Leadership Lessons from the Chilean Miners of Camp Hope

October 14, 2010

The rescue of thirty three Chilean miners provides the basis of the greatest leadership story of the century. Four leadership lessons suggest themselves

October 2010.

My first thoughts [October 14th 5am]

I watched all through the night. The miners have already become heroes. It brought back childhood memories of mining in South Wales. Miners squashed in metal cages. But my flashbacks are bound up in tragedies like Abervan. Even these brave men who prevailed will get flashbacks. A great victory for the human spirit, but we must not assume it is without human costs

Abervan was a mining tragedy which occurred above ground. A land-slide from the nearby coal-tip engulfed a primary school and its occupants. The Chilean story could have become one more tragic mining accident. Instead it became what one commentator called the ‘feel-good story of the century’. Maybe that will be how it gets told, a benign Tsunami of good-will sweeping around the world. It’s hard to find powerful leadership stories based on such unconfined positive feelings. Even this joyful outcome triggered those darker feelings I expressed above.

Leadership Lessons

The leadership lessons are the more potent because of the unusual and extreme nature of the events leading up the rescue of the miners.

Lesson No 1: There was no super-hero as saviour

Whatever angle the movies make of it, there was no single super-hero who attracts all attention. Among the thirty-three entombed miners several had necessary and overlapping leadership roles. The circumstances required a more distributed leadership. Maybe one man could have been a dominant influence in sustaining morale and social cohesion, and in shaping survival decisions and behaviours. It just didn’t work out that way.

Lesson No 2: Politicians take the lime-light and credit roughly according to status

A half-mile above the miners, President Pinera behaved ‘like a leader should’. He was there the most visible symbol of his country, particularly across the 69th and 70th days of the drama as the rescue attempt drew to completion. His ministers who had been involved on a day-to-day basis had his visible place on-stage, but clearly in a subordinate role [Mining Minister Laurence Golborne and Health Minister Jaime Manalich]. President Pinera had to symbolise the concerns, determination, and even patriotism of a nation. He largely succeeded and appears to have been rewarded with a burst of popularity. [Leadership students: what might have happened if The President was less visible than Minister Golborne?]

Lesson No 3: Leaders emerged

The senior supervisor could have been the ‘super-hero’ or even the common-enemy of an emergent figure. Luis Urzua,was regarded as the first leader who had helped the men survive the first 17 days before rescue teams made contact. His reward, another symbolic one, was the honour of becoming the last miner to be rescued.

Other leaders emerged. If Urzua showed technical competence, the extravert Mario Sepulveda, showed charismatic skills in front of the videos made by the miners. He brought a bag of stones from the mine as souvenirs and is tipped for a media career (despite his not totally-convincing assertions that he is ‘just an ordinary miner’). Then there was Jose Henriquez, an evangelical preacher who had the job of keeping up his colleagues’ spirits. And (maybe a lesson in itself) the rescue workers who dared to test the fragile recovery system and join the miners before each could be hauled to safety.

Lesson No 4: The Spirit of Camp Hope

One journalist suggested that the spirit of the impromptu tented village – Camp Hope – which sprung up at the site of the accident kept of the pressure on the politicians, and even on the multiplicity of rescuers. Political activists would subscribe to this view. But it is harder to tease out how and when such forces make a difference.

Sufficient unto the day …

That’s enough first thoughts. Students will find all the theories they need from their textbooks. I’m sure the case will warrant far deeper analysis.

Footnote [December 2010]

The miners were feted around the world. They appeared together at Old Trafford at a vital football match between Manchester United and Arsenal. It seems that coach Sir Alex Ferguson used their example to help inpsire his players prior to the game [TV address after the game by MUFC Chairman Martin Gill]