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Chilean miners are free but what can their plight teach us about leadership?

Whilst we can as yet only speculate about the events that occurred 622 metres below ground, the whole episode surrounding the Chilean mining rescue operation can be a real lesson in leadership on many levels; quite literally.

First take the Chilean Leader, President Pinera and Mining Minister Laurence Goldborne, who both resolutely stood by the bore hole during the whole operation.  An opportunity for great PR? Maybe! But compare that to the behaviour of both Tony Hayward, leisurely sailing his yacht whilst at the helm of the worlds worst oil disaster and, President Zardari of Pakistan, who, also as resolutely, refused to return from his tour of the UK whilst his fellow countrymen suffered the worst flooding since 1929.

Displaying certain humbleness in his speech to the world, President Pinera, issued a global thanks to all those countries that contributed to the rescue mission and admitted ‘we weren’t afraid to ask for help’.  How often does the failure to admit to our own, our company’s or in this case, the countries incapability lead to disaster. In this case, it would’ve been a story with a very different ending.

Below ground, elements of leadership glittered like the copper and gold ore embedded in the rocks they were mining. Juan Illnaes encouraged his fellow miners to maintain discipline whilst trapped.  Jose Henrique formed and led a prayer group, embracing 33 tiny bibles send down by his friends.

But the shimmer of leadership emanated no more than from Luis Urzua, 54, the last miner to be winched from the collapsed Chilean mine in the Atacama Desert. The shift supervisor, insisting he remain to the end like the ship’s captain, has now firmly established his name in the history books due to his demonstration of true leadership in a crisis.

Immediately following the 700,000 tonnes rock collapse at the mine, Luis ordered the men to huddle whilst leading a team to investigate, remaining calm under the immense pressure, putting his life on the line for the sake of others.

In the following days he insisted that food be strictly rationed, providing clear guidelines and rules to follow – ensuring fairness and a solid rationale behind his thinking.

Behaviours could easily have descended into anarchy. By giving his team structure, focus and consistency during this uncertain time, they had confidence in his ability to lead them out of the crisis.

Yet Luis himself was unsure as to whether they would, or indeed could, be rescued. Remaining positive, consistent and courageous during this time was vital for the morale of his team.

Even more crucially, he enlisted other leaders to utilise their skills to best effect; the spiritual leader, the medical leader – all part of that senior leadership team deep underground that has seen the emergence of individuals in a state nobody could have dared hope for.

Understanding the true nature of leadership is about the recognition that it isn’t about ‘One’, taking the glory and responsibility. A really effective leader plays to their own strengths whilst realising and enlisting the strengths of others. Frustrations arise internally when the ‘leaders’ leadership style acts as an inhibitor to others’ success, with little recognition of the talents of others. Luis firmly took hold of the leadership reins, without any detriment to his team.

Implementing routine and structure also helped. Luis split groups into 12-hour shifts, taking turns to spend time in the daylight simulated by the lights of the underground trucks. He organised eating and sleeping space, and an area for human waste.

Sixty nine days after the original disaster, this  leader showed willing to put his life on the line and be the last one out of the collapsed mine - walking the talk and guiding his men through difficult times, right to the end.

How do we capture those qualities of leadership that emerge in times of crisis; those sets of characteristics that we like to think we possess, but would only truly know if faced with a similar level of crisis. Anybody can lead in calm sea but a crisis brings out behaviours many can only aspire to.

The Chilean mining disaster, exemplifies the value of true leadership. In a business, and in this instance a rather literal sense, it is the difference between life and death.  

Julie Rowlett, senior leadership & management consultant, DPG