It is now 10 years since the Tasmanian town of Beaconsfield was thrown into crisis when gold miners became trapped deep underground. At that time Brant Webb and Todd Russell were working almost one kilometer below the surface when the rockface collapsed around them. Another colleague working nearby, Larry Knight, was killed in the incident while several others scrambled out.
Their rescue is one of the greatest Australian survival stories, and takes its place alongside other industrial accidents and disasters that have shocked and captivated the nation. I have researched many such disasters over the years and the theme of leadership during the rescue operations is always instructive and inspiring.
Below are five lessons I have taken away from Beaconsfield. But fist, a brief synopsis of what happened.
When a seismic event set off the rockfall, Russell and Webb became wedged in a small cherry picker cage under huge boulders. It took six days for mine rescue to detect their location and discover that they were still alive. It took another nine days to bring them to the surface.
The technical challenges facing the rescuers were extremely complex. The rock around the cherry picker was unstable, but both men kept their nerve and gave vital information as the drilling inched forward through rock five times harder than concrete. Teamwork on the surface was impressive. The planning room worked constantly with options considered, contingencies tested, and different people carefully briefed on their roles. While they were ‘just ordinary blokes’ everyone worked with purpose and professionalism.
My five key leadership lessons from Beaconsfield?
1. A goal or purpose that is meaningful and shared by everyone is a powerful impetus to get the job done. It ignites energy, inspires creativity and a solutions-focus, revitalizes effort in the face of setbacks, and fuels a can-do mindset.
2. When each team member is allocated tasks that play to their strengths and their contributions are coordinated centrally, there is little they cannot do as a team.
3. Leadership works best when it is separated from seniority, as far as is possible or practicable. One person (or an executive group) may need to make the final decision. However, their leadership role should be just one plank in a mosaic of distributed responsibility, where each team member contributes fully and without inhibition to the plan and its execution. Leadership becomes the property of the group and not a single person at the top of the hierarchy.
4. Communication works best when it flows in all directions – up, down and sideways. Everyone communicates actively – they check that their message was received as intended, and are always willing to question their assumptions, mindsets and fixed ideas. Everything is open for review or a rethink.
5. Trust is the foundation for everything else in any team situation. The basis for trust is a sense of psychological safety within the team. This happens when each person feels included, is consulted or feels in control, and is valued for their skills. Confined though they were, even Webb and Russell made vital contributions that culminated in their rescue.
The remarkable Beaconsfield story shows what ordinary people can do when they unite around a common goal, trust one another (with their lives in this case) contribute their strengths, communicate actively and think like leaders.
Dr Judith Chapman is an Organisational Psychologist and accomplished advocate, coach and trainer for emerging leaders at all levels. To read more stories like this and learn many practical ways to lead a team, consult her book You Can Lead: Your complete guide to managing people and teams, ES Press, 2016. Available on her web site: www.drjudithchapmam.com