Leadership Lessons from Movie Night

Wendy Loewen

Friday is date night for my husband and me. Typically we order takeout, play a round or two of cards, and then watch a movie. The sign of a good movie is when I go to bed and can’t stop thinking about it, which was the case for me this past weekend. My husband and I watched The 33 (2015), a film based on the true events of the San Jose mine collapse in Chile.

The story is a testament to the power leaders have to inspire individuals and rally a team to work together. In the movie we see the astounding teamwork that occurred in 2010, when 33 miners were trapped 2,300 feet under the ground for 69 days. The group of miners were on their own and had no contact with the outside world for 17 days. Each miner had no one else besides the 32 others who were standing beside them in the dark, wet mine. As the story unfolds, we witness the profound influence of their leader, Luis Urzua, to inspire, mobilize, and motivate the group despite their difficult circumstances.

Three things in particular struck me about Urzua’s leadership. First was the way he inspired his team by articulating his belief in a hopeful future. Second, he quickly organized the men into structured activities that allowed them to work together as a team. Third, he created opportunities for the team to communicate with each other and share both their struggles and successes. These are the three things I see as the crucial elements for positively capitalizing on the influence of any leadership position.

Provide inspiration.

Urzua was a reassuring influence on the group. He recognized that part of his role was to manage the fear of the miners and help them see beyond their current circumstances. He clearly communicated to the miners that their survival ultimately depended on helping each other. Urzua stressed that the group uphold each other’s dignity and build each other up. He repeatedly reminded them to focus on the hope of a rescue and to remember their families and friends that were counting on them to come back home.

In all of our leadership roles, we should be actively asking for the input, thoughts, ideas, perspectives, and opinions of the people on our team – those we agree with and those we don’t.

In our role as leaders, we need to encourage the people we supervise to persist despite the challenges they face and regularly remind them of our organization’s mission, vision, and hope for the future.

Provide structure.

Under Urzua’s leadership, the group divided work tasks, established living and waste areas, and even decided to use the lighting to create day and night conditions. For the first 17 days, they managed to stretch rations that were originally only intended to last for two. This consisted of two spoonfuls of tuna, half a cookie, and half a glass of milk every two days. They drank water from a spring and a radiator. They broke into three teams where they rotated in eight-hour shifts between sleeping, working, and playing – yes, playing!

In our workplaces we too need to have clear structure. Similar to the miners, when our staff face pressure or uncertainty, they look to their leaders to provide the stability that comes from structure. We can provide this by setting direction, outlining priorities, and articulating our clear expectations. Without these things it is easy for people to lose motivation and fall to chaos. Structure allows people to know what they can anticipate so they don’t have to spend time worrying or wondering what to do – they can rather focus on doing good work.

Provide opportunities to communicate.

Urzua encouraged the miners to emotionally support each other by openly sharing their hopes and fears. The group of miners quickly began calling themselves “Los 33” and engaged in a daily ritual they referred to as “Show Your Cards” where they would voice their disagreements, highlight accomplishments, and make plans for what was next.

In all of our leadership roles, we too should be actively asking for the input, thoughts, ideas, perspectives, and opinions of the people on our team – those we agree with and those we don’t. We should be doing this in our one-on-one check-ins as well as when we bring our team together. When we provide opportunities for people to gather, share their experiences, celebrate successes, discuss ideas, and wrestle with problems, we set the stage for effective teamwork to emerge.

On October 13th, the last miner to be rescued from the collapsed mine was Luis Urzua. When he emerged, he said, “I have delivered you this shift of workers, as I agreed I would.” He was greeted by the rescuers with a sign that read “mission accomplished.” Urzua’s leadership created the kind of conditions that allowed for a celebratory ending. The lessons from this story remind us of the power of leadership in valuing people and mobilizing them to work together. And when we do this, we can anticipate a team of motivated and inspired people who are energized to work towards the success of our organization.


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Author: Wendy Loewen
Managing Director, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

Wendy is the co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. The book is available on our website.

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