Leadership lessons from the Chile mine rescue

I watched the rescue of the Chilean miners yesterday morning.  It was an emotional scene. The miners coming one by one hoisted to the surface in a coffin-like metal cage from their cave through 620m of rock.  Each miner arrived to a wave of cheers of “Chi-Chi-Chi… Le-Le-Le… Chile!”.  Each miner reacted in his own particular way – some shouting, some hugging family, some praying.  The second miner out had brought a bag of rocks to hand out as souvenirs to the rescue team.

If you haven’t seen it, I watched the CNN coverage of the rescue here.  I was inspired by Stanford Professor Bob Sutton’s recent post Chile’s President to Luis Urzua “you acted like a good boss”.  His blog is regularly updated with interesting content on leadership and workplace challenges.

Three people stood out for their leadership in this 69 day odyssey.

Sebastian Piñera – Chilean President. Announced from day one that Chile’s objective was the rescue attempt and that this was a priority.  He set no dates or deadlines.  He gave no false hopes.  He set a vision but let others define the map.  Second, he ensured that each small win along the way was celebrated – without ever letting the euphoria overtake the hard work still to come.  Clarity of purpose and celebration of the little wins.

Luis Urzua – the shift supervisor, the leader of the 33 miners trapped underground.  We expect 2 things from our leaders:  competence and compassion.  Competence to do their job well.  Compassion to care for the people they lead.  Luis had both.  He organised the group.  They had defined areas for sleeping, for exercise, for daytime.  They had electric lighting simulating 12 hours day, and switched it off for simulated night.  He rationed the food and set specific eating times.  He brought a small predictability for the miners confronting a massive uncertainty.  He was compassionate.  He ate last, and ate least.  He was the last to leave the mine.  When he emerged, President Piñera said to him “You acted like a good boss“.  Competence and compassion.

Mario Gomez – the eldest of the trapped miners.  He was the leader of the parties, of the fun videos that the miners had made during their ordeal.  He took a leading role as spiritual guide to the miners.  He ensured that fun and enthusiasm was part of every day.  In a situation of such tension, these moments of fun were so important in keeping up hope and maintaining morale. The importance of fun.

When 63 year old Mario Gomez emerged he spoke on camera with the Presidents of Chile and Brazil.  He said: “Sometimes you need something to happen to really reflect that you only have one life. I am changed, I am a different man.

The biggest lesson, my simple reflection…  33 people faced an extreme situation and kept their humanity. They kept hope.  Chile dedicated its resources and achieved a big deal.  They kept faith.  We are capable of much more than we know.  Chile showed its best under extreme situations.  In this extreme event each leader, each politician, each boss, each person sought to serve others, to do the right thing. It was a moment worthy of celebration.

Lessons of Leadership:

  • Discipline provides predictability in an uncertain world
  • Leadership is a team sport
  • Marathon not sprint
  • Celebrate small wins
  • Compassion, Own needs last
  • Fun makes life worth living

What do you think? Let me know you were here ;-)

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