When leadership matters the most

On August 5, 2010, a mine cave-in trapped 33 miners 700 metres underground.  

It would take 17 days for rescuers to establish communications with the trapped workers (with a note taped to a drill bit). That note said “We are well in the shelter, the 33 of us”. It wound take 70 days for the 33 miners to be rescued. 

Luis Urzúa (54), was the shift foreman at the time of the mine cave-in. Immediately following the cave-in, Urzúa took control. He got his team to a safe location, he managed the few resources that the team had, and he worked closely with the rescuers to evacuate the 33 miners. 

But what did Urzúa do specifically to lead that team through such a dire situation? 

“It’s been a bit of a long shift,” foreman Luis Urzúa joked. A man whose level-headedness and gentle humour is credited with helping keep the miners under his charge focused on survival during their 70-day underground ordeal, Urzúa kept his cool in his first audio contact with officials on the surface. He glossed over the hunger and despair he and his men felt, saying, “We’re fine, waiting for you to rescue us.” (credit: Wiki) 

A mine cave-in is a situation when strong leadership is required. That is an example of when leadership matters most. 

1. Leadership matters most during major crisis events  

Crisis events mean different things to different leaders. My definition is ‘an event (or series or events) that results in a risk manifested, that causes or has the potential to cause the loss of psychological or physical safety in an organisation, or the loss of business continuity for the organisation’. I know, way too technical, but it summarises the concept of a crisis event. 

It is during these events that our teams need strong leadership. Think Dreamworld (2016), COVID-19 (2020), think CS Energy (2021) as examples. Imagine for a moment being at Dreamworld on the day of that tragedy.  

In your team or your business, a crisis event could be the economy tanking, your business struggling, or an injury or fatality on your site.  

During crisis events, emotions are high, and our teams are in a state of panic. As leaders, we need to remain in conscious control, and we need to take a leaf out of Urzúa’s playbook and remain calm and in control. The simple strategies that you can use to stay in control include breathing, counting to 10, and reframing the situation. Yes, they sound simple, but they work a treat. Don’t discount these as being too simple, until you have tried them! 

Thoughts: Because crisis events are risks manifested, you can do some preparation work, to help you and your team be ready for such eventualities. Regardless, though, of how much prep work you do, as a leader you will still need to stand up during times of crisis. Your team needs you to. 

2. Leadership matters most during team member crisis events  

Your team members have all got personal lives. They are having experiences on a daily basis that challenge their ability to cope and to function. These situations can be overlooked by leaders, in relation to their importance, but have no doubt that it is how leaders support their teams during their personal crises that demonstrates the character and values of the leader. 

The very best leaders understand that if their team members are struggling, it is time for the leader to step up. And step into empathy and care factor. To understand what the team member is experiencing. And to support them through it. 

Whether it is the death of a loved one, the death of a pet, a cancer diagnosis, or some other personal crisis event, team members will have times when they just can’t be at their best. And that is part of leading a team.  

Empathy is the most important tool in the leader’s toolkit during these times. Empathy requires the leader to think about what it would be like to be going through the same thing. Empathy requires an emotional connection with the team member, and it takes compassion. Compassion is about taking action to support someone. That might include reducing someone’s responsibilities for a period, providing time off, or reducing their hours.  

I’ll give you a little tip, here; the leadership that you display during these times for your team members will never be forgotten (the leadership response will be internalised by your team members, because they are going through such an emotional time). Make sure that your team members remember how much you supported them, not how much you neglected them during their personal crisis events. 

Spend a moment or two, now, reflecting on how you could demonstrate empathy, the next time you need to. 

3. Leadership matters most during leader’s crisis events 

This point is one that can be quickly and quietly overlooked. Leaders are just expected to get up, dress up, and show up. Regardless of what is happening in their own lives. The old rule is that leaders can’t show any emotion, they need to ‘take a teaspoon of cement’ and get on with it. Because they have a team to lead… 

This is an interesting approach, and one that is partially true, but it forgets that leaders are human, too. The reason that these are the most important times for leaders to be in control is because when leaders aren’t thinking clearly, they don’t make great decisions. They make mistakes. I have seen leaders having to step out of their role (for a period, or forever) during these times. And that can be the right thing to do. For the leader and for the team. Making a bad decision during a tough personal time is not an excuse. 

If you are a leader, and you are struggling personally, reach out for help. Let your team know is happening for you (if you can share it) and get into coping mode. Coping mode requires you to take a problem-focused approach to your crisis (getting into action, and getting it sorted out as best you can outside of work). Take an emotion-focussed approach (where you reduce the negative emotions you are experiencing, by reframing the situation) or taking an avoidant approach (not a great approach, but it might work for some crises). 

Some leaders need to lean into some personal development during these times. That helps the leader to process what is happening for them, and it helps them to refine their coping skills 

In summary, the next time things go boom for you, remember Luis Urzúa. And remember how he was able to remain calm, to keep 33 others calm, and how he followed his team out of a collapsed mind after 70 days of coping with a major crisis event. 

Would love to hear your comments on these points and when leadership matters most. Do these points resonate with you? 

And could you please do me a favour, and share this with leaders everywhere? This is an important topic for leaders. 

And of course, please click the image below if you’d like to chat about what leadership means to you.

If you would like to learn more about Anton or The Guinea Group, please click hereto book into Anton’s calendar, to:

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About Anton

Anton has dedicated his working life to helping leaders to upgrade their mindset, upskill their leadership, and uplift their teams! With a focus on helps leaders to better lead under pressure. Anton is an entrepreneur, speaker, consultant, bestselling author and founder of The Guinea Group. Over the past 19 years, Anton has worked with over 175+ global organisations, he has inspired workplace leadership, safety, and cultural change. He’s achieved this by combining his corporate expertise, education (Bachelor of HR and Psychology), and infectious energy levels.
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