Viva Chile: Leadership and the Rescue of the Miners

Posted 10.14.2010

When I was a kid, my mom let me stay home from school the day that the astronauts of Apollo 13 came back to Earth after their spacecraft suffered an explosion on the way to the moon. Like millions of others around the world, we anxiously watched the TV waiting to see if the capsule would survive the reentry through the atmosphere. I remember I cried when the camera caught the first glimpse of the chutes on the command module opening and the crew members made radio contact with mission control as they floated down to the ocean recovery zone.

Chile5 Watching live coverage of the rescue of the Chilean mine workers over the past two days stirred those memories from long ago. It was inspiring to look at the faces of the rescue team members as they embraced one of their comrades before he stepped into the rescue capsule to be lowered into the mine.  And then 20 or 30 minutes later, the cameras underground captured him stepping out of the capsule and into the embraces and handshakes of the miners below. As they saw the scene on the Jumbotron, the crowd gathered above at Camp Hope broke into song and cheers of Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!  About the only thing that gets any better than that was seeing the miners emerge on the surface over the next 24 hours with amazing health and vigor to greet their loved ones, their rescuers and Chile’s president.

Last month, I wrote a post on What We Can Learn About Leadership from the Chilean Miners. The complete success of the rescue effort bears out how important it was for the miners to lead themselves and each other to survive so well underground for 70 days. Much like the astronauts of Apollo 13, they showed grace and calm under pressure, maintained their discipline, drew on their training and supported each other to get through a crisis. And, as was the case with the astronauts, the miners could not have made it safely home without the efforts, talents and leadership of thousands of others. There are leadership lessons to learn from the rescuers as well. Here are some of the ones I’m taking away:

Know When to Go All In:  Chilean President Sebastian Pinera made a decision early on to go all in to bring the miners home. He marshaled all of his country’s resources and the talents and technology of experts from around the world to get the miners back alive. He put himself on the line by so visibly leading the rescue effort and standing by at the mine as the final recovery phase began. If it had gone wrong, he would have been the face of a tragic failure in front of 2,000 journalists broadcasting live to the world.  Thankfully for everyone, it worked. In no small part, it’s because Pinera went all in.

Accept Help:  The rescue operation appears to have been a model of private and public sector cooperation and coordination. Chilean government ministers and officials coordinated the rescue masterfully. An important aspect of that was accepting and effectively deploying the assistance of resources from outside of Chile such as NASA engineers and the American drilling crew that tunneled through the rock to the miners.

Under promise/Over deliver:  When the miners were first found alive, the estimates were that it would likely be Christmas before they could be recovered. When the final recovery phase started this week, it was stated that it would take 48 hours to bring everyone to the surface. All of the miners were recovered within 24 hours from the time the rescue capsule first descended. With family members camping at the rescue site and with the cameras of the world upon them, it would have been easy for the Chilean officials to buckle to the pressure and offer overly optimistic assessments on when the crisis might be over. They didn’t. They managed expectations and created the margin they needed to prepare the rescue attempt in the most thorough way possible.

Put Yourself in Their Shoes:  One of the most impressive aspects of the rescue operation is how much attention was paid to the overall health and well being of the miners and their families. As a servant leader would, the Chilean officials appeared to regularly ask themselves, “What would I want or need if I was in this situation?” and then delivered on their answers. The leaders of the rescue operation assembled physicians, psychologists, nutritionists, exercise specialists and spiritual counselors to attend to the total spectrum of needs of the miners. As the energy showed by the returning miners demonstrated, that approach paid off. It was also impressive to see how the rescue leaders kept the loved ones of the miners engaged and informed throughout the process.

Communication Matters:  One of the first things the Chilean rescue leaders did when they knew the miners were still alive was lower a small fiber optic camera through the tiny shaft into the mine. Through that camera they and the world could see the faces of the miners. Being able to see real, live human beings down there undoubtedly focused the energies and commitment of everyone involved in the rescue.  In the days and weeks that followed, more communications technology was lowered into the mine. All of this enabled the miners to participate in their rescue, the rescuers to care for the miners and the families to stay connected with their men. The importance of establishing strong communication channels in a crisis cannot be overestimated.

As one of the Chilean readers of this blog wrote to me in an email a few weeks ago, Viva Chile!  Congratulations on the miracle you’ve achieved and thank you for showing the world what great leadership looks like.