Here is an article written by Steve Tobak for BNET, The CBS Interactive Business Network. To check out an abundance of valuable resources and obtain a free subscription to one or more of the BNET newsletters, please click here.
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Like millions, perhaps billions, my eyes were glued to the screen as the rescue capsule brought the first Chilean miner to the surface to see his wife and children for the first time in 69 days.
In spite of all the media attention and the emotionally charged atmosphere, what really struck me was something I did not expect to see. When the first rescue worker descended the shaft and emerged from the capsule to greet the 33 trapped men, I was floored by how disciplined, organized, strong, and in good spirits the miners appeared to be. Every single one of them.
And no, they weren’t just putting on a show for the cameras. After 69 days trapped in that hell-hole, I seriously doubt that was even possible.
Don’t forget, not only were these men trapped under a half mile of rock in 90+ degree heat for more than two months, but for the first 17 days after the mine collapsed, they subsisted on just two days of food and water without a hint that anyone even suspected they had survived the cave-in.
But they organized, supported each other, and in my mind, demonstrated the very best of what the human race is capable of doing under extremely challenging conditions. Here are 4 leadership lessons we can all learn from these 33 extraordinary men:
1. Humans really are at their best under extreme adversity. We need look no further than the poise and control of all those miners when they greeted the first person they’d set eyes on in 69 days to know that humans have a surprising ability to pull together and do amazing things under extraordinarily challenging conditions. Even in business, challenges bring out the best in us.
2. Leadership, management, and organization are not just business concepts. They’re human concepts, terms that attempt to capture how men and women uniquely organize in groups or teams to take on extraordinary challenges, even the chaos of the physical world. We attempt to replicate these concepts in the business world, but they occurred first in nature.
3. Embracing emotion aids survival. All the hugging, kissing, and crying by almost everyone present throughout the ordeal, including Chile’s president and the rescue workers, wasn’t unique to this extraordinary event. I’ve spent time in South America, including Chile, and the people are very open, comfortable, and in touch with their emotions. I think that contributed to the miner’s survival. Feelings are our warning and guidance systems. I wonder if corporate America’s outwardly stoic nature, especially with respect to emotion, is success-limiting behavior.
4. Democratic organizations or “social collectives” where everyone has a voice are inherently problematic. Not to mention they would fall completely apart in times of crisis, which all companies face. Had it been every man for himself instead of shift leader Luis Urzua taking control, the miners would never have survived. As Jena McGregor explains in her Washington Post column:
“Immediately after the miners became trapped, Urzua reportedly got all of them to share in the sacrifice by rationing their two-day supply of food to last 17 days–when they were finally discovered–and to eat their food together at the same time. He crafted a disciplined structure to their subterranean lives, setting up orderly work shifts and creating a map of the miners’ topography to help rescuers. And he appealed to his compatriots’ emotional needs, encouraging miners to talk on camera to their families, serving as a “calming” presence …”
Bottom line: While not a “leadership lesson” per se, I’d be remiss if I didn’t call attention to the flawless execution of every stage of the rescue operation. It was truly impressive. And you know what? Not only did I find this entire experience inspiring, but knowing that there are unheralded leaders like Urzua scattered around the globe fills me with hope and optimism for all of us.
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Steve Tobak is a consultant, writer, and former senior executive with more than 20 years of experience in the technology industry. He’s the managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based firm that provides strategic consulting, executive coaching, and speaking services to CEOs and management teams of small-to-mid-sized companies. Find out more at www.invisor.net