Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, August 13, 2018
I started my career in the movie business, and the recent Thai cave rescue reminded me of a Billy Wilder film, “Ace in the Hole.” Made in 1951, it is the story of former big-city journalist (Kirk Douglas) who exploits a story about a man trapped in a cave, creating a national media sensation (we know about those today), feeding stories to the press and prolonging the rescue effort. It highlights some of man’s worst instincts.
By contrast, the recently completed successful cave rescue offers exemplary lessons in leadership and coordinated strategy. It captivated not just a country, but the whole world. Michael Useem, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that while it was “the coach (25 years old) who got them into the mess to begin with, it was also the coach who saved them. People who are under dire circumstances with a leadership responsibility have to step forward and exercise it.”
Useem tells us that the rescue was a “matter of muscle and brainpower.” The muscle was obvious (massive equipment and a team of brilliant Thai SEAL divers), and the brainpower obligation fell to Narongsak Osatanakorn, a former government official, who coordinated the 10,000 onsite rescuers into a common strategy. He was on the outside. On the inside, the leadership fell to the soccer coach, Ekapol Chanthawong who held the 12 young men together.
It seems obvious, but the lesson here, as always, is a simple one. Leadership, in all its forms, matters. In the Chilean mine accident in 2010, there were 33 miners trapped for 69 days, but it was one man, the foreman, Luis Urzua, who kept the miners alive.
I have come to believe that the power of great leadership is only easily seen after the fact. In times of extreme circumstances, leaders emerge, and it is not always the person at the top. There are myriad stories of heroes who in magic moments exhibit abilities “far beyond those of mortal men,” (Superman), and then return to their regular lives. What I have seen in my little companies is that there is a distinct tension between consensus and leadership. I know all the stories about listening to the various points of view, but in the end, there is still only a single decision.
The Thai cave rescue was a big success. What if it weren’t? What if the decision process failed to recover the children? I am fascinated by this conundrum. We celebrate leadership when it works, but do we also acknowledge leadership, even when the outcome is “suboptimal?” I have written before about professional poker players, who statistically make the correct bet, but get “a bad beat,” when a lucky card shows up and they lose. They played correctly, but the gods pulled an ace on the river.
So I am suggesting that leadership, making the right decision, does not always manifest itself clearly. We see this all the time in sports. The coach is brilliant when Steph Curry hits the three-pointer to win the game. You are fired when the U.S. team doesn’t even qualify for the World Cup (Jurgen Klinsmann). But after all, did Klinsmann miss the penalty kick? Was it his foot?
What I know is that it takes courage to lead; it takes fortitude to be willing to be wrong. It is easy to debate, discuss, review and consider. It is not easy to make a decision, especially when it is not an obvious one, not a consensus vote, but rather the infamous “tough call.”
In conclusion, I have enormous empathy for leaders. I admire them, even in their failure, because I know the loneliness of running out of money, of picking the wrong CEO, of accepting toxic financing, of seeking the wrong customers, of choosing the wrong product, platform or procedure. It is painful and no one remembers that jump shot you made a year ago.
I tell all my young startup entrepreneurs and all my CEOs that “if it were easy, everyone would do it.” It is not simple and it is definitely not the big easy.
Rule No. 572: It’s really nice when it works out.