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Saturday, November 13, 2010


Able leadership and team spirit kept the 33 trapped miners focussed on the goal of escaping from their underground prison…..

On August 5, 2010, a portion of the San Jose copper mine in Chile collapsed leaving 33 miners trapped at a depth of half a mile from the surface. With no communication links with the external world, the miners' whereabouts could not be ascertained, leading to doubts about whether they were alive. It was a traumatic wait for the helpless families of the miners even as the world watched anxiously.

The first sign of hope emerged on the 17th day when a communication link showed that all the 33 miners were alive. Thereafter, a meticulous rescue plan was initiated with international help, culminating in the rescue of the entire team, ending a 69-day underground ordeal.

How the 33-member team fared during the 69 days is of immense interest to the world. Information on the miners' story may trickle in, in bits and pieces over a period of time, or till a consolidated version comes out as a book or a movie.

Surviving the first 17 days

Social science research indicates that in any crisis situation threatening survival, animal instincts such as individual survival, dominate empathy and collective spirit leading to inter-personal conflict and intra-group dynamics, especially in sharing resources for survival.

A five-member sub-group employed by a different contractor was initially on its own exploring escape routes, but ended the division on advice from the sub-contractor boss. There were also unconfirmed reports of a few incidents of fist-fights.

Planning and preparation for rescue

Shift leader Luis Urzua seems to have played a critical role during the 69 days. He built the team, nurtured it, optimised all the available resources, and engaged all the members fruitfully towards the common goal of survival and escape.

He helped maintain their morale against all odds, acting in a single voice with the rescue team and in reassuring the anxious families.

Leading by taking charge and by involving all members

If every member had wanted to be in control of the situation instead of listening to one leader, the miners would never have survived. As Jena McGregor explains in her column in the Washington Post: “Everything was voted on ... We were 33 men, so 16 plus one was a majority, said Leader Urzua.”

Leadership by credibility

According to a former employee, Robinson Marquez, Urzua had credibility as a protective and caring leader for his team. The miners, at Urzua's urging, reportedly ate one teaspoon of tuna and a half-glass of milk each 48 hours, proving that followers would make any sacrifice if their leader had credibility.

Leadership by sharing leadership

Urzua organised work assignments for the crew, assisting with the plan to get out of the mine and ensuring that no one ate a meal until everyone received their share. The oldest miner, Mario Gomez (63 years), attended to the spiritual and mental health of the men in constant consultation with psychologists on the surface. Yonny Barrios, based on the nursing training he had received 15 years ago, administered tests and health screenings for his friends on behalf of the doctors monitoring the situation above the ground.

Leadership through a common mission

Urzua constantly emphasised that all of them had a common goal — that of getting out together and surviving till then. He made everyone eat their paltry rations at the same spot at the same time.

By the end, none of them cheated and the miners had bonded so well that they asked their rescuers if they could all remain on the site until the last man was brought to the surface.

Leadership by belief in self and in his team

Urzua had a strong belief in self and in his team's ability to attain the goal. In addition to rationing food, he had the men use the heavy equipment in the mine for fresh water. This equipment was used sparingly because it could foul their air. He also had men map their tunnel and build a toilet.

Leadership through hope

‘Let us be patient and wait with hope and trust in God.' — That seemed to be the mantra. The miners' strong faith-based values guided them through the ordeal. Urzua, who never used to pray earlier, started praying. “There are actually 34 of us (and not 33), because God has never left us down here,” as Jimmy Sánchez, a miner, said.

When a shaft to provide them relief materials was completed, the men asked for religious items, including Bibles, crucifixes, rosaries, statues of the Virgin Mary and other saints. Pope Benedict XVI sent each man a rosary.

Leadership by sharing credit

After their rescue, rather than hogging the limelight, Urzua made another miner narrate the experience. While miners in and out of the shaft talked about Urzua's leadership, Urzua himself spoke about the skills and welfare of his men.

Leadership by honest communication

The miners were told that their rescue would need time and the miners accepted it. Honest communication regarding the progress of the rescue effort and the possible dates helped in boosting and nurturing the morale of the miners.

Leadership by example

Urzua led by example at every stage, culminating with being the last miner to be rescued, after his entire team was moved from its underground prison.

Global leadership

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. The cranes used in the rescue were from China and experts from NASA and other American agencies helped sustain the 33 miners while they were 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.

The rescue phase

Urzua came up out of the mine last, not only because he insisted on it but also as the miners decided on a system where the strong and more experienced would go first to help pave the way for the others and tackle any unforeseen problems. The weakest would go next so that they could be helped and rescued by those behind them and those ahead. This was to ensure that there would be a human safety net for those who were the weakest. Unity helped the miners survive for 69 days underground, including more than two weeks when no one knew whether they were alive.

Post-rescue phase

The media interest and attention the miners have received so far is likely to die down with time. The spectre of unemployment may gradually stare them in the face due to the closure of the mines.

P V R Murthy
(Courtesy Anup Sen)

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