A Few Things We Can All Learn From Being Trapped 69 Days Underground

I was moved as much as anyone by the feel good story of the 33 Chilean miners and their rescue after 69 days trapped (and thought to be possibly doomed) underground. It’s a wonderful, feel good tale about the triumph of the human spirit against almost insurmountable odds.

But that wonderful vibe only lasted until the next morning when I bumped into a story on Salon that started with this incredibly downer lead: ” Well it’s been a whole day now. Time to start ragging on the Chilean miners.”

Yes, after so much positive press about how well they coped with being trapped for so long in such difficult conditions, it’s not surprising that the story of the Chilean miners would start to even out a bit. That’s how it works once the media mob tires of writing the positive stuff.

But then I bumped into a CNN interview with Bob Sutton, the Stanford professor and author of the workplace classic “The No Asshole Rule,” and as usual, he had some insightful things to say about leadership and the lessons we can take away from how the miners coped with their unique and unprecedented experience.

Sutton, as always, has some smart things to say, but his focus is on the broader management issues flowing out of the Chilean miners and their experience. There’s also some specific lesson for HR professionals we can take away as well:

** Strong and effective leadership is ALWAYS the most important quality, whether in a crisis or simply during day-today operations. The most important factor in how the miners survived is the action of Luis Urzúa, 54, the mine foreman. It was his calm but firm discipline that helped to hold his 32 crew members together during the ordeal. He stepped in at the very beginning of the crisis and before any of them knew that a rescue was underway, and decided to ration the paltry supplies of canned tuna and oily water they had to live on. His strong and consistent management style kept the situation from spinning out of control. Most importantly, he kept his workers from over focusing on the fact that they were stuck 2,000 feet underground. Without such strong and consistent leadership, the outcome may have turned out to be very different.

** Patience and perseverance are essential for long-term success. Quick success is usually fleeting success. It doesn’t last. The smarter play is to patiently build for success over time, even if you aren’t sure exactly when that might be. So it was for the Chilean miners, and again, that was due to the actions of foreman Luis Urzúa. He implemented a daily routine for the group, everything from turning on the lights of the vehicles in the mine to simulate daylight to requiring a daily exercise period to make sure everyone was active every day. He structured the days with regular activities that helped his team to patiently work at staying healthy and active for the long run.

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** Hope can keep people going even during the worst of times. Infusing people with a sense of hope that things will get better has been a struggle for all-too-many companies through the last few years of economic downturn. So it was for the Chilean miners, especially in the weeks before rescuers were able to drill a borehole to first reach them. According to The Washington Post, the miners coped with this by splitting into groups, each with a special task such as maintaining the mine’s electrical system. Focusing on the essentials of keeping the operation going helped to fuel hope that there was a purpose behind their work, and that was eventually rewarded when rescuers finally made contact with those trapped below. Such hope can help people get through most anything, whether it be an economic downturn, severe staff cutbacks and furloughs, or even getting trapped underground for 69 days.

** Experience matters, and experienced leaders look to others with experience for help. No leader can do it all on their own, of course, and foreman Luis Urzúa looked to “the positive role of older, more experienced and hard-bitten men such as Jose Henriquez, 56, a miner trained to perforate holes who is also an evangelical pastor,” to help the younger and less experienced crew members. The life experience of these seasoned veterans was crucial to help keep order and a positive, hopeful work ethic in the Chilean mine, and it makes you wonder why so many American businesses seem so ready and willing to discard their older workers during these trying economic times. Can’t many of them help your organization, too? This is a case HR should be making.

And there’s one more things, as Mary Elizabeth Williams pointed out in one of her articles on Salon:

One might argue that copper miners are made from a different cloth than most of us. In many corners of the world, after all, merely getting cut off in traffic is just cause for flying into a hate rage. And indeed, Urzúa — who stoically told reporters … “I hope to never live again like this, but that’s the life of a miner” — seems to have highly evolved coping mechanisms. “We had to be strong, all the workers in the mine fulfilled their roles, as journalists, as spokesmen, and we worked hard for our own rescue.” Yet that determined resilience, that innate understanding that “every man for himself” is rarely the most useful strategy, has resonated around the world. The mining rescue has captivated us because of its suspense and uniqueness. But it also, profoundly, a story of connection. … (because) in the worst of our moments, in the depths our fears, sometimes the greatest aspects of our characters emerge — and right in there is the victory that comes from a willingness to depend on each other.”

Yes, the ability to depend on each other is probably the greatest lesson of all. Maybe that’s what our organizations need to be focusing on during these difficult and troubling times. Maybe it’s the one thing those 33 men trapped underground for 69 days were able to tell us. The question now is: will we truly hear what they had to say?

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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