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How Leadership and Optimism shone in the Chilean Mines


“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

                                                                                                                              Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

Imagine being buried alive, 2,000 feet below ground, isolated from friends and family, in a sea of perpetual blackness, melting in 90 degree humidity, covered in red slimy mud from weeping cave walls, and to top it off – you’ve a screaming toothache!

Much will be written on and commented upon about the happy outcome of “Los 33” – the brave Chilean miners who united both the Chilean people and the rest of the world in unyielding hope for their survival. It is hard to believe that 1 in 5 people witnessed this ‘real life’ and authentic ‘reality show’ on live TV, as opposed to the contrived and mind-numbing versions we witness on many channels.

They were rescued after 69 days. However, their ‘real’ rescue occurred from the moment their foreman Luis Urzua, or Don Lucho as he is familiarly known, descended as part of his normal shift cycle. As one of the most experienced miners in the group, he said he did to not all the miners very well, yet he was able to inspire hope and motivation amongst this group under the most extreme circumstances.

He clicked immediately into gear once the dust had settled after the collapse and set up a ‘mini-society, identifying the key strengths id each individual and assigning them specific roles and responsibilities. He broke the unwieldy group of 33 into 3 teams of 11 and implemented immediate survival techniques to ensure than when help did reach them - that they would be alive to tell the tale. At the time of rescue on August 17th, they were down to one spoonful of tuna every two days!

“Los 33,” have been praised for their exacting discipline, courage, patience and good humour. They had to wait 17 days in this unyielding darkness not knowing if they would ever be rescued. Whilst they had their conflicts, as you would expect, Don Lucho encouraged them every morning to trust in fate, “if they find us, that’s great but if they don’t, that’s that.” He gave each team routine tasks to perform and each person had a dedicated role of medic, presenter, comic, pastor and poet.

In these difficult times, we ask is there a role for emotional intelligence in business, when pressures around us make us keep our head down and we focus more on the tasks ahead rather than the great team of people around us. As former head of HR in RBS states, “People are pivotal in the recovery - we need to get them to do a lot more and to do different things in different ways.”

We can often succumb to negative thoughts of ‘doom and gloom’ but this only exacerbates a negative climate. Like Don Lucho, we have to trust that things will work out and despite the difficulties we will get through this recession – we’ve done it before! 

Research by the Emotional Intelligence Consortium among business executives found that optimistic Insurance sales agents with high EQ, sold over twice the amount of policies than their weaker counterparts.

Optimism and resilience are critical for leaders in these challenging times as studies show that it is those who continue to adopt a positive mindset even in the face of setbacks, will rebound quickest in this recession. One leading entrepreneur, President of Alltech Biotechnology, Dr. Pearse Lyons, described himself recently as “a recession heretic!” This is so admirable in tough times as it requires a tenacity and steadfastedness to grab hold of your vision and dream and stick with it, despite the obstacles.

Here are 6 key steps to developing your sense of optimism and resilience in these challenging times:

1. See The Glass as ‘Half Full’ not ‘Half Empty:

Are you a person who sees the glass half full or half empty? How do you experience setbacks – do you see them as problems or challenges? Are you generally motivated to continue, even when the going gets really tough? As Martin Seligman, leading expert on emotional intelligence and author of ‘Learned Optimism,’ tells us, “optimists tend to live longer, have fewer illnesses, have lower blood pressure and are ultimately more successful in their lives.”

Do you see the glass as half full or half empty?       

Leaders with high optimism and resilience have a ‘can do’ attitude and always see the ‘glass half full’ and maintain a positive attitude even in tough times. They recognise when they are in a difficult situation but adopt a ‘can do’ approach in dealing with it.  They tend to be more resilient and look at setbacks as learning opportunities for personal growth.

As the football manager of Crystal Palace FC Iain Dowie described his team, “they have that quality of ‘bouncebackability,’ and maintain a strong sense of realism.

2. Be Determined To Succeed Even In The Face Of Adversity:

Aung San Suu Kyi, a political hero in Burma, is due to be released from six years house arrest once formal elections, from which she was banned from participating in, have taken place. She has remained an international symbol of heroic and peaceful resistance in the constant face of oppression.  Despite being isolated from her family and friends and under forced ‘house arrest,’ she remains resolute in her fight for democracy for the Burmese people. The inspiration and determination she has shown deservedly earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

3. Don’t Take Things Personally:

Too often, we get defensive when things don’t go our way or become demoralised by setbacks. Studies have shown that pessimists tend to take setbacks personally, while optimists don’t!

A pessimist might moan and say, “I’ll never get the job I want!” whereas the optimist will put it in context and say, “this job wasn’t really suited to me.  I’ll be more specific as to what I can offer next time!” 

 “Accept the things you cannot change, have the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  

R. Neibuhr           

It is important to reframe setbacks or problems as ‘challenges’. Every situation can be viewed from different perspectives.  The word ‘problem’ may cause you to feel immobilised, while the word ‘solution’ will make you feel energised and empowered. It is just like two sides of the same coin!

4. Ask yourself, “What Can I Learn From This?”

Sometimes, we don’t need anyone else to criticise us as we can make a great job if it ourselves! We need to monitor our ‘self-talk’ and be conscious when we are lambasting ourselves for doing something wrong.

There is no such thing as failure, only feedback! Failure is an essential ingredient for high achievement.  In the words of golfer Padraig Harrington:

“If you are looking for average, then try not to make mistakes, but if you are looking to be great, you’ve got to make loads of mistakes.”

5. Use Positive Language

Thoughts, whether positive or negative, tend to attract more of the same. So by dwelling on happy, optimistic and hopeful thoughts and expectations, you’ll increase your tendency to develop and nurture a positive attitude.   As Jack Canfield of ‘The Success Principles’ reminds us, “Pay attention to what you focus on, as it may happen!”

6. Develop an attitude of gratitude!

Often we let the most important things in life slip by and take them for granted: our health, our wonderful families, our supportive colleagues, your committed workforce. Be grateful for what you have already. By developing an ‘attitude of gratitude’ you will begin to appreciate what you have and immediately put things into a more positive perspective. What are you grateful for today?


One of the critical underlying competencies of Emotional intelligence is the ability to have a realistic sense of optimism to motivate and encourage employees and to remain steadfast and resilient in the face of adversity. EQ is increasingly becoming a critical success factor for today’s leader. With continued positive inspiration shown by leaders in the business community, Ireland Inc. needs to dig deep and reinvent itself to prosper in the longer term.