09 December 2021 18:46:59 IST

The CEO and co-founder of TalentEase, Fernandez is a thought leader in education and a consultant and coach to school heads, teachers and parents. He has 18 years of outsourcing leadership experience in the Asia Pacific, consulting with and servicing global and regional clients. He was previously partner/managing director with Accenture, Singapore. He was the COO with Hewitt Outsourcing APAC, and President India Life Hewitt. He has overseen teams in sales, operations, client and account management, technology, finance and HR, and has extensive experience working with multinational clients across a wide industry and geographic spectrum. He is a sought-after speaker at education and industry conferences and is a columnist with Business Line on Campus .

Crises can test your mettle as a leader

Show, don’t tell. Leaders need to demonstrate resolve through their action instead of words.

As we near the end of one more crisis year, the just released Nat Geo documentary film Rescue takes us behind the scenes into the rescue of 12 children and their football coach who were trapped in a submerged cave. On June 23, 2018, the boys aged between 11 and 16, and their assistant coach, Ekkphon entered the Tham Luany Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai province of Northern Thailand. Their intended birthday celebration party was quickly abandoned as unpredicted torrential rain flooded the cave, trapping all of them. Over the next 18 days one of the world’s largest and most international of rescue efforts was launched. Rescue tells that story. Directors E Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin brilliantly put us right in the action.

The film takes us through the twists and turns of a rescue effort that swung multiple times from despair to hope and back. It also serves as an excellent laboratory where the most improbable people took leadership roles and mounted a heroic rescue effort, putting the greatest price at stake — their own lives. It’s a must-watch — not just for the immense tale of heroism, but also for the inspiring lessons of leadership we can take from it and emulate.

Situational leadership

The Thai cave rescue highlighted situational leadership. The first teams — volunteers, fire rescue and even the Thai Navy SEALs trained divers, had to admit that they did not have the skills required for this extreme form of diving. Vern Unsworth, the British cave explorer on the ground took a leadership role in persuading the Thai leadership:Get the best cave divers in the world. They called John Volanthen and Rick Stanton. As Stanton puts it: When I see a dark space in a cave it fascinates me. To most people it’s an alien environment. It’s dark, it could be claustrophobic. To most people it would be a disaster...but this is the strange world that I enjoy. Cave diving.”

These are times when a leader needs to take off her usual evaluation glasses. Some of her favourite leader-types may actually be quite ineffective. Her gaze should wander to search for the unlikely heroes whose skills, attitudes and experience have almost perfectly prepared them for just such a crisis. One of the least-rated qualities of a leader is knowing when to step up and when to step aside and let another lead.

We hear Chris Jewell, the IT Consultant/cave-diver: “Was I a bit cold? Was I a bit too unemotional? I found a use and purpose to that level of detachment.” Weaknesses in one situation became radical strengths in another. Dr Richard Harris, the Australian doctor/cave diver talks about how poor a team player he was and closes: “Last to be chosen for the cricket team, first to be chosen for the cave rescue.”


Deep within the cave, the assistant coach found his background as a Buddhist monk helped him teach the boys to meditate and stay calm. The skill that became most important in his life, had nothing to do with football.

This is why we should take a Swiss-Army knife approach to our own skills. We need the self-awareness to know what strength is best suited for which situation. And especially in a crisis, it may be time to pull out what we’ve sometimes looked at as weaknesses — here in a crisis they become what we never saw them as — incredible strengths.

What a leader does

There’s a scene midway through the rescue effort when the weather takes a turn for the worse. There’s a brief discussion amongst the team of cave divers. “Should we be going into the cave? Should we be risking our lives?” As the discussion continued, Jason Mallinson, one of the other lead rescue divers, says he just got up and started walking towards the cave ready for the dive . “That immediately put an end to the discussion, and everyone followed.”

In a crisis the team is not looking for words, they are looking for actions. Leaders needs to be able to make sometimes symbolic acts that demonstrate their resolve. Rather than tell, they show the team what needs to be done.

Inside the cave, the boys themselves demonstrated outstanding leadership. As the divers recounted when they found them — there were no tears, no complaints, no fighting over food, but an unexplainable calm as the boys kept their spirits high and stayed united. When the decision came on who would be rescued first, the boys decided it they would start with the ones who stayed furthest so that they could tell the other boys’ families the good news as they passed their villages.

Courage of conviction

Inspite of doubts from experts that the children could have survived for so many days without food,the volunteers stood by their conviction that somehow the boys were alive. That conviction gave them the courage and steadfastness for the rescue. When faith faltered for a few — even Rick and John were at the point of giving up — others let their faith shine as a beacon. Belgian diver, Ben Reymenants and the USAF team, stayed the course continuing the search.

Rick and John stayed on, and it was they who, on July 2, eventually found the boys, perched on an elevated rock about 4 kms from the cave mouth. But as they put it — finding the boys was the easy part, getting them out was going to be the most difficult. An earlier experience rescuing some adult sump workers had shown the divers that the panic reactions of ordinary people in a cave diving environment, would be too dangerous. With children it could end in disaster.

Different options were explored — teaching the boys diving skills, drilling alternate extraction points, waiting until the monsoon settled. Ultimately, the team roped in Dr Richard Harris and came up with the daring and untested plan to sedate the boys and dive-rescue them through the submerged portion back to the dry chambers from where volunteers could extract them. It was extremely risky, but the courage of conviction gave clarity to the team. Leaders use their courage of conviction not only to stay calm themselves but to radiate it. Dr Harris struggled with his own fears — would the cocktail of drugs he had come up with, work? Would the boys suffocate while being brought back?

Again, the courage of conviction helps him proceed with a steely calm that he passes on to the rest of the team, even teaching all of them, untrained medically, to administer the sedative injections along the swim back.

Between the July 8 and 10, the entire group of 12 boys and their coach were brought out, leading to wild celebrations across Thailand and around the world. More than 10,000 people including over 100 divers, 900 police officers, 2000 soldiers eventually collaborated in the rescue. Two ended up paying the ultimate price, losing their own lives.

A crisis can sometimes bring out the worst in people, but with the right leadership, more often, it can bring out the best.