Leadership Lessons from Chilean Miners

Chilean Leadership Lessons

The successful rescue of the 33 Chilean Miners is perhaps the ‘emotional feel good’ story of the decade. The BBC summarised their fate as being trapped under over 700 metres of solid rock, in temperatures of 90 degrees plus, with no certainty of rescue having been abandoned by the owners of the mine. The successful outcome can be attributed to the technical prowess of the rescue effort (the previous deep drill rescue record was 74metres in the 2002 Quecreek mine rescue of 9 miners in Pennsylvania).

However, leadership behaviour also played a huge part both above and below ground. So what can organisations learn from this extraordinary success story?

Leadership is not Hollywood

Doubtless there will be a blockbuster film of this incident starting with the disaster itself, cutting to families uncertain of whether loved ones are dead or alive, feckless mine management distancing themselves from the possibility of rescue and President Pinera of Chile mobilising the country to attempt the impossible rescue. There will also be a hero to lead the underground miners to co-operate and work together in order to survive.

This eponymous Hollywood hero may be Luis Urzua the supervisor who first emerged, organising the living conditions, setting up work rotas, mapping the underground location for the rescue team and ensuring that 2 days food was shared equally amongst the group and made to last the first 17 days before a relief hole was bored down to rescue haven 33.

However, the reality is that of multiple leaders in addition to Urzua, emerging and giving each other space and responsibility to take on different tasks.

  • Extravert Mario Sepulveda, a charismatic front man who featured in many of the miner’s videos keeping the interest of the viewers and focusing the miners on the outside world of family and friends in order to boost determination and fortitude to survive.
  • Jose Henriquez, the preacher who took on the role of maintaining the morale and hope of the miners.
  • Jonny Barrios who took on the medical role, looking after the health of the miners completing medical procedures under the guidance of surface experts having only completed a basic first aid course 15 months before the disaster.
  • The rescue worker who dared the unknown and volunteered to descend in the rescue capsule before the miners were allowed up.
  • President Pinera took on the focus of a nation, particularly towards the end of the drama, being visibly present when the miners came back to the surface. However, prior to this he had let his Mining Minister, Laurence Golborne, be his expert on the scene and deferred key decisions to him. The popularity of the President has also been enhanced by his ability to convey and communicate the determination and desire of a nation to succeed against an almost impossible challenge.
  • The rescue effort included technical experts from many different backgrounds including Mine Rescue, NASA & psychologists all of whom worked out how to co-operate, share knowledge, scope and project manage a solution under extreme pressure. Compare the success of this rescue with the difficulties faced by BP in the Gulf of Mexico...This time a very different experience was the outcome of this precision engineering solution.
  • All 33 miners were required to work together and manage both their own and the fears, emotions and concerns of their fellow miners. Undoubtedly their shared history and experience of working in the hazardous (largely unregulated) Chilean mining industry helped in terms of mental toughness. However, under the guidance of Urzua & Sepulveda they also shared their feelings and hopes in front of the camera providing emotional support to each other during what was undoubtedly a grim experience with no guarantee of a happy outcome.

So what can organisations learn?

People can do extraordinary things under pressure (living underground for 70 days) and drilling a rescue hole through over 700 metres of rock (when the previous rescue depth record was 70metres) amongst other feats. However, to do so, natural leaders must emerge to shape the group outcome (every man for himself simply ends in disaster) and co-operate with each other providing space to let each individual contribute to the best of their ability.

Communication is key, focusing on engaging everyone in the goal, objectives and celebrating milestones and eventual success.

The role of the ‘President’ is to provide a vision and then trust his/ her people to manage the task using experts as appropriate.

Finally the role of emotion (resilience and hope over adversity) over rational thinking (e.g. the mine owners effectively disengaged from the possibility of rescue stating it could not be done), not accepting set backs and maintaining personal and group unity and resilience.

Undoubtedly other lessons will emerge over time. It will be fascinating to learn about insights that can be applied to leaders at all organisational levels through interventions such as executive team coaching.