How to lead when faced with time pressures, threats to survival and chaos

The 2010 rescue of 33 Chilean miners teaches leaders that in times of stress they need to direct the action and enable innovation.

Most of us will never forget the dramatic October 2010 rescue of the 33 Chilean miners, “Los 33,” who spent a record 69 days buried 2,300 feet underground in the San Jose copper and gold mine in Chile’s Atacama Desert. While the world remained focused on the emotional aspects of these suspenseful days, what we now know about the rescue provides us with valuable lessons for leadership in difficult settings and times.

According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, the rescue story of the “Los 33” teaches leaders that, when faced with time pressures, threats to survival and chaotic environments, leaders need to pursue two simultaneous paths: they need to both direct the action and enable innovation.

The Chilean rescue mission faced almost impossible odds -- the large number of miners trapped, the depth of their captivity, the lack of ventilation, the unstable rock formation, the eyes of the world upon them, and organizing the hundreds of people from various organizations and countries who had arrived to offer their help. Where should the rescue mission start? How could they organize this crucial effort?

Despite these odds, the mission was successful because appointed mission leader Andre Sougarret, an engineer and mining executive, realized “the challenge had to be broken into two parts.”

First, they had to locate and contact the miners. Second, they had to empower a large group to brainstorm and pursue various methods of extracting the 33 miners. Sougarret was able to both “control and empower,” directing the first task, while empowering others to pursue the second.

“This parallel processing,” notes the article, “which became a hallmark of the operation, is actually a requirement of success in chaotic environments.”

To implement both approaches, leaders need to perform three overlapping tasks. They must:

  • Envision the situation and articulate hope;
  • Enroll a team and motivate them to help; and
  • Engage in the work of change.

These activities are not necessarily done in a linear order, either. In times of great stress and chaos, leaders must move back and forth between these three tasks.

Flexibility and attention help leaders move quickly between the tasks of “envision, enroll and engage.” The “Los 33” were rescued safely in part because the rescue leadership did not rely on any one rigid approach to leadership, but rather was willing to continually assess and integrate all three of these tasks, while both directing and enabling the action.

For Christian leaders, what is important about this story is not only that the leadership plan saved the lives of 33 miners, but that this style of leadership also opens Christian leaders to how God might be at work in our teams, our communities or our congregations.

The “control and empower” style helps us take seriously our own tasks, as well as our responsibility to enable our coworkers in the kingdom to explore theirs.