Lessons on Leadership and Teamwork — from 700 Meters Below the Earth’s Surface

“We are well, the 33 of us, in the shelter.” These words, written on a small piece of paper, created euphoria in Chile in early August and restored hope to the families of the 33 miners trapped in the San José copper mine in the heart of the Atacama Desert. The note emerged from a duct that is now used for communication with rescuers and for sending food and medicine to the miners, who are trapped 700 meters (nearly 2,300 feet) below the earth’s surface in a small emergency shelter.

The skills and leadership exhibited by the miners will be crucial to their survival, experts say. In an interview with Universia Knowledge@Wharton, Francisco Javier Garrido, a professor of strategy in various MBA programs in Europe and the Americas and author of such management books as The Soul of Strategy, discusses the lessons that can be learned from their experience. Garrido is a partner and director of EBS Consulting Group (Spain-Chile), and managing director of the Business School at Universidad Mayor in Chile.

Universia-Knowledge@Wharton: What have been the keys to the miners’ survival, even when they didn’t know if the outside world presumed them to be dead?

Francisco Javier Garrido: The keys to survival in an extreme experience such as this one … can be summarized by three concepts [that] can be applied to the business world. First, there is the [background and expertise] of those who compose the group of people. [Those skills] have been vital for correctly understanding the context [the miners] find themselves in, as well as for grasping the real possibilities of being rescued. This has also been fundamental for keeping the group of people together and remaining hopeful about their chances to survive. Second, [the miners] figured out that it was vital to have [a leader] … with the longest seniority in the ranks of the workers. This was critical for keeping the people on the team together [and] for creating trust in the possibility of emerging alive … as well as [creating a system for] assigning tasks and the rationing of food.

It must be stressed that the components of experience and leadership are clear in this case. We need to point out the definition made by the head of the group, who acted as its spiritual guide. [He said] there was an upswing in what the [ancient] Greeks used to call “general wisdom.” This happens whenever the people whom we recognize as capable of [best understanding] the working environment reach the best possible decisions for the group. Those are the people who carry the mandate for the best possible future … on the battlefield or in the business world, where experienced managers play the same role.

UK@W: Do you believe that the importance of leadership — and the role of the leader — becomes clearer in crisis situations?

Garrido: These 33 men have given us a lesson not only in integrity, but in order and coordination. A spiritual leader has flourished: Luis Urzúa, [who headed the shift of workers] has taken charge of maintaining the cohesion of the group and keeping their spirits high. Meanwhile, the rest of the miners have contributed their own fair measure of effort … in exchanging information with the rescue group; boosting their chances of survival by rationing food, and by paying special attention to those miners who are … in the most precarious health, and [those] who are depressed. Without doubt, it is during a crisis when leadership [is most] tested … whether they have been formally chosen to execute leadership roles, as is normally the case in organizations, or whether [their role] is the result of the natural effects of chance and circumstance.

UK@W: What characteristics and skills do leaders need to have in crisis situations?

Garrido: In adverse conditions and in a context of a crisis such as this one, the leader of a team must, above everything else, validate his [or her] skills, experience and training for the entire team by providing evidence of his skill for assuming leadership beyond his formal authority. After his voice has been validated by his equals, this leader has to demonstrate true “strategic wisdom” by putting it to use for the survival of the group through such skills and abilities as:

Analysis: The leader needs to analyze … the scenarios that the team members confront, selecting viable routes for the survival of the entire team of people; and using his or her skills to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of every member of the team.

Overcoming elementary responses: He or she needs to demonstrate to the team … a deep understanding of the reality they are confronted with, so he or she can bring confidence to the team by providing [solutions to problems] … [such as] rationing or overcoming the natural anguish and uncertainties that emerge within the group.

Viewing efforts as a function of goals: The leader searches for collective benefits without drowning … in perfectionism that could undermine the various contributions of the team. He or she knows that he or she has to devote time [for people] to express themselves in both leisure and work. He or she must provide multidisciplinary tasks that keep the team busy and focused on achievements ….

Knowing how to work as a team: Even during moments when the team must merely observe his or her decisions … the leader … must develop a collaborative team that enables opinions and experience to emerge, along with a stronger sense of intuition. This adds to the leader’s flexibility and openness, since expressions of rigidity are not effective during stressful circumstances.

Ethical coherence and integrity: The leader of the team must be capable of showing integrity in his or her decision making, in such a way that he or she preserves the moral coherence of comrades and acts as a behavioral model for them.

Skill at communications: Usually, I tell my MBA students that communicating … motivation and goals to each member of the team is among the most important strategic and leadership skills. That’s because developing a working plan and searching for goals of collective interest requires clarity as well as attention to feedback ….

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