Leadership Lessons from the Chilean Miners of Camp Hope

The rescue of thirty three Chilean miners provides the basis of the greatest leadership story of the century. Four leadership lessons suggest themselves

October 2010.

My first thoughts [October 14th 5am]

I watched all through the night. The miners have already become heroes. It brought back childhood memories of mining in South Wales. Miners squashed in metal cages. But my flashbacks are bound up in tragedies like Abervan. Even these brave men who prevailed will get flashbacks. A great victory for the human spirit, but we must not assume it is without human costs

Abervan was a mining tragedy which occurred above ground. A land-slide from the nearby coal-tip engulfed a primary school and its occupants. The Chilean story could have become one more tragic mining accident. Instead it became what one commentator called the ‘feel-good story of the century’. Maybe that will be how it gets told, a benign Tsunami of good-will sweeping around the world. It’s hard to find powerful leadership stories based on such unconfined positive feelings. Even this joyful outcome triggered those darker feelings I expressed above.

Leadership Lessons

The leadership lessons are the more potent because of the unusual and extreme nature of the events leading up the rescue of the miners.

Lesson No 1: There was no super-hero as saviour

Whatever angle the movies make of it, there was no single super-hero who attracts all attention. Among the thirty-three entombed miners several had necessary and overlapping leadership roles. The circumstances required a more distributed leadership. Maybe one man could have been a dominant influence in sustaining morale and social cohesion, and in shaping survival decisions and behaviours. It just didn’t work out that way.

Lesson No 2: Politicians take the lime-light and credit roughly according to status

A half-mile above the miners, President Pinera behaved ‘like a leader should’. He was there the most visible symbol of his country, particularly across the 69th and 70th days of the drama as the rescue attempt drew to completion. His ministers who had been involved on a day-to-day basis had his visible place on-stage, but clearly in a subordinate role [Mining Minister Laurence Golborne and Health Minister Jaime Manalich]. President Pinera had to symbolise the concerns, determination, and even patriotism of a nation. He largely succeeded and appears to have been rewarded with a burst of popularity. [Leadership students: what might have happened if The President was less visible than Minister Golborne?]

Lesson No 3: Leaders emerged

The senior supervisor could have been the ‘super-hero’ or even the common-enemy of an emergent figure. Luis Urzua,was regarded as the first leader who had helped the men survive the first 17 days before rescue teams made contact. His reward, another symbolic one, was the honour of becoming the last miner to be rescued.

Other leaders emerged. If Urzua showed technical competence, the extravert Mario Sepulveda, showed charismatic skills in front of the videos made by the miners. He brought a bag of stones from the mine as souvenirs and is tipped for a media career (despite his not totally-convincing assertions that he is ‘just an ordinary miner’). Then there was Jose Henriquez, an evangelical preacher who had the job of keeping up his colleagues’ spirits. And (maybe a lesson in itself) the rescue workers who dared to test the fragile recovery system and join the miners before each could be hauled to safety.

Lesson No 4: The Spirit of Camp Hope

One journalist suggested that the spirit of the impromptu tented village – Camp Hope – which sprung up at the site of the accident kept of the pressure on the politicians, and even on the multiplicity of rescuers. Political activists would subscribe to this view. But it is harder to tease out how and when such forces make a difference.

Sufficient unto the day …

That’s enough first thoughts. Students will find all the theories they need from their textbooks. I’m sure the case will warrant far deeper analysis.

Footnote [December 2010]

The miners were feted around the world. They appeared together at Old Trafford at a vital football match between Manchester United and Arsenal. It seems that coach Sir Alex Ferguson used their example to help inpsire his players prior to the game [TV address after the game by MUFC Chairman Martin Gill]

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3 Responses to Leadership Lessons from the Chilean Miners of Camp Hope

  1. Dan says:

    In this circumstance I think people would have naturally stood out for different roles as you said above, the first 17 days of not knowing whether people knew must have been hard on all of them, I read the Express article and of their pact to not discuss the first 17 days as they felt that “We were waiting for death” – that would require a strong leader

  2. Tudor says:

    Thanks Dan. I’ll follow up on the Express article. Best wishes, TR

  3. Wissam Abbas says:

    Personally, when I first heard about the miners being trapped underground, I was filled with sadness when the image of their probably fate, their families, and friends came to mind. With time of course, good hope started building up and everyone was excited for that big day. I still remember when the first miner got our; I was in Istanbul, and the only image I had in mind was that of the Uruguayan rugby team in the 70’s. Probably because both were from South America, or maybe because people in both cases survived against all odds.

    Coming back to the miners’ rescue mission, I believe that it is indeed a case that manifests the benefits of distributed leadership in complex situations; a lesson for all of us to learn from. This wasn’t not about increased profit for shareholders, nor was it a chance to play inter-company politics. It was a mission to save lives (for most people at least).

    As for the question posed for leadership students about the president and the minister; I have two thoughts that I would like to share here. The first is that the president in Chile – being that of a presidential representative democratic republic – plays a major role in addition to his actual executive role in the government. The role is partly ceremonial; acting as the ‘ship’s captain’ and bringing the country together, personalizing the unity of the nation, especially during rough times. Had he failed to fill this role, any person that would have succeeded in representing the unity of Chilean people in this case, would have risen to an equal status as the president. And probably had himself a good chance if he ran for a president next elections (assuming of course that the rescue mission succeeds).

    The second point has to do with approaching this question with a ‘pecking order’ map. People serving in a government, or parliament, have obvious political ambitions, which might vary, but nevertheless, it is there. Hence, if we look at the from a pure roosting birds perspective, had the minister – who is currently down the order line – risen to the occasion, he would have elevated his status along the pecking order line and established for himself a higher hierarchical position.

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