Leadership Lessons from the Andes

Iron cross at memorial, Valley of Tears, Argentina

On October 13, 1972, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crashed at 11,710 ft in the inhospitable Andes, while bringing 19 young members of a rugby team, and their families and friends, to neighboring Chile. Thus began perhaps one of the greatest survival stories known. Amazingly, 33 of the 45 on board survived the initial crash, some with injuries that would later claim their lives. And 72 days later, 14 were rescued after two more of the survivors walked out of the Andes to find help.

It was a miracle anyone survived at all. Due to pilot error, the plane descended too early in dense cloud cover, and struck a mountaintop. The tail snapped off, then both wings were sheared off. What remained of the fuselage tobogganed down a steep slope and smashed into a mound on a glacier. Stunned, many in agony from wounds and shock, wearing only street clothes, the survivors sprang into action, displaying heroic teamwork.

I journeyed to the crash site on January 7, 2020, high in the Andes, accessible only by hiking or horseback, to pay my profound respect to those who perished. They are buried in a mass grave on a ridge near the crash site. There is also a makeshift memorial, with an iron cross, upon which people leave personal mementos. This story has touched millions of lives throughout the last 48 years, and only a few get to come here, to the “Valley of Tears,” to see the place where so much agony, sorrow, terror, solitude, struggle and leadership took place.


Yes, amazing leadership. In fact, what made the story at once famous and infamous in 1972 was the fact that the survivors were forced to eat the flesh of the dead to stay alive. But to me, this story was always one of leadership and teamwork, and the lessons learned from it are applicable to many situations, including hemophilia and bleeding disorders. I thought of our community often while in the Andes, and while reading the many books about the crash.  While there are many leadership lessons, I mention just a few here.

Leadership Lesson 1. Take action. Just seconds after the crash, those young men (some only 19 years old) who were not injured quickly rallied to help those who were. They triaged the sick and wounded so as to help those most in need.

Leadership Lesson 2. Establish a situational leader. Here, the natural leader, who was miraculously uninjured, was Marcelo, the captain of the rugby team. An immediate leader was needed to keep people focused and optimistic, and avoid hysteria. Marcelo, handsome, intelligent and commanding, was able to get people organized for the night, where temperatures were probably 30° below zero or more, block the fuselage hole with luggage to protect from the wind, and calm the group by discussing rescue possibilities.

Leadership Lesson 3. Use the tools at hand. The boys had nothing to prepare them to stay in the Andes. They wore light clothing, shoes. Luggage had been lost. But they made blankets out of seat covers, a water-maker out of metal sheets to melt snow, sunglasses out of materials from the plane’s windshield, to protect against snow-blindness, snowshoes out of cushions, and of course, food from the bodies of those who died.

Leadership Lesson 4. Form a community. Not all of the boys knew one another, and not all were rugby players. But they formed a community, calling themselves “The Society of the Snow.” And in this community, everyone had a role. They had a doctor (first year medical student), engineer (a 19-year-old with some experience), someone to make water, someone to cut the meat, and others to play various roles.

Leadership Lesson 5. Keep rituals. Despite the isolation and injuries, the boys kept up rituals, to provide a sense of normalcy. Every night, one of the boys started the rosary. A few of the boys were agnostic, but they joined in because it provided community and comfort. Even after the worst part of the entire ordeal, an avalanche on day 16 that killed 8 more of their friends and trapped them in a tomb-like environment for three days, they celebrated two birthdays, using a snowball and lit cigarette as a cake.

Leadership Lesson 6. Anchors. Anchors can be described as things we hold on to that give us mental stability and focus. Some boys looked at the moon every night, while shivering in the fuselage, knowing their loved ones were looking at the same moon. For Eduardo Strauch, who traveled to the crash site with us two weeks ago, it was the “Exit” sign on the plane, which oddly still worked and stayed lit at night. Each night he focused on it intensely, to remind himself he would escape. After he was rescued, he brought the Exit sign home with him. And of course, there is the little red shoe, symbolic of the entire event. (But you must read the books or watch the movie to learn its vital importance!)

Leadership Lesson 7. Be flexible with leadership. On the tenth day after the crash, the survivors learned from a transistor radio that the search had been called off. Marcelo, the positional and situational leader up till then, slowly despaired, and gave up his leadership position. His hopes had been dashed. Instead, three cousins—Fito Strauch, Daniel Fernandez and Eduardo Strauch—stepped in as provisional leaders and elders (at age 25, they were the oldest). Leadership became more consensual (group-like) rather than hierarchical.

There are so many more leadership lessons from this one event, 48 years ago. But these are the few that truly stood out during my visit. How many of these apply to bleeding disorders? An event that no one wanted (a plane crash versus a diagnosis). Situational leadership (uninjured versus young parents springing to action). Suffering (crash injuries versus bleeds into joints). Taking action (how to stay warm versus how to protect your child). Community (a group of boys stranded in the Andes versus a family with a bleeding disorder feeling alone). Communications (a small transistor radio versus internet, meetings).

There are so many parallels. Read the books and see for yourself, and be amazed at the human spirit, which has resilience, discipline, hope and faith.

Alive by Piers Paul Read

Alive (1993), movie now on Netflix

I Had to Survive by Robero Canessa

Miracle in the Andes, by Nando Parrado

Out of the Silence by Eduardo Strauch

6 thoughts on “Leadership Lessons from the Andes”

  1. I have necer heard of this story beore , I do recall a movie but I never had the pleasure of watching it , I am eager to watch the movie now . This story has so very many examples of what we can do if faced with a drastic situation , our minds and bodies just jump right into action , our minds are able to jump into survival mode . Inspiring to say the least , true examples of what we can do together when facing difficult situations .

  2. I just finished watching the new movie, “Society of the Snow” this evening with my husband. It very realisticly portrays all of the emotional, physical and mental trauma those who survived the plane crash went through.
    I enjoyed this blog, “Leadership Lessons From the Andes”. The lessons have excellent points, encouraging thoughts and wisdom to reflect on and take to heart!

    • Thanks, Eleanor! My boyfriend and I watched it last night as well, and it is fantastic. Very different than the 1993 movie, but both are excellent adaptations. I’m so glad you liked it!

  3. This tragic historical event has been warped by Hollywood writers into a complete fairy-tale. I read the books and watched the movies – but then I read the official report(s) and a much different version of events unfolds. After examining the location of the crash, the survivors were well within walking distance of hot spring resort (Hotel Termas del Sosneado) that had heat, food and telephone communication. The resort had closed for the winter, but was not abandoned. That’s the reason why the rescue planes did not fly close to them. If any one of the survivors had simply walked a mile – they would have visually seen the resort located on the side of the mountain. I realize these kids had no survival training – but if you are in a situation like this (I realize hindsight is 20/20) you get four of the strongest survivors – each takes a different direction – and you walk one mile (or 30 minutes) – and then you report back what you saw. This did not happen. In the end only a few passengers survived – not because of brilliant leadership – but because they resorted to eating their dead friends. That’s the only reason. When the survivors realized how close they actually were to safety and rescue – they became very despondent and depressed. Their news conference was subdued and their actions were explained through a spokesman. They did not talk about this tragic event for years – until glamorized books and Hollywood movies made heroes out of them.

    • Thanks for your reply to my blog. I found it intriguing. Have you been to the crash site?

      When you say “only a few passengers survived”, do you realize that 16 out of 33 who
      survived the initial crash is about half? 50%? More than just a few.

      When you say “That’s the only reason.”… you realize that solely eating the dead is not the
      only reason. Had they sat there and ate the dead, and did not walk out, they would have all
      died. But two walked out, malnourished and desperate, and encountered a random farmer….
      that’s the reason they survived. Not just eating the dead. Much more was at play.

      “When the survivors realized how close they actually were to safety and rescue – they
      became very despondent and depressed.” This contradicts everything I have researched.
      What sources do you have for this?

      “Their news conference was subdued and their actions were explained through a
      spokesman.” Again, this contradicts everything written. They had no spokesperson that I read
      of, and spoke directly to the press, starting the day, the hour they returned. What are your

      “They did not talk about this tragic event for years until glamorized books and Hollywood
      movies made heroes out of them.” Again, contradicts facts. They all spoke to author Piers
      Paul Read, who published his book based on their combined accounts in 1974.. merely 2
      year after the crash. The glamorized (agreed) Hollywood movie was in 1993, over 20 years
      after the crash. They had spoken to people, the press many times. What are your sources?
      I would really love to know your sources as I am also writing a book about leadership and this
      event, and would consider all opinions.

  4. I watched the movie and feel so sorry for the survivors who had to act cannibalism to survive. It had to be a tragic deed for them. God is a loving God. I know it wasn’t a sin. The soul is not there, it’s a body meant to be taken back by the earth.


Leave a Comment

HemaBlog Archives