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Leadership under pressure: Learnings from the rescue of the 33 chilean miners.

If you've wondered where to start promoting collaboration in your team… if as a leader you dream of fostering dynamics of constructive feedback, or if you struggle to eliminate silos and create a single organization with aligned objectives, this might interest you.

As a first step, we recommend asking yourself the following question: What type of leader am I? We have good news: your personality type will not be the determining factor for success as a leader; all personality types have the potential to become powerful leaders, but it makes sense that the tools you need to develop are related to your strengths and weaknesses, right?

As part of the collaborative leadership series, today we recommend the HBR article about the rescue of the 33 Chilean miners in 2010, which analyzes the constructive collaboration between leaders of different cultures, ideologies, and hierarchies to defy the odds and achieve one of the most impactful rescues in history.

Let’s remember that in August 2010, a mine in northern Chile collapsed, leaving 33 men buried in an unprecedented situation. Certain characteristics of this accident posed many obstacles to a possible rescue, where even experts estimated that the probability of a successful rescue was less than 1%. In this scenario and the emergence of a spectacular collective effort, HBR decided to send a representative to observe the process firsthand and interview the protagonists face to face.

We highlight a couple of observations and conclusions that seem particularly interesting.

First, the article talks about agility and adaptability in contexts of constant change. The proposal is to continuously monitor each action plan, to iterate and modify in real-time based on successes and failures. It encourages quick testing and failing, with the key being the ability to always maintain a global perspective. Some quotes from the text:

"Maintaining situational awareness became an endless task, as reality changed continuously."
"The group's constant brainstorming produced several possible solutions that the team could test. Later, the rescue operation would similarly seek multiple solutions at once, employing three different drilling systems (Plans A, B, and C) in parallel. Plan A was more reliable but too slow for comfort. Plan B had the potential for faster adjustments, but its technology was untested. Plan C offered greater speed but less precision than seemed necessary. Together, these alternative approaches formed a rational and pragmatic basis for the belief that a rescue was possible."
"Instead of creating a schedule in advance, Sougarret convened brief meetings as needed, especially to perform autopsies on tests or failed efforts. In the complex and changing context of the operation, it was essential to balance an assessment of the big picture with knowledge of details that might matter."

The article also refers to the importance of psychological safety in a complex context like this. If you are asking your team to be dynamic and proactive, you need to give them the confidence to try solutions without fear of making mistakes:

"Tolerance for imperfect execution is essential in dynamic situations. Few new ideas can be executed flawlessly the first time. However, tolerance does not mean being lenient; leaders must create psychological safety for learning but integrate it with accountability and motivate people to do their best."

In the same line, it comments on the role of clear communication in managing the expectations of both the team and stakeholders, in this case, the families, the people of Chile, and the world’s impatient gaze:

"Sougarret offered the families of the missing miners and the people of Chile a rational basis for hope without disguising the truth about the odds against them."

Finally, something that undoubtedly played a very important role in the success of this project was the leaders’ ability to maintain motivation. In a scenario where the odds of failure were almost absolute, they faced new obstacles every day. Considering that during the first seven attempts to reach the shelter it was unknown if there were survivors, and those seven efforts ended in wasted energy and resources, how do you get the team to try an eighth time?

"Each time the rescue effort members encountered obstacles, the leaders acted seamlessly to keep them engaged and motivated. They created a psychologically safe environment, never blaming anyone and always focusing on the learning generated by failure."

The reflection we invite you to make today is: Do you think this rescue operation would have been successful without a set of powerful leaders? Leaders who knew how to collaborate with each other, listen to all kinds of ideas, who accepted not having all the answers, who created an atmosphere of trust, and who maintained a level of motivation and commitment that is difficult to achieve.

"By definition, leaders do not exist without followers. In the San José mine, followers abounded. The tightly-knit Chilean mining community sent many experts and tons of equipment to the accident site. However, expertise without leadership is never enough..."

We leave you the link to the full article, it's worth reading!

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