Lessons from Deep Down Below

March 27, 2012
By Robert O’Neill

Laurence Golborne was working in relative obscurity as Chile’s mining minister in August of 2010 when a mineshaft collapse thousands of feet below ground in a remote corner of that country catapulted him into the international spotlight.

The subsequent 69-day operation that Golborne led to successfully rescue the 33 trapped miners made Golborne famous in Chile and beyond.

It also provided “a leadership lesson for the ages,” Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust said Monday in welcoming Golborne, now minister of public works, as he spoke on public policy, leadership, and crisis management at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at Harvard Kennedy School.

Faust had met Golborne during an official visit to Chile with Harvard Kennedy School Dean David Ellwood in the spring of 2011. She said she knew then that Golborne had to come to Harvard to share his story.

But, as Golborne reminded the audience, it was a story that could have well ended differently.

“Essentially a crisis happens when all the rules fail,” Golborne told the audience. Accompanied by a slide show, with vivid images of the rescue operation, Golborne reminded the audience that crisis and government are a potential mismatch.

The usual procedures of government, which requires slow, deliberate action, can be incompatible with a situation that is unexpected, unique, requires urgent response, and has no textbook answers.

“This is the scenario in which leadership takes on a complementary role,” Golborne said.
Golborne said the ability to manage a lot of pressure was key during the initial 17 days, during which they faced disappointment and frustration. The teams he assembled had to deal with family members, the media, as well as the vast technical difficulties of the rescue itself. Then came the famous note, attached to a drill that had rescue the trapped miners, announcing that the 33 miners were alive and well.

“Many, many things had to go right for those 33 miners to be rescued, and those things did go right,” said Herman “Dutch” Leonard, Baker Professor of Public Management at the Kennedy School and an expert in crisis management in introducing Golborne. “It’s a huge credit to the people involved, who in completely novel circumstances managed to learn their way forward into a whole new paradigm for mine rescue.”

Why was the rescue mission successful? There were three key elements, Golborne said: team building, hard work and motivation; the need to over failure in order to succeed; and an understanding that complex problems have no simple-formula solution.

Asked by an audience member why he had gone, and stayed, in the public sector, Golborne remembered that he was hesitant when he was first asked to join President Sebastian Pinera’s government. He said his wife convinced him. “You always say that someone has to do something, you always say that our country needs a lot of things,” his wife told him. “Well, who is going to do it? Why don’t you go to help?”

“I have to confess that everyday I feel like I made the best decision of my life,” he said.

The event marked the beginning of Harvard Kennedy School’s annual Public Service Week. The week will serve as the kick-off for Harvard’s Global Month of Service, which begins April 1.

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picture of Laurence Golborne, Chilean Minister of Public Works at a podium

Laurence Golborne, Chilean minister of public works

“Essentially a crisis happens when all the rules fail,” Golborne told the audience.

Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust

Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust provided welcoming remarks.