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Blog: The Leaders Who Led The Leaders

11th Sep 2018

Vattikuti Foundation

The Leaders who led the Leaders

"When the best leader's work is done the people say: We did it ourselves."  -Lao Tzu-

The saga of the salvage of 33 Chilean miners in 2010 after 69 days of sustenance underground in the San Jose Mine, located in Atacama Desert of Chile is replete of lessons for all of us to learn. This rescue operation has been eulogized plenteously for the leadership roles of Andre Sougarret the supervisor of the operation, Luis Urzua, the shift supervisor of the trapped miners, Sebastian Pinera, the President of Chile and Laurence Goldborne, the mining minister. However, a relatively less emphasized facet of the story is the characteristics and the resilience of the trapped miners. The miners collectively preempted and responded to the signals of the rescue team even in the first 17 days of the accident, when the outside world was unaware of their location and the survival status. The trapped miners could establish team dynamics of democratic leadership very efficiently. Each one of the 33 had taken up a leadership role in their daily typical chores for the group such as nutrition, health, physical fitness, lighting adjustments to simulate natural circadian rhythm and sewage disposal. This collective leadership had solidified their interpersonal bonds which paved way for sustaining hope and safeguard their existence for several months in the severely compromised environment.

At the outset, the tone for the commitment of the rescue team was set by the Head of the state, the Chilean President when he mandated to “Bring home the miners, dead or alive”. This clear communication from the top leadership resonated the probability of locating and rescuing the lost miners alive was less than 1%. This statement also bridged the gap between the harsh ground reality and the high expectations of the the family members of the victims. What is more is that he specially ordered and erected a cross to memorialize the lost men just in case they failed to find them alive. Team leader Andre Sougarret, despite being an outsider for this mine, he quickly organized the entire operation. He adopted a well balanced strategy of open mindedness with his decision making skills. He was empowering, yet involved in the operation. Sougarret encouraged the teams to fail quickly and to learn and innovate from each failure. Finally on on the 17 days of drilling on August 22 the first major success was in sight when 8th borehole reached the shelter and the trapped miners could manage to load the message in the drill bit “we are well in the shelter”.

The operation culminated to final success on October 13 when on the 69th day the last miner could be brought to surface in the steel rescue capsule built by Chilean Navy in collaboration with NASA. The final operation lasted for 22.30 hrs.

At the other end, the 33 miners underground at the depth of 2600 feet leadership of the shift supervisor, Luis Urzua's job was very challenging for the first three days. He very efficiently handled fragile physical and mental health of the 32 of his colleagues threatened by uncertainty and limited supplies. During first 17 days, before they could be to located and a formal communication channel could be established, the team underground developed a strong will to live well and manage their limited resources to last till they could be brought back to the surface. The survival instinct of the miners was in perfect alignment with the determination of the rescue team to get them alive without any formal communication. In their grim situation it is impossible for us to conceive for them keep hope alive even with the likelihood that the rescue may be not impossible. One of the miners had to lose weight to fit the size of rescue capsule.

Luis Alberto Urzua, 54, shift foreman, is widely credited with helping the men survive by enforcing tight rations of their limited food, lights and other supplies.  He set an example of true leadership by deciding to be the last miner to be pulled out on October 13 at 9.30 PM.

"I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion."  -Alexander the Great-

Please click the "Read more" link below to access Dr. Bhandari's blog website, where more of his writings can be found.