Leadership Lessons From the Chilean Mine Rescue

Could the U.S. Congress have achieved such success?

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Good news is inherently satisfying, but when things go right it's also a stark reminder of the many things that don't.

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The remarkable rescue of the Chilean miners trapped 2,000 feet underground for 70 days is obviously one of the more uplifting events in modern memory. The story could get a bit seamier as an unblinking media probes every knowable detail and various back stories emerge. But the rescue seems to be an unqualified success that will probably be intently studied for leadership and command-and-control takeaways. Here's a first take on a few of the lessons the Chilean operation could teach American business and political leaders:

The power of a common purpose.

The Chilean rescue was truly a multinational and multidisciplinary affair, with contributions from a variety of companies and institutions around the world. The rescue capsule was designed by an Austrian firm. Experts from NASA and other American agencies helped sustain the 33 miners underground, and an American company from Pennsylvania supplied the drills that bored through half-a-mile of rock. Geologists, psychologists, and other experts from several different countries offered advice while the Chilean government, under mining minister Laurence Golborne, remained firmly in control.

That might seem easy, but it's extraordinarily difficult to muster resources from dozens of providers while preventing turf battles from bogging down the whole effort. Not-invented-here syndrome is a universal danger to any multilateral effort, since people in charge always prefer their own solutions to those offered by somebody else, especially when national pride is at stake. Military and law-enforcement officials routinely face this problem when operations cross jurisdictions or involve units under different commands. Corporations often struggle to get agreement between department heads, even on the smallest matters. Then there's the U.S. Congress, where political opponents would rather preside over the nation's decline and argue over blame than unite to solve vexing problems for the common good. In the pursuit of a singular goal—rescuing the miners—the Chileans have shown focus and discipline that ought to humble so-called leaders the world over.

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The wisdom of underpromising and overdelivering. This is an old cliché, yet leaders at every level routinely ignore it by creating unrealistic expectations that leave people disappointed. The Chileans did the opposite. In early August, when the mine first collapsed and the fate of the miners was unknown, Golbourne said there was a slim chance they'd be found alive. That brought criticism, but it also set the stage for a tragic outcome while still leaving room for hope. Then, when the miners were found alive, Chilean officials cautioned that it could take as long as four months to reach them. That might have come from naiveté or lack of familiarity with state-of-the-art drilling equipment, but now that the miners have been rescued ahead of schedule, everybody awaiting the rescue feels relief rather than anger. And the Chilean government looks competent instead of ham-handed, which would have been the case if they had to backpedal from an overoptimistic timeline. Compare that to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and low-ball estimates of the amount of oil spilled, which were continually revised upward by huge amounts, trashing BP's credibility.

[See images from the historic rescue.]

The virtue of backup plans. The shaft that ultimately reached the miners was the second of three being drilled, and the only one using innovative air-powered drills that turned out to be ideal for the type of rock in the area. Since miners had never been rescued before through such a long shaft, the rescue operation was basically an intense experiment. Trying several different things at once obviously raised the odds of success. That can be hard to do in more mundane situations where nobody's life is at stake and funding is tight, but it's always worth keeping in mind that there might be more than one way to succeed—and that your first idea about how to do it could be wrong.

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The joy of team pride. It's gratifying to see the Chileans come together and win one for the home team. In fact, it kind of makes you wistful for times when we had something to celebrate in America, doesn't it? In an era of corporate bloodletting, political warfare, and generally low morale, the Chilean rescue is a reminder that people really can work together to accomplish something. In other countries they can, anyway.