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Friday, 27 August 2010

Effective leadership and team-working in extreme adversity

On 5th August 2010 a cave-in at a Northern Chilean copper mine sealed 34 miners some 700m (2,300ft) below the surface, far from daylight and their families, confined in an underground tomb. We can only imagine the sense of isolation the team must have felt as the search for a sign of life took place high above. For 17 days nobody knew if there was a single survivor. But after sending a probe deep below the ground rescuers heard hammering. When the probe was retrieved they found a note tied to it saying, "All 33 of us are fine in the shelter".

Fine? After 17 days of darkness and silence the team could have been forgiven for writing something much less calm and positive, like, "Help! Please don't leave us to die down here!". The word "fine" showed that, against all the odds, morale was good. After all those dark interminable days and nights, rather than using the opportunity for a plea or request, the trapped team used it to reassure those who stood safely far above in the daylight and fresh air.

I found that rather inspirational and thought that there must be a good leader down there. During times of change or extreme adversity new leaders often emerge simply because they are best able to cope and lead under the circumstances.

This is the best example of successful leadership and teamwork in extreme adversity that I have ever heard of outside the military.

In business teams the mantle of leadership often falls upon those best able to bear it rather than those put in charge. And sometimes those put in charge are not available. Take a business team facing a challenge, or a new situation, in the absence of formal hierarchical leaders. Have you ever found yourself in that situation? I know I have. In new enterprises, or periods of change, taking the reigns in this way can establish you as the de facto leader in the fluid team structure. When things settle down your role is likely to solidify there, giving you a key position, especially if nobody else steps up to take responsibility.

The key to succeeding and excelling in these situations is to take responsibility, to organise, to become the hub, distributing useful information - and, in a word, to lead. I have identified a number of factors that will make it easier for you to do this if you already had them:

1) Trust
2) Involvement (active engagement with key people and projects)
3) Familiarity (with the organisation, people, systems, processes)
4) Knowledge and information (about organisation, people systems, processes).

The miners faced months trapped down there. But spirits were high - in my opinion due to effective leadership and teamwork.

In a video taken of the team trapped underground, one team member 'can be seen proudly explaining how they run the shelter'... "We've organised everything really well down here,"... "We meet here every day. We plan, we pray. We have assemblies here every day so that all the decisions we make are based on the thoughts of all 33," the man says.' Does that sound like your team? I hope so.

The SAS is an elite British Special Forces regiment whose teams routinely have to work under extreme duress and achieve seemingly impossible goals. They use a similar leadership and decision-making approach, which they call a 'Chinese parliament'. Everybody faces danger and possible death. Everybody has something worthwhile to contribute. So everybody has a say. It is fair, it is informal. And it works. Extremely well.

It is another example of the sort of flat, open, collaborative and informal management structure that has driven organisations like Google and Netflix to the highest pinnacles of business success.

The video of the Chilean miners shows an inspirational motivational speech, in which a team member praises his colleagues, then they all applaud each other. I think the applause is well deserved and it must have been a moment of light in the darkness of the mine.

This is also an excellent study in the power of a positive attitude, especially in extreme situations. Indeed a positive attitude is essential in survival situations. Hypothermia victims in particular are measurably more likely to survive if they remain positive.

I think the message for teams and leaders of any kind is that engaging and involving team members is key. Treat them with trust and respect, and give them a stake in decisions. You need them to buy in to your enterprise, whatever it may be, and work actively together towards shared goals, with leader figures stepping up to organise tasks and distribute information, adding to their workload and reducing the workload of others when they are just as tired and stressed. I think that is what makes a great leader and a great team. That is how individual people come together to build skyscrapers, suspension bridges, and world-leading businesses.

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