. At one point, Sullenberger himself was tasked with measuring and cutting a board. But he cut the board too short. His father passed along the old carpenter’s adage: “Measure twice, cut once.”

It’s a simple but powerful leadership principle: When everyone participates, everyone contributes. And that way, everyone learns together.

Members of successful Kiwanis clubs see this firsthand. Whether it’s organizing a community clean-up or building a park or school, a greater level of participation ensures greater success.

In Sullenberger’s book, we sense his father’s patience, which offered an opportunity to correct a mistake and learn from it. That’s the hallmark of a tolerant teacher — and a lesson for any leader. After all, a leader has to make sure everyone on a team has the right tools for success. And a leader has to allow everyone to learn to use those tools, and to make mistakes along the way.

On that day in 2009, at least 155 people were thankful that Captain Sullenberger was up to the task. What they didn’t realize was the benefit they had gotten from important lessons throughout his life, including the experience that came from owning his own hammer as a youth.

Most of all, it was the benefit of a father who emphasized patient preparation and attention to detail — the kinds of things that help you get it right when it really matters.


Stan D. Soderstrom is the executive director of Kiwanis International and the Kiwanis Children’s Fund. His background includes global and community-based work in the public and private sectors.


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