What We Can Learn About Leadership from the Chilean Miners

Posted 09.01.2010

Chileanminers Some days it seems like you have to look long and hard to find examples of inspirational leadership lessons in the news. Today was not one of those days. If you haven’t already done so, you must read the front page article by Alexei Barrionuevo in the New York Times on how the 33 Chilean miners trapped in the copper mine have organized themselves to survive. In an era where lots of people claim to be leaders but don’t deliver, here is a whole group of leaders doing what needs to be done to facilitate their own rescue. 

You’ve probably heard the story by now, but, in case you haven’t, here’s the quick recap. The miners were trapped in a collapse a month ago. They were presumed dead for 17 days until rescue crews on the surface pulled back a drilling tube to find a plastic bag with a note in it that said, “We are fine in the refuge, the 33.”  Since then, rescuers have been able to send necessities and communicate with the miners through a very small shaft running into the half mile deep space. The miners know that it will be between two and four months before they can be dug out.

What they’ve done for themselves since the collapse has been both simple and astounding.  Simple because it makes so much sense.  Astounding because of the grace and discipline they’ve shown under pressure. Through multiple acts of leadership they have organized themselves to take care of their bodies, minds and spirits. The way they’ve done it is instructive and humbling for all of us leading in much less challenging situations.

Here’s some of what we can learn from the miners:

Leaders share the role:  You might assume that the miners’ shift supervisor would take over the sole leadership role. Yes, Luis Urzua is organizing work assignments for the crew,  assisting with the plan to get out of the mine and ensuring that no one eats a meal until everyone’s food has been sent down the shaft. He has not, however, taken on every leadership responsibility for himself.  The oldest miner on the crew, Mario Gomez, has taken the leadership role of attending to the spiritual and mental health of the men. He is consulting with psychologists on the surface to monitor the psychic health of his comrades.  Yonny Barrios has taken the lead on ensuring the physical health of the crew by drawing on six months of nursing training he took 15 years ago. Barrios is administering tests and health screenings to his friends on behalf of the doctors monitoring the situation above ground. What a beautiful and impressive example these men are of leaders who share the work of leadership.

Leaders leverage their gifts:
  Each of these three miners along with others on the crew are drawing on the gifts of their life experience and interests to ensure the well being of the unit. Someone I respect recently pointed out to me that you know you’re in the right leadership role when your heart and body and not just your head tell you it’s the right way for you to contribute. That’s more likely to happen when you’re leveraging your gifts. My guess is that Urzua, Gomez and Barrios feel that kind of alignment with the leadership roles they’ve assumed.

Leaders keep the whole person in mind: 
Every organization has a bottom line. In the case of a mine rescue, the bottom line is getting the miners out alive. It’s one thing, though, to bring the men out in relatively good physical health. It’s another to bring them out with their mental, spiritual and emotional health intact. How fortunate they are to be led by men who recognize those needs and have organized everyone to consistently attend to them. What difference would it make to the health of our organizations and the people in them if every leader approached their work with such attention and care to the whole person? It’s pretty breathtaking to consider, isn’t it?

What’s inspired you about the Chilean miners, their families and the people working to rescue them?  What other leadership lessons can we learn from these brave and resourceful souls?

If you liked this post, check out this follow up post for leadership lessons from those who rescued the miners.