Leadership Notes From Way Underground

In 2010, a collapse at the San Jose copper-gold mine in northern Chile trapped 33 men 2,300 feet underground for 69 days. The desperate situation called for extraordinary leadership. 

Once he realized the gravity of the situation, foreman Luis Urzua took charge and organized his men for survival. He kept the men on 12-hour shifts building out new areas, reinforcing walls and roofs, and drawing maps. He used the lights of mining trucks to simulate daylight and had the miners write letters of thanks to rescue workers in preparation of being saved. 

Because of his leadership, all 33 miners survived and were in good mental and physical condition when rescuers finally arrived. No surprise, Urzua was the last man to be rescued. Upon reaching the surface, he quipped, “It’s been a bit of a long shift.” 

What can we learn from Luis Urzua? 

The mark of a creative leader is not only one of imagination, but also the ability to execute innovative ideas masterfully. The biggest roadblock in getting others to follow a new and untested idea is to reduce the fear of failure. The fear of failure distorts our ability to operate rationally and embrace new ideas. When we fear failure, we look for safe suggestions and sit tight. 

In situations without crisis, leaders can offset this fear by failing quickly and often so that the consequences of failure diminish in importance. But this strategy would have likely changed the story in Chile into a sad one. 

A crisis, like the one Urzua and his miners faced, confronts the leader with a more difficult problem. Any evidence of failure may sow seeds of doubt and distrust. And that can jeopardize any hope of success. 

Urzua worked creatively in two ways. First, he avoided focusing only on the big picture problem. Instead, he examined multiple challenges, like sanitation, food rationing, even spiritual encouragement.  Multiple problems demanded generating a host of creative solutions.

Second, Urzua kept the miners so busy executing these solutions that they lacked the time to contemplate the fears that might overwhelm them. 

In times of stress and crisis, preoccupation with other matters can be a lifesaver.