Action in a Time of Crisis

“It really has been something magic. We will never forget this night” – President Sebastián Piñera of Chile

“The Chileans are basically writing the book.”

Our journey starts in Chile, with a quote from Michael Duncan, leader of a team of NASA specialists sent from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas to assist with the rescue of miners trapped deep underground. Duncan observed that the challenges they faced in the rescue attempt were “unprecedented” (Kraul, 2010).

The San José mine in the north of Chile had a patchy safety record, reflected in the wages paid there being significantly higher than surrounding mines (Moreno & Shafy, 2010). As work began on 5 August 2010 it seemed like any other, normal, day in the course of mining operations. But the day ended anything but normally. Part way through their shift, 33 miners congregated 2,300 feet below the Earth’s surface in the relative safety of an underground refuge chamber to take lunch. As they were eating, a massive rockfall cut them off from the outside world, leaving them trapped in the chamber in temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius and with only a few basic provisions. Their chances of survival and rescue were slim. What happened next was extraordinary.

“Estamos bien en el refugio los 33” (“we 33 are fine in the shelter”). So stated a handwritten note retrieved from a small shaft, drilled to access the refuge chamber, on 22 August. This proved that the miners were alive and gave hope to rescuers, families and of course the victims themselves, just 17 days after the rockfall. This finding gave the impetus for a rescue mission to kick into a higher gear. Three teams worked feverishly on three independent rescue attempts, all of which involved drilling down towards the trapped miners. Each of these attempts imported technology and know-how from other industries or from other parts of the world. One of these, the first to succeed, drilled a wide, slightly inclined shaft to intersect with the refuge chamber. The shaft could not enter the chamber vertically because of the risk of initiating a rockfall. Partly using input from the NASA delegation, a 21-inch wide capsule was designed and constructed that could be lowered down the shaft to collect the miners one at a time and effect the rescue. After a dry run the previous day, this capsule was lowered into the refuge chamber and the final phase of the rescue began. The miners had already been organized into three groups: the skilled; the fit; and the not-so-fit. The skilled were to ride in the chamber to the surface first, as it was thought that they would be best equipped to resolve any problems that arose on the way up. The fittest were to ride last. Florencio Ávalos was the first to be rescued, just after midnight on 13 October. Before 10pm on the same day, Luis Urzúa, the shift foreman and effective leader of the group of trapped miners, made it to the surface as the last of the 33 men who were all successfully rescued. The 69 days they spent underground must have seemed like an age to the trapped miners and their families, but it is a remarkably short time to diagnose the problem, mobilise people and materials, design and manufacture special equipment and successfully and safely execute a rescue plan. Not one, but three rescue attempts were made simultaneously, in parallel with each other, to maximise the chances of success. How was this done so quickly?

Looking back on the incident, a Harvard Business Review article attributes the success to three key leadership qualities, each of which was needed in order to succeed (Rashid, Edmondson, & Leonard, 2013). Leaders in such circumstances must envision, enroll and engage. They have to work within paradoxes, directing operations with clarity while remaining open to outside influences and changes of plan.

Envisioning the outcome to ensure success is a test of leadership. Here, a leader must rapidly disseminate a brutally honest assessment of the situation, at the same time as empathizing with those who might be emotionally impacted by the assessment and delivering a strong positive message that there will be a positive ending. Admiral Jim Stockdale survived eight years of imprisonment and torture in the “Hanoi Hilton” in Vietnam and ensured that as many of his fellow prisoners as possible also survived by embodying what Jim Collins termed the “Stockdale Paradox” (Collins, 2001). Collins defines the Stockdale Paradox as “retain faith that you will prevail in the end… …and at the same time confront the most brutal facts of your reality.” When asked by Collins who did not make it out, Stockdale immediately replied “the optimists”. Understanding and communicating the reality of the situation is necessary for motivation and success.

To enroll means to create and lead a diverse, possibly virtual, team with a single-minded focus on the goal and a simple message. In the case of the miners it was simple: “saving lives”, just as it was for the team who brought the Apollo 13 mission back to safety, and as it was for many of the governments around the world in the initial stages of their response to the Covid-19 pandemic. At the same time as having that single-minded focus, the leader must be alert, and open, to assistance and opinions from outside the team, and ready to make changes if needed. The leader must also be ready to eject people from the team if they do not align with the vision.

And to engage means to lead the focused execution of the required tasks – in the case of the Chilean mine rescue to lead three independent efforts with three dedicated teams simultaneously – while experimenting, learning and changing the rules if so required as the mission progresses.

This is the behaviour that the most successful leaders, both political and business leaders, have exhibited through the Covid-19 crisis. It is behaviour that we should expect of any leader in such a time.

Note that each of the above has a “do…while” statement:

Envision: be brutally honest – while being optimistic
Enroll: create a focused team – while being ready to make changes
Engage: execute with focus – while experimenting, learning and changing

Importantly, each of the “while” parts allow invention and flexibility to flourish even in the presence of a focused and very rapidly executed plan.

In a recent webinar presented by Oxford Saïd Business School, Marc Ventresca suggested that there are four paradoxes to rapid innovation in a crisis (Mikes & Ventresca, 2020). In a crisis, innovation:

  • Is both chaotic and focused
  • Is both playful and disciplined
  • Values deep expertise and broad thinking
  • Promotes high standards while tolerating failure.

It’s clear how the adoption of these leadership responsibilities, and the tension between the opposite sides of these paradoxes helped to save the miners in Chile. You can probably see how they would equally apply to other times of crisis as well. The development of the Enigma code-breaking machine at Bletchley Park, England during the Second World War offers a great example of the need to work quickly and to combine deep expertise (mathematics, for example) with a broad range of thinking (chess players, crossword puzzle experts and so on) to create the world’s best code-breaking team (Smith, 2011).

Surely it is only exceptional situations that require exceptional leadership and an exceptional approach to innovation? Yes, that used to be true. But it appears that we have moved into exceptional times.

The collapse of much of the world’s economic activity during the Covid-19 crisis, combined with increasing evidence that our response to climate change is likely to pose a threat of at least similar magnitude to economic activity, guarantee as much. Society is taking a stronger interest in the activities of companies, and can exert pressure through any combination of investors, employees, communities and governments.

Innovation is driven by value. Traditional wisdom has been that value comes from functional attributes such as time saving, cost reduction, risk reduction or enabling of new activities. I believe that many industrial product development processes, and many industrialists, assume that the purpose for which industry segments exist, and the rules that define said purpose, remain constant. Not so. Companies are seeing increased pressure from potential investors to prove green or other ethical principles before funding or investment is made available. This may result from shareholder pressure or, in the case of private equity and especially family trusts, from the impact of generational succession on investment attitudes. Generational succession also threatens to restrict the supply of fresh talent to industries that cannot demonstrate their credentials in the environmental, social and governance (ESG) arena as younger people choose to ply their trade in other industries. 

All this resulting disruption, uncertainty and unpredictability means that the leadership and management techniques needed to develop and commercialise new technology in the future are likely to resemble strongly the techniques used to manage the crises we have highlighted from the past, and not the techniques traditionally used in new product development. 

Key Learnings

  1. The world has changed. It is much less predictable and moves at a much more rapid pace.
  2. Now, more than ever, our product and service development must be rapid and flexible.
  3. Techniques previously used for crisis management can be very helpful.
  4. We now have to manage paradoxes: honest/optimistic; experts/outsiders; focused/flexible; standards/failure.

References and further reading

Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great. New York: HarperCollins.

Kraul, C. (2010, September 4). Retrieved from

Mikes, A., & Ventresca, M. (2020, April 23). Lessons from crisis management: Rapid innovation. Retrieved from

Moreno, J., & Shafy, S. (2010, September 8). Retrieved from

Rashid, F., Edmondson, A., & Leonard, H. (2013). Leadership Lessons from the Chilean Mine Rescue. Harvard Business Review, July-August.

Smith, M. (2011). The Secrets of Station X: How the Bletchley Park codebreakers helped win the war. London: Biteback.


© 2020 J M Clegg Ltd

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