Before the summer of 2010, Chilean Minister of Mining Laurence Golborne was a relatively unknown businessman-turned-politician.
Yet, following the collapse of the Copiapó Mine in San José on August 5, 2010, Golborne gained worldwide recognition for leading the search and rescue efforts for 33 miners trapped 2,300 feet below the surface. Sixty-nine days later, every single miner had made it out alive. Golborne said he drew upon his years of business leadership experience as he organized hundreds of rescue workers from a wide range of fields, unifying them in the effort to rescue the stranded miners.
Now, one year after the rescue of the final miner, Golborne remains one of Chile’s most popular politicians.
Golborne will be in Washington, D.C., this week to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the rescue. On Oct. 11, he will appear at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, where the exhibit “Against All Odds: Rescue at the Chilean Mine” is currently on display. The Smithsonian will also premiere the film “Chilean Mine Rescue” and will host a panel featuring Golborne, as well as two of the rescued miners.
Washington Post On Leadership caught up with Golborne by phone while he was traveling in North Chile last week to speak about leadership under pressure.
When you arrived on the scene last August, you had only been on the job for four months and had no extensive mining experience. How did you begin to organize the efforts on the ground?
I wasn’t an expert miner, but I had expertise managing large corporations, large groups of people, and leading in a large corporation. So that expertise, that experience is very important when you have to organize a group of more than 1,000 people, fighting in this case for the rescue of 33 men.
I understood when I arrived there [that] it was a very highly complex situation, especially from the human side. The families—the relatives of the miners—were there asking for answers, asking for news. There was a lot of pain and anguish because of the situation in which they were living. In this case, the situation had more uncertainty and pain, and we had to manage it. I am very proud of the way that we established a relationship with those families based on trust. That was the key. We established, in the very beginning with the families of the miners, a relationship based on trust and truth.
You managed relations not only with the miners’ families, but also with journalists and the press. What was your strategy in remaining open with them?
The situation got very complicated. I explained to them, I made them understand that we were making all the efforts needed to find them first, and then rescue them if we could find them. After 17 days, in which I had no good news to tell them, we succeeded in finding the miners. And that was a moment of glory for all of us. At that moment, we knew that we could be able to save them, because after that it was a matter of money, time and effort to get them back.
The day that we found them is one of the most important moments in my life.
You basically took up residence at "Camp Hope." How important was that decision to ask the president to stay in Santiago while you were on the ground?
I hope that history will recognize the strength, the faith [with which] President Piñera had to make the hardest decision to commit the whole government to this effort. He never had any thought about the political consequences of this; he only thought about the human beings that were trapped and suffering in that situation. I was there, saying to him, “President, you have to be very careful, the situation is very hard,” and Piñera said to me, “Go ahead, minister, you have to try to find them and you will have all the human effort needed to try to find them.” That was a key element in the success that we had.
What lessons have you been able to take away from this experience over the last year?
I think there are two of them—first, the strength and survival of these 33 men that organized themselves and always stuck together, trying to keep alive.
The second is how everybody working together, all those hundreds of people who worked together, can make miracles.
What does good leadership mean to you?
I always say that the main characteristic of a leader is to learn how to listen, how to listen to people and then make decisions. Try to understand the problems and then find solutions. Try to understand what’s going on, what you can do. Try to understand what people need—this is key.
The National Museum of Natural History and the Embassy of Chile are cohosting a series of free public events on leadership in the rescue of the 33 Chilean miners throughout 2011 and 2012. The Washington Post On Leadership section is a joint collaborator.