When Leadership, Ingenuity and Humanity Won the Day

Posted 05.19.2020

A few weeks ago, I received a nice comment on LinkedIn about one of my blog posts from David Hoey who shared that he’s been a regular reader since 2010 when I wrote about the leadership lessons offered by the Chilean mine rescue. I appreciated David’s note for both the kindness he showed and for bringing the memory of the rescue back to mind.

In case you’ve forgotten, from late August and into early October 2010, 33 Chilean miners were trapped a half mile underground for 70 days when a collapse sealed off their exit route. They went 17 days without any contact from the outside world and then, after they sent proof of life via a note attached to a drilling tube sent down from a rescue team above, spent another 53 days taking care of each other until an amazing rescue process was engineered and executed. I wrote two posts during that period, one before the rescue and one just after it was completed.

During our current period of challenge and uncertainty, we can take hope and sustenance from episodes in history when leadership, ingenuity and humanity won the day. The Chilean mine rescue is one of those. I went back and reviewed my two posts from 10 years ago and pulled the following lessons from back then that I think clearly apply today:

Leaders keep the whole person in mind – One of the most remarkable things about the time the miners spent trapped underground was the way their leaders organized the group to take care of each other. They drew on their skills and life experiences to attend to each other’s needs in all dimensions of life – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.

Leaders know when to go all in – When there still appeared to be very little basis to expect the miners to get out alive, the president of Chile, Sebastian Pinera, made a decision to go all in with the rescue effort. He was highly visible throughout the response and organized resources and expertise from around the world to rescue the miners. There were no guarantees at all that any of that would work, but Pinera went all in and stayed there until the last miner was brought up to the surface via the rescue capsule.

Leaders accept help – There is very little that leaders can accomplish by themselves. The best ones ask for help from people with the expertise to deliver it. Pinera and other leaders in Chile asked for and deployed help from experts from around the world including NASA to get all of the miners out alive.

Leaders under promise and over deliver – Once it looked like there was some hope that the miners could be rescued, the leadership in Chile set the expectation that it would be months – probably not before Christmas – until the miners could be brought home. When the final phase of the rescue began on an evening in October, the expectation was set that it would likely take two full days to bring all the miners up from the cave. Twenty-four hours later, all 33 were back on the surface. Over promising and under delivering leads to disappointment and disengagement. Smart leaders do the opposite.

Leaders put themselves in other people’s shoes – During the 70 days of the rescue effort, Chilean leaders did a remarkable job of considering the full range of needs of the miners and their families. They organized resources and expertise to support the nutritional, physical and psychological needs of the miners and dedicated a lot of time and attention to keeping their families informed and supported. It was as if the leaders put themselves in the shoes of the miners by asking themselves, “What would I need or want if I were in this situation myself?” and then did their very best to deliver on those answers.

The whole world was watching the mine rescue 10 years ago and Chilean leaders delivered. It’s often been said, though, that character is what you do when no one is watching. Sadly, it’s been widely reported and well documented that the miners and their families have not done so well in the years following their rescue. They don’t feel well supported in dealing with the long-term effects of their trauma and the surreal experience of suddenly becoming global celebrities for a brief moment in time. Perhaps that’s one more leadership lesson we can all draw from their story. The greatest leaders are in it for the long haul and keep up the work even when no one is watching. That feels like a good goal for all of us in leadership roles in the months and years to come.

If you liked what you read here, subscribe here to get my latest ideas on how to lead and live at your best.