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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.

Leadership?

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

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