Friday, September 10, 2010

Essential to survival: Leadership and Organizations

Imagine this horrific leadership scenario. You are trapped in a mine 2300 feet underground with 32 of your colleagues with no real knowledge of when you will get out. What do you do to survive? Some of the more basic human survival needs, such as food and water will be lowered to you through a small hole, but the questions you don’t have answered are similarly troubling. What do we do with our time, how do we organize ourselves, how to we keep up hope with no clear solution in our sights?

No, this is not some crazy organizational behavior exercise to test team cohesion, it is a real situation faced by 33 miners trapped in a Chilean mine. The answer to the question: Form a structure, keep to your normal routine, and keep your mind occupied. That is what NASA psychologists suggested when asked to lend their expertise to the improve the chances that the miners can keep themselves focused the mission. See the links here:

http://www.nasa.gov/news/chile_assistance.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/27/AR2010082704867.html

Also proving useful is lessons learned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/chile/7981437/Chilean-miners-new-medical-survival-kits-used-by-British-troops.html

What can be learned from this effort, social organization, psychology, and leadership are essential to survival in the most extreme situations.

15 comments:

Krishnan Sankaranarayanan said...

Structure and routine are clearly essential to keeping sanity. A sense of purpose, which flows from this keep things going. A seemingly unrelated parallel to this, is what they recommend for folks retiring. Frequently, you will see retirees get-up in the morning, as if they have to go to work, have a routine of activities, such as reading the newspaper etc. and other social activities to ensure that they stay mentally and physically alright (http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/303473/how_to_cope_with_life_after_retirement.html). The transition to retirement, is essentially a shocking change in environment, and regularity can give focus.

This link with "reality" is important, as if it disappears (Think Lord of the Flies), new rules and structures can arise (perhaps through self-organization), which can be diametrically opposite to the conventional ones.

If you compare these situations of change to others which are encountered in the corporate world (mergers & aquisitions etc.), it actually shows that some of the lessons outlined in the blog are useful there as well.

Structure, routine and occupied mind. M&A is a time when people lose focus and are wondering where they will stand in the new organization and what their roles will be (hence future routine). Clear communication of what is going on, and why certain decisions are being made is important to help define that structure and routine.

It is interesting how extreme situations sometimes are the most useful classrooms for lessons to be learnt which can be applied in less extreme situations.

Neeru said...

Nine years ago today, (Sept. 11, 2001), many individuals were faced with a similar challenge, whether it be being trapped in the Twin Towers, a hijacked plan, or at the Pentagon. We have heard many stories of “super-heroes”, who either saved or lost their lives trying to save those trapped in the burning towers of the World Trade Center. The will to survive and a super-natural positive attitude during extreme situations provide people (and those around them) with the strength to step up and lead themselves and others out of dangerous and unexpected situations. On 9/11, strong leaders took control of the situation (without necessarily thinking of the end result) and started to guide others to the nearest exit. Their actions were not logic based and modeled, but rather were based on their gut feeling and the overall vision to get people to safety. Leaders in extreme situations aren’t measured on their self-awareness or self-regulation, but more importantly on their self-confidence and motivation to survive the extreme.
In the case of the Chilean miners (as well as a personal experience), I have learned that a support system (family, best friend or support group) is important to survival. If you have someone to share your experience, obstacles and feelings with, the situation is easier to overcome. When my son with diagnosed with the rare genetic disorder, I was able to cope better and have a positive attitude (regardless of the unknowns to come) because I was able to “humanize” the problem by sharing my fears and frustrations with others around me. This type of open communication lowered my stress and fear level because I had someone to share it with. A common goal (surviving and getting out alive) also focuses the group to survive in this extreme situation.
I agree with Krishnan, that the Chilean miners need to maintain structure and continue with a daily routine (even if it is a new routine). Routine is important because it occupies people with tasks, goals, and possible deadlines, again keeping their minds off the negative. The aspect of a “purpose of life” is also very important to survival. Again, on a personal note, in the case of my son, my “purpose in life” is to keep balance in his life (between the multiple obstacles due to the genetic disorder and doing normal activities for a seven year old boy). This purpose keeps me positive and helps me to challenge myself to survive the situation.

Neeru said...

Nine years ago today, (Sept. 11, 2001), many individuals were faced with a similar challenge, whether it be being trapped in the Twin Towers, a hijacked plan, or at the Pentagon. We have heard many stories of “super-heroes”, who either saved or lost their lives trying to save those trapped in the burning towers of the World Trade Center. The will to survive and a super-natural positive attitude during extreme situations provide people (and those around them) with the strength to step up and lead themselves and others out of dangerous and unexpected situations. On 9/11, strong leaders took control of the situation (without necessarily thinking of the end result) and started to guide others to the nearest exit. Their actions were not logic based and modeled, but rather were based on their gut feeling and the overall vision to get people to safety. Leaders in extreme situations aren’t measured on their self-awareness or self-regulation, but more importantly on their self-confidence and motivation to survive the extreme.
In the case of the Chilean miners (as well as a personal experience), I have learned that a support system (family, best friend or support group) is important to survival. If you have someone to share your experience, obstacles and feelings with, the situation is easier to overcome. When my son with diagnosed with the rare genetic disorder, I was able to cope better and have a positive attitude (regardless of the unknowns to come) because I was able to “humanize” the problem by sharing my fears and frustrations with others around me. This type of open communication lowered my stress and fear level because I had someone to share it with. A common goal (surviving and getting out alive) also focuses the group to survive in this extreme situation.
I agree with Krishnan, that the Chilean miners need to maintain structure and continue with a daily routine (even if it is a new routine). Routine is important because it occupies people with tasks, goals, and possible deadlines, again keeping their minds off the negative. The aspect of a “purpose of life” is also very important to survival. Again, on a personal note, in the case of my son, my “purpose in life” is to keep balance in his life (between the multiple obstacles due to the genetic disorder and doing normal activities for a seven year old boy). This purpose keeps me positive and helps me to challenge myself to survive the situation.

Fahad Alam said...

As is the case with any chaotic situation, the first step would be to prevent the people involved from panicking. In the case of the Chilean miners, it would be the job of an outsider through the hole to give them hope or for a leader amongst the group to reassure them that everything will be okay. The importance of this step is probably greater than any other in such a situation due to the potential danger involved if any one of them were to act recklessly.

Once the group feels that there is hope, a chance for survival, the next step would be to agree on rules of conduct, rationing of supplies, hygiene, and activities to remain occupied. All of these things involve a level of organization that works best when there is a leader and willing group members. From the video that was taken with a camera lowered down to the trapped miners, it seems like they have organized themselves well. All of them seem to be in good spirits and hopeful that they will see their families again. Medical and other supplies are set aside and they have busied themselves in playing cards and dominos. They seem healthy and hope to get home soon.

This situation can be likened to that of a natural disaster, a Tsunami for instance. The protocol would be very similar to the situation of the trapped miners and would also require high levels of organization for the most efficient method of survival. As seen in the case of the Chilean miners and in nations struck by natural disasters, efficient organization leads to both the physical and mental well-being of the people involved.

Fahad Alam

Nabiel Matthew Ghanem said...

Wow, this really is one of those 'once and a lifetime' scenarios that we see infrequently. I feel as though only a very charasmatic leader would have any chance of success in a situation like this, based on the observation that the more charasmatic a leader, the more extra effort they can get from the group they are leading. This rings even more true in a situation like this that is very high stress and the outcome of survival is unknown.

However, this charasmatic leader would have to be one of high moral fiber as to ensure that what the leader is motivating the group to do is in the group's best interest and not simply what would make the leaders time easier during the hard times. In certain cases, charasmatic leaders have led the group astray so as to benefit themselves. This was evidenced with a case like Enron.

I understand that these situations are not exactly parallel but this does speak to the point that in a tough situation like this, an effective leader must not only be charasmatic, but of high morals as well.

jason said...

To even think about what the miners are going through in this situation is incomprehensible. Then to be stuck below ground for weeks with your co-workers is another thought that causes me to mentally hyperventilate.

I believe the team of miners may have submerged with one leader and will emerge with a totally different individual which they consider their leader weeks from now. There is the thought the group had submerged into the mine looking at the foreman as their leader, but I have to believe through such a tragedy the true leader will step-up and take control. The leader will most likely be the one that finds the courage and holds the experience to organize the group, perhaps the foreman, but anyone of the miners will now be in a position to take control. Whoever the leader is, they will be successful by finding the importance in creating a sub-culture of daily tasks and a routine that allow each of them to pass the time. Knowing that each individual will handle the situation differently is another key the underground leader will need to establish and provide to the miners in a manner that satisfies each. It is important for the true leader to organize each in a way that allows the group to collectively see the overall goal while using everyone’s strengths to build this sub-culture to see them through.

Such leadership qualities are important not only in the case of the mine, but also in life. A leader needs to understand that all people look and handle things differently. Each of us see the World through a different lens and need to be lead in a way that satisifies our individual needs. To organize individual differences in manner that projects a common goal is what allows a team member to be a leader.

This makes me think of the question that was posed to the group during our first week of the EMBA Program: which comes first, the leader or the situation which needs to be lead? I believe in case of the mine, the event will identify the leader and the leader, perhaps new to the task will find something within themselves they may have never known.

Shehnaz said...

I can not imagine being trapped in a mine 2300 feet below ground, for that matter I could stand it even 10 feet underground as I am a bit claustrophobic. If I were one of the 32 the team of miners would have to deal with a second horrific event, having to deal with me.

In the number of weeks/months ahead there would be many leaders each moving into the role as the time passes. I believe different miners would take the lead when the opportunity to excel would show itself to them, perhaps a new concept of entertaining the others, a moral boost of sorts. Some leaders would start out in the role because they may have felt they needed to keep the groups spirit up and set the mood almost immediately but as the hours turned to days his efforts would fade. Seeing the void left, another miner would hopefully rise to the occasion and take a new tact.

Out of the 32 not all of the miners will take their turn as a leader because I believe leaders may be inspired by their situation but not everyone has the ability to lead in them.

Some of the miners will remain followers and in this long term situation in such close quarters a good mix of various roles is probably best.

Shehnaz said...

I can not imagine being trapped in a mine 2300 feet below ground, for that matter I could stand it even 10 feet underground as I am a bit claustrophobic. If I were one of the 32 the team of miners would have to deal with a second horrific event, having to deal with me.

In the number of weeks/months ahead there would be many leaders each moving into the role as the time passes. I believe different miners would take the lead when the opportunity to excel would show itself to them, perhaps a new concept of entertaining the others, a moral boost of sorts. Some leaders would start out in the role because they may have felt they needed to keep the groups spirit up and set the mood almost immediately but as the hours turned to days his efforts would fade. Seeing the void left, another miner would hopefully rise to the occasion and take a new tact.

Out of the 32 not all of the miners will take their turn as a leader because I believe leaders may be inspired by their situation but not everyone has the ability to lead in them.

Some of the miners will remain followers and in this long term situation in such close quarters a good mix of various roles is probably best.

Krishnan Sankaranarayanan said...

I agree with both Shenaz and Jason. In some situations (perhaps all), leadership arises spontaneously. There are some inherent, perhaps simple rules, which can lead to complex behavior and organization. Think about birds flying in a V shape. Nobody has the "program" or directive to fly in a V, but this structure arises as the birds follow simple rules such as "fly at certain distance from your neighbor", "do not fly into the neighbor" etc. Similarly, the situation, will call for a certain task to be done, and people rise up to it (Think of the heroic firemen etc in disasters).

Perhaps all of this is simply an adaptation to the micro environment and need of the time - instantaneous learning?

Even in formal organizations, we have the formal hierarchy, but who really runs the show? Spontaneously, depending on the need, different structures form, where people show leadership etc. Self organization occurs and adapts spontaneously to the needs of what has to be done, and leadership follows simultaneously.

George said...

This terrible incident reminded me of an American in Haiti, who was trapped for 65 hours under rubble after Haiti earthquake. (http://news.cnet.com/8301-17938_105-10438121-1.html#ixzz104q4OwAp) His iPhone kept him busy and connected to the outside world; he saw purpose; he had a goal in his mind which energized him; he acted; his survivor instinct set off immediately.

The trapped miners also reminded me of an amazing Italian 1997 Oscar winning film “Life is Beautiful”. The main character is in the Nazi concentration camp with his four-year-old son. Despite so much death and destruction around, he manages to convince his son that they are in a game. The boy does not question his father because of his convincing performance and his own innocence. The father is a leader. He has a sense of purpose and a goal – to save his son. This goal energizes him.

The miners are in an extraordinary situation. Their survivor instinct, human qualities, leadership qualities, etc. are tested. I think that several scenarios might have developed underground. The leader, who was their leader under the ‘normal circumstances’, might have actually stopped being a leader, and somebody else, who did not display any leadership qualities at all before, may have actually assumed their leadership to move them toward the goal: to survive psychologically, to have hope, to believe that things are going to get better. The leader is going to give the entire group a lot of energy, be a “shock-absorber”, a person, who they are going to look up to. The energy exchange will be mutual. The leader will also get a lot of energy from the miners because he knows he is the one they are looking up to so he has to stand the test.

Can you imagine a better ‘higher order learning” situation than this? In that stifling confinement they are going to learn a lot about many things. They are going to look at life from a very different perspective and start to appreciate things differently from now on: even though the situation is ugly, life for them has never been more beautiful. Thirst for life is what turns on a survivor instinct. This is what made the American turn on his iPhone and look for a survival plan. This is exactly what made Roberto make his little son look at things from a different perspective. They were all leaders in their own way under the circumstances.

“Because life is beautiful, and even in horror there is the seed of hope, there is something that resist to everything, to every destruction... “ [quote from the film] I wish the miners well and hope they will be out soon.

George said...

This terrible incident reminded me of an American in Haiti, who was trapped for 65 hours under rubble after Haiti earthquake. (http://news.cnet.com/8301-17938_105-10438121-1.html#ixzz104q4OwAp) His iPhone kept him busy and connected to the outside world; he saw purpose; he had a goal in his mind which energized him; he acted; his survivor instinct set off immediately.

The trapped miners also reminded me of an amazing Italian 1997 Oscar winning film “Life is Beautiful”. The main character is in the Nazi concentration camp with his four-year-old son. Despite so much death and destruction around, he manages to convince his son that they are in a game. The boy does not question his father because of his convincing performance and his own innocence. The father is a leader. He has a sense of purpose and a goal – to save his son. This goal energizes him.

The miners are in an extraordinary situation. Their survivor instinct, human qualities, leadership qualities, etc. are tested. I think that several scenarios might have developed underground. The leader, who was their leader under the ‘normal circumstances’, might have actually stopped being a leader, and somebody else, who did not display any leadership qualities at all before, may have actually assumed their leadership to move them toward the goal: to survive psychologically, to have hope, to believe that things are going to get better. The leader is going to give the entire group a lot of energy, be a “shock-absorber”, a person, who they are going to look up to. The energy exchange will be mutual. The leader will also get a lot of energy from the miners because he knows he is the one they are looking up to so he has to stand the test.

Can you imagine a better ‘higher order learning” situation than this? In that stifling confinement they are going to learn a lot about many things. They are going to look at life from a very different perspective and start to appreciate things differently from now on: even though the situation is ugly, life for them has never been more beautiful. Thirst for life is what turns on a survivor instinct. This is what made the American turn on his iPhone and look for a survival plan. This is exactly what made Roberto make his little son look at things from a different perspective. They were all leaders in their own way under the circumstances.

“Because life is beautiful, and even in horror there is the seed of hope, there is something that resist to everything, to every destruction... “ [quote from the film] I wish the miners well and hope they will be out soon.

Sofiane Boujnah said...

I really can’t imagine the feeling or the mood associated with being trapped 2300 feet below surface with no clear date or outcome of a rescue operation.

This terrible accident reminds me of another equally horrific accident that happened three decades ago. In 1972 a Uruguayan aircraft carrying a rugby team crashed in the Andes Mountains. The crash survivors had to rely on little food ration, a lot of faith and a strong leadership to survive and eventually get rescued after a two months ordeal. The leaders of the surviving group took a tremendous risk by hiking the Andes mountain range on their own in search of rescue and they did saving them selves and all other survivors. The 33 trapped miners demonstrated a strong survival will and I believe in this case each one of them could be described as a leader. Before they made contact with the outside world they survived on two days worth of food for 17 days, eating only two spoons of canned tuna fish every two days. According to the NYT the oldest trapped miner, Mr Mario Gomez emerged as the spiritual leader for all other trapped miners. In this case I think Mr. Gomez leadership style could be described as transformational because he has to inspire all the 33 miners to “Transcend their own self-interests for the good of the organization” which in this case is their rescue. He had the idea to divide the small space where the trapped miners live into different smaller spaces to give them a sense of orientation and structure ex: chapel, dormitory, leisure and even a space for human basic needs. He also has to deal with each individual fears and uncertainties while keeping them motivated and hopeful. I pray for the rescue hole to get done faster than the four months originally mentioned and hope each and every one of them get back to his family sound and safe.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/01/world/americas/01chile.html?pagewanted=2

Harrison said...

I would imagine that a successful leader in this situation must have the ability to inspire leadership in other people. Not only must you maintain optimism in the face of disaster, but you must be able to challenge individuals around you to do the same thing...to think about others and contribute to the positive culture. Sitting in the hospital, today, after surgery, I'm seeing how the "small things" make a big differnece in leadership...a smile from a nurse...a positive report from the doctor...a short visit from a friend. Even in much more extreme situations, I would think it's the small things that a leader could use to keep order and motivation alive...a reassuring smile, a motivating conversation, not freaking out when it seems like the right thing to do.

aldolat said...

I think a lot of valid comments have been made on this post.

Personally, I think that the leader that has emerged in the mine is both transactional and transformational with a high degree of emotional intelligence. I say this because his fellow miners need guidance and motivation (two key parts of transactional leadership). And they also need inspiration. The textbook defines Transformational leaders as leaders that inspire followers to transcend their own self-interests for the good of the organization and are capable of having profound and extraordinary effect on their followers. I think this type of leader gives the Chilean miners the best chance of not only surviving, but surviving w/minimal psychological damage.

In addition, I envision the leader the Chileans selected also has a high degree of emotional intelligence, which is comprised of self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill. The two most important pieces of Emotional Intelligence that the leader is probably demonstrating during this crisis, is Self-Awareness and Empathy. If this leader has a high degree of self-awareness, he recognizes how his feelings affects himself as well as his team of miners, and probably morale, and therefore is very thoughtful in both his actions and his words. This leader hopefully also has a high-degree of empathy and that he is thoughtfully considering the miners feelings.

And even though this crisis is taking place in South America, a place that differs drastically from the US, I still think that the leader that has emerged from this group, or will emerge from this group will have the qualities mentioned above.

lucbasu said...

Leadership and psychology is used in every aspect our life. Reflect on your childhood and how our parents led (and psychologically manipulated) us to become responsible adults. They provided our basic human necessities throughout our infancy and childhood as we were helpless. Without their leadership we may wonder where we would be now even though we gave them little credit for their efforts when we were younger. It truly amazes me how values pass through one generation to the other effortlessly just by being a part of a family. The same can be said for organizations. We are typically socialized from the moment we are capable of interpretation. As we grow older this socialization continues as we become members of various teams throughout our formative and adult years.

The Chilean miners are helpless in their current condition but they maintain hope because they are receiving basic necessities such as food, water and medical supplies. This plays heavy on the psyche because their basic needs are satisfied. If, however, there was not a small hole capable of providing these basic needs the current social structure would collapse. Although a supposition, leader(s) have emerged from the 33 trapped miners and is helping to maintain the social structure and empower those miners to focus on their survival as a team. This mentality, although less extreme, can be applied to your home and office environment. Being a consultant I face challenging situations daily as each of my clients are extremely different and led by distinct senior management teams. Leadership, and the psychological benefits that can attributed to good leadership, is essential to maintain balance and order. Social organization, psychology, and leadership are essential to survival in all situations and aspects of life no matter how extreme the situation may be.