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Leadership lessons from 2,300 feet below ground

On August 5th, a mine located under the Atacama Desert outside of San Jose, Chile collapsed. Amazingly, 17 days later the 33 men that had been feared dead were found alive 2,300 feet below the surface. While rescuers estimate that it could be up to 120 days until the miners see sunlight, a remarkable tale of survival is unfolding, and it's sprinkled with pragmatic leadership themes from which we can all learn.

1. Discipline matters

The miners found themselves trapped in a room with only two days worth of emergency rations, but they had no idea how long it would be until they were found by rescuers on the surface. They prepared for the worst, and strictly rationed their food supplies. Every other day each miner eats two spoonfuls of tuna, a sip of milk, a bite of cracker, and a slice of peach. Without their foresight and, more importantly, the discipline to stay with an increasingly difficult plan, it is doubtful that all of the men would have survived the search period especially given the fact that the miners have been informed that they may not be rescued until Christmas.

2. Focus on controllables

The temperature in the mine is over 90 degrees and humid, and the miners are confined in cramped quarters with no toilets, limited light, and little chance of seeing family members anytime soon. If the miners focused on these issues, their mental state would probably decline quickly. But there are aspects of the situation that are within their control. For instance, they can control their attitude, and as evidenced by this video they are surprisingly upbeat. They can focus on supporting one another, and the tasks they engage in on a day-to-day basis, even organizing the limited space they have available to them into areas for sleeping, eating, and playing games.

3. Share the load

No one person has assumed the leadership mantle. Rather, a phenomenon called "emergent leadership" has taken place, where the only thing that matters is competency. Mario Gomez, the oldest of the 33 miners, organizes chapel on a daily basis, and serves as an aid to the psychologists working on the surface. Luis Urzula is the shift leader, and as the on-the-job leader he has organized daily work assignments and insists that no one eats until everyone has received their food. He's also the one who will be organizing the miners as they work to clear the expected 3,000 to 4,000 tons of rock as the escape tunnel is bored. Yonnie Barrios, who may have other issues to deal with when he finally gets out, took a six month nursing course in the 1990s and has been administering vaccines and medication and collecting medical samples from the group. Other skills will surely be needed, and it will be interesting to see who else takes a leadership role.

4. Give everyone a voice

Every day, the 33 Chilean miners meet to plan the day's events and discuss any and all decisions that impact the group. As one miner gave a tour of his temporary home, he said, "here is the meeting room where all of the decisions are made with the involvement of the 33 that are here." Most of us shun consensus, because as a decision-making strategy it takes a significant amount of time. But for these miners, maintaining a positive dynamic within the group appears to be a priority, and providing all members of the group with a voice ensures that all perspectives are honored.

5. Crisis used as opportunity

The Chilean president, Sebastian Pinera, has used this crisis well.  While the miners have slowly become celebrities, Pinera has remained squarely in the spotlight. He was the one to deliver the news to the public that the miners were alive, and has taken the time to speak with the miners, ensuring that they will be rescued. As the narrative has evolved, Pinera's popularity has risen from 46% to 56%, largely attributed to his handling of the mining accident. More importantly, Pinera has used this disaster to galvanize a country that was devastated by an earthquake only six months ago.  

We'll continue to follow this story and hope for the miners' safe return to the surface. As always, let us know your thoughts.

Have idea for what we should write about next? Be in touch at info@menoconsulting.com or visit us at Meno Consulting.

By Joe Frontiera  |  September 3, 2010; 3:52 PM ET  | Category:  Foreign Affairs , Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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