Key lessons from Chile’s spectacular mine rescue

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Much has been written about the 33 Chilean miners whose rescue from their underground prison of 70 days we all witnessed on TV. They were a truly inspiring team of ordinary workers who have much to teach us about how to lead in these trying times.

Crises can unite us or destroy us. They can bring out our best or our worst. There’s usually little in between. What enabled these extraordinary people to survive the longest underground captivity in history, especially the first 17 days when there was little or no hope? What kept them from turning on each other and enabled them to come triumphantly to the surface? It’s not the stuff we typically read about in leadership books, but it is the stuff that separates good leadership from inspiring leadership.

Faith, hope and belief. The stories they have told give us some insight into the deep faith that each miner had in their Higher Power, as well as in themselves. Their hope of rescue was profound, as was their belief in themselves and their team.

The good of the whole. Food and water were insufficient to sustain them all for those first 17 days. They made a commitment to the good of the whole rather than the good of the few, rationing what they had to support them all.

Character, will and discipline. To survive, these 33 men not only had to rely on their individual character, but had to have the will to survive, and the discipline within their team norms to be able to ensure that the good of the whole was maintained.

Resilience and patience. In the face of extraordinary adversity, they settled in for a long haul. Their individual resilience and patience was reinforced by their commitment to the survival of all, especially in their darkest moments.

Everyone a leader. Each member of the team had a different leadership gift, whether it was organizing food and materiel, leading the group in song, encouraging those who momentarily lost hope, ministering to injuries or searching for a way out. Everyone had something to give to the entire team, and those gifts were honored.

A unifying vision: survival. Their unifying vision of survival kept them focused even in the darkest moments.

I could go on. But the point here is that when they were unexpectedly tested by the collapse of their mine, they fell back on the central tenets of their culture. And the most important message we might take away from this miracle is that the good of the whole is more important than the one.

Competitiveness and greed would have destroyed this group from within. They would have turned on each other. Their fundamental norms of collaboration enabled them to survive and win.

The central leadership lesson of the Chilean mine disaster is that a culture of collaboration will enable any group to survive and thrive, especially in a complex global market that tests our resilience, our faith and our character.

Edward M. Marshall, Ph.D., is a Senior Partner for Organizational Leadership at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C. He can be reached at marshalle@ccl.org, or 919-265-9616.