A Rescue Operation for the Common Business: Leadership Lessons Learned in Chile By: Michael Brannick, President and CEO, Prometric


There is an old adage many of us know: “lucky people make their own luck.”  This belief suggests that creative people, armed with well planned and thought out ideas, have the greatest chance of success. But the successful outcome they achieve may only appear to be “lucky” to the uninitiated observer. Others can choose to believe “it is what it is” when considering a future outcome. This indicates a train of thought that the outcome is fixed by events that are not in an individual’s control. Very recently, the world saw a government, hundreds of experts and a multitude of family members who appeared to be “lucky” when 33 gold and copper miners were rescued from a mile below the surface of a remote desert in Chile.

According to one pundit “we had a real miracle just when the world really needed a miracle.” Millions of well wishers from around the world seemed to agree that we’d seen a miracle. I think that the spectacular result achieved by the Chilean government and rescuers had less to do with miracles and more to do with a belief in a positive outcome, and it took the disciplines of leadership, planning, teamwork and execution to achieve success. Furthermore, I believe that there are a handful of best practices that can be drawn from the rescue effort and from which we can easily pull lessons – lessons that can be replicated for just about every business around.

Lesson #1:  Believe You Can Achieve Your Goals

As the rescued miners continue to talk about their ordeal, we learn of the utter despair that crept in during their first days after the collapse, as they lay in the dark, buried alive without any outside contact. It’s certainly understandable why they would have felt that way. On the surface, it was a different story. The Chilean government immediately took charge of the search and rescue effort.  Its officials put out a call for help without delay or political consideration. Sebastian Pinera, the President of Chile, said he never stopped believing that the miners would be found alive. His confidence and hands-on participation exemplified his belief in a successful rescue operation. He demonstrated his belief by being there in person throughout the crisis.

In business, we often have challenges that crop up and present obstacles to successful goal attainment. Presented with these challenges, leaders should quickly take charge, postponing recrimination for what (or who) caused the challenge. A good leader can always be “present and accounted for,” expressing to others his, or her, belief in a successful outcome.

Imagine a sporting contest where your team is behind with very little time remaining in the game. As the leader of the team, do you tell your teammates they did everything they could and that winning just wasn’t in the cards? Or do you go onto the field and play to win? A positive belief about what can be achieved when the chips are down is what should govern a leader’s response. Being conscious of what you believe, and working within yourself to change those beliefs, can make a difference when leading your team to recover from a thorny business problem.

Lesson #2:  Take Action to Empower and Support People

During the initial days immediately following the collapse of the mine, the miners were in disarray. The stress of an incomprehensible fate showed. The mine foreman, Luis Urzua, took charge of the deteriorating situation. He assigned men to three teams and gave each man a job. He instituted a daily meeting and a voting system on all decisions, and he got the men to accept an approach to food rationing. Meanwhile, the disaster response team above ground formed work streams, initiated probes to find the trapped miners, developed drilling options to open an escape route and began planning for the miners’ well being prior to rescue. All these activities began in earnest and were conducted in parallel. Creating communications protocols between the experts, the families and the media was a critical step in driving consistent messages to all stakeholders. Everyone watching the unfolding situation clearly understood who was in charge.  Mr. Urzua assigned a breadth of jobs, including: medical assistant, spiritual advisor, laborer and morale officer. As such, the specifics of each job’s daily task list most probably eluded his grasp. But his confidence in assigning the jobs, and his approach to reviewing daily progress and ensuring that all of the participating stakeholders stayed engaged and informed, distinguished his leadership.

In business, there are a number of situations in which leaders need to evaluate complex business problems and know how to respond to constantly changing circumstances. Good leaders realize that they need to engage people from multiple departments, or possibly even different regions of the world, or from outside the company. They need to gather input and execute the action plans they have prepared. Leaders should always be asking themselves if the right people are being assigned to the jobs on the team.

Communicating decisions frequently to all stakeholders is also mission-critical. A leader can’t possibly know the details of each individual task to be completed, but he, or she, can engage at the detail level to drive awareness and accountability across the entire team. Good leaders can most certainly communicate with outside stakeholders to keep them informed of progress in problem resolution, and they can lead the team and outside experts to develop multiple options for each work stream.

Lesson #3:  Develop Detailed Plans with Alternatives Before You Take Action

A compelling side story from the rescue involved the preparation that went into the escape capsule and the miners’ practices leading up to the escape. The preparations for the long ascent from the mine, in a hole that was a mere 48 inches wide, were complex and posed numerous risks. In addition to the dependability of voice, data and video technology in the capsule itself, planners were concerned about miners’ physical conditions during extraction. As a result, a rigorous exercise regimen was formulated to help the miners fit into the small capsule space and to increase their stamina. A high-salt diet was instituted for them to elevate their blood pressure and decrease the probability of fainting. A high-compression suit was prepared for the miners to wear during their escape. This latter detail was planned by NASA space engineers as a way to ensure adequate blood flow to the brain during the 45-60 minute extraction procedure. All of these planned-out details attempted to materially lower the probability that a miner would faint during ascent which, if it occurred during extraction, would cause inadequate blood flow to the brain and certain death.  The diets, exercise and special suits were details that were considered to deal with a single aspect of the overall plan. They represent just a few of the thousands of such details that were addressed during the 70-day ordeal.

As leaders, we need to think about each and every detail in our plan. We need to ask ourselves about the processes we are using to engage experts. And, we need to understand their expert advice and tell others the decisions that have been made. We can improve outcomes if we think about planning first and then acting, after the detailed plan is in place.

For example, many of us plan our daily commuter route to and from work.  As traffic problems arise, we often take alternative routes that are acceptable options for the commute and that result in getting us to work and home again.  At work, we sometimes fail to take the same approach while managing through business problems. Delegation to others without knowledge of what they are doing, or what options they have for taking action, precludes leaders from ensuring that all the possible implications have been considered. Although frequent delegation and “act first, think second” approaches may save time at the outset, they often create problems in the longer term; problems which, if addressed differently, wouldn’t have been problems at all.

Lesson #4: Make Sure Everyone on the Team Has an Identity and a Voice

Group cheers, team names, practical jokes, games, phone calls, and video communications to family members, all were used by the miners to pass their time in captivity. What began with lots of dissension among the miners ended with a common bond among the group with an agreement to stay together. Most mental health experts agree that it is this one attribute, sticking together as a team, which will give the miners their best chance of moving forward with a “normal” life, without negative consequences to their mental health. As visual evidence of their team spirit, they exited the mine with shined shoes and a common uniform to show the world that they were one. Team members included a 19-year old Bolivian who had been working in the mine for only five months alongside of veterans with more than 20 years of mining experience. By extension, the omnipresent President of Chile was also on the team, present and in uniform for their rescue.  The diversity of the miners’ team was one of its great strengths, along with the positive interactions among each of its members, regardless of their background or station in life.

As leaders of businesses, we should be constantly seeking to embrace the diversity of perspectives on our teams. Leaders need to give each team member their due and celebrate each for their accomplishments, helping them over the individual hurdles they encounter. A business can best win by understanding the perspectives of its customers, employees and suppliers and then keeping the team intact. If the leader allows individuals to promote a singular point of view, an injustice is done to the team. Leaders should promulgate team spirit and take action as a team in order to demonstrate strength and resolve.

Lesson #5:  Take Action on Your Plan with Follow Up and Review

One day, 33 miners went to work. They expected it to be routine, and it turned out to be anything but. Along the way, a government and its leader came onto the world stage. Hundreds of experts built plans to find and rescue the miners. The world has now turned these simple men into celebrities, and their lives will never be the same.  Today, they are back home with their families in relatively good shape given the extent of their ordeal. In short, the plan to avert the disaster was executed flawlessly, and a number of lessons are likely to be taken from this shared experience in order to be replicated in the years to come.

What about you?  Today’s companies are constantly beset by challenges when things don’t go as expected. We have a choice as leaders when confronted by the unexpected. We can identify what went wrong and attempt to deflect responsibility from ourselves for the problem’s root cause. Or, we can respond to the challenges with a belief that we can triumph; we can lead others to come together to build plans for success; we can engage teams of experts from a diverse set of people within and outside our companies; we can commit ourselves to overcome the obstacles that confront us; and then we can execute upon the decisions we make to drive toward great and successful outcomes. When we lead in this way, the resultant success will feel overwhelmingly positive and motivating. And through practice and repetition, it will increase the probability that our businesses can rise to the next set of challenges that show up on our doorsteps.