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The Great Chilean Mine Rescue: A Tale of Two Leaders

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Urzua fistpump 
(Photo released by Chilean Presidential Press Office)

As were a billion other people across the globe, I was riveted to the live television coverage of the rescue of the 33 miners trapped in the copper mine in Copiapo, Chile after a cave-in Aug. 5th left them trapped a half mile underground. After the last miner was rescued, I experienced a surge of emotion as the Chilean President, the 33rd miner, government officials and rescue workers enthusiastically sang the Chilean national anthem holding their hard hats over their hearts.

As the drama unfolded over a 22-hour period, it became clear that two leaders were instrumental in determining the successful outcome of this ordeal: Luis Urzua, the shift supervisor in the mine, and Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera.  At CCL, we define the leadership roles for achieving goals as setting direction, achieving alignment, and gaining and maintaining commitment.  With a common goal of ensuring the miners’ survival, both Urzua and Pinera did so with great effect.

Luis Urzua, the much-heralded 33rd miner, was elected by his colleagues to be the last to leave the mine.  This position of honor was granted in recognition of his leadership throughout the 69 days of entrapment. Urzua’s actions following the collapse of 700,000 tons of rock ensured the group’s survival. News accounts report that he rationed the use of their headlamps to conserve battery power, established a strict rationing of their food supply, sectioned off the mine for different activities (sleeping, eating, socializing, exercising, bathroom, etc.) and set up a day/night schedule for the miners to maintain a daily routine during their entrapment.

Urzua set a clear direction for the group that they would remain unified and disciplined in order to survive. The unity of the men reported in news accounts, is evidence that they were aligned and working in unison under the austere rationing regimen and the structured existence Urzua established. Throughout the 69-day ordeal the miners maintained their commitment to the direction Urzua set, especially during the critical first 17 days when they had no contact with the outside world. All the men emerged in good health and reportedly agreed to share equally in any financial profits resulting from their sudden fame. Upon Urzua’s exit from the Phoenix rescue capsule, President Pinera told him, “Mr. Shift Supervisor, you are a good boss! You put your workers above yourself!”

President Pinera also exhibited strong leadership during the 69-day ordeal. Less than a year into office, his advisors warned him not to become involved in the mine disaster because of the potential political risk to his presidency if it were to end badly. He ignored those warnings and set a clear direction of committing his government’s full resources to the rescue effort, long before it was known if the men were even alive. He got his government’s agencies aligned in the effort and committed financial, material and personnel resources.

President Pinera led by example, taking a big political risk by getting his government involved and by maintaining a personal vigil at the mine during the rescue until all were safe, greeting and hugging each man as he emerged. The alignment and commitment that his personal involvement inspired was evident in the non-stop work of the team manning the winch, raising and lowering the Phoenix rescue capsule, the rescuers who voluntarily descended into the mine to treat and evacuate the miners, the workers above ground chanting a cheer with each rescue, and the government officials and spouses who kept a long vigil at the site until all were safe.

Leadership, both in the mine and above-ground, brought 33 lost miners back to safety, captivating the entire world in the process. Two leaders, one a working-class miner and the other a wealthy politician, showed the world what effective leadership in action looks like.

~Bill Adams

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