Mark Craemer No Comments

Visionary leaders like the late Steve Jobs don’t come along all that often, but strong leadership qualities can emerge in any of us and at any time. Sometimes it just takes a crisis before we see these exemplary skills come forward.

Think of Sir Ernest Shakleton who, after failing to succeed at his original goal in becoming the first to walk across the Antarctic continent, maintained order and optimism in his crew for nearly two years under extremely difficult circumstances to save all 28 men.

And more recently, those who led the 33 Chilean miners to safety one year ago this week, including Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, mining minister Laurence Golborne and shift supervisor Luis Urzula. Each of them took risks and rose to the challenge of what it means to be a strong leader.

On August 5, 2010 a private mine in the Atacama desert collapsed trapping 33 miners more than 2000 feet below the surface. It was a full 17 days before anyone knew that the 33 were still alive, but that didn’t keep people from immediately taking responsibility and planning a rescue operation.

Chilean President Pinera announced that the priority was to attempt a rescue, yet he set no firm deadline or date. He set a vision, but left it to others to define the roadmap. He also celebrated small wins along the way in order to keep everyone inspired. This clarity of vision and celebration of incremental victories along the way helped lead the way for everyone involved.

Mining minister Golborne said he felt immediately empowered once Pinera committed to the world that they would find the miners. He created two teams: one at the site working inside the mine, doing the drilling and preparing for the rescue; and another team in Santiago looking at different technologies to design the rescue. It was also vital that they began three different options concurrently and ended up succeeding with Plan B.

Shift supervisor Urzula demonstrated both competence and compassion leading the men inside the mine through this 69 day ordeal. He defined and enforced how all 33 would spend their days, and switched off electric lights to simulate night. Urzula rationed two days worth of food to last the 17 days before they were discovered, which amounted to one teaspoon of tuna and a half-glass of milk each 48 hours. All the men were forced to eat together and at the same time to maintain fairness and inclusiveness. Urzula as their leader was also the last to leave the mine.

Mario Gomez, the 62-year-old cheerleader and spiritual guide of the group, said after being rescued, “Sometimes you need something to happen to really reflect that you only have one life. I am changed, I am a different man.”

The leadership skills demonstrated by these brave men of Chile include clarity of purpose, focus, celebration of small victories, competence, compassion, communication, creativity, discipline, and teamwork. This event gave a billion people around the world something to be proud of and celebrate as we witnessed the miners being rescued.

Most of us will never face the challenges of these miners or the people helping to rescue them because our work is not as dangerous. But there are many opportunities in our workplace for taking a risk, stepping out of our comfort zone, and rising to the challenge of leadership.

This could be taking an unpopular position on a project that may put you at odds with others. It may mean speaking up for someone when you believe that person was treated unfairly. Or it may mean taking responsibility for something no one else is willing to do.

Whatever it is, there will be risks of failure and the possibility that you make look like a fool. But as Steve Jobs said in his 2005 Stanford University commencement speech, “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

Leadership requires both courage and humility. Sometimes it takes a crisis for us to fully embrace this.

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