Lessons in Leadership from the Thai Cave Rescue

The Rescue_National Geographic_Documentary Film

Have you watched the National Geographic documentary “The Rescue”? If not, I highly recommend it. I am sure you recall the dramatic rescue of the Thai children’s football team who were trapped for 19 days in a cave in northern Thailand. It dominated world news for almost three weeks in June 2018. I watched this powerful documentary that tells the behind-the-scenes story of the successful rescue mission. As well as being inspired by the life-affirming story of human compassion and endeavour, it prompted me to reflect on several leadership lessons. Here are some of my observations; I am sure you will have others:-


The rescue involved more than 10,000 people of different nationalities, government bodies, emergency services, soldiers, and volunteers. These disparate groups came with diverse expertise, perspectives, ideas, and beliefs. What is clear is that the rescue was successful because they all contributed – the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.

Observation: The leaders of the respective groups were able to keep their egos in check and recognise the power of teamwork.


The fact that the lynchpin of the rescue was a group of odd-ball cave-diving hobbyists from around the globe struck me as particularly poignant. When interviewed, they shared their personal stories of how they had struggled to fit in with mainstream society and found peace and meaning in their private world underground.

Observation: The unique knowledge, skills, and thinking that unlocked the problem was held by a group of nerdy, introverted individuals – you have to look beyond the surface and stereotypical norms to find the hidden talent.


The children aged 11-16 spent ten days trapped in the cave without food before two rescue divers made first contact. Their football coach, a 25-year-old former monk, encouraged the boys to meditate to calm their minds and conserve energy. When the rescuers arrived, the children remained calm, positive, and grateful during the following eight days it took to complete the rescue.

Observation: Mental and physical resilience comes from acceptance and belief.


There were teams of Thai Navy SEALS and the US military’s Special Operations Group heavily involved in the rescue effort. You would expect the leaders of these highly trained and well-equipped groups to insist on taking the lead in this super high-profile situation, and it’s evident in the film that there were some heated discussions in the early phases. However, both groups subsequently acknowledged that the odd-ball group of cave divers was best qualified to lead and that their role was to focus on how they could offer the best support for the mission.

Observation: Humility is a crucial trait of effective leadership.    


The British divers preparing another treacherous dive to take supplies of food to the trapped children were also asked to take spiritual bracelets that the local religious leaders had blessed. At first, they dismissed the request as an unnecessary distraction from the complexities of their mission. However, they acknowledged that these bracelets would be significant to the boys and help them maintain the positive spirit to stay alive long enough to be rescued.

Observation: Empathy is looking beyond your own needs and beliefs so you can see what’s important for other people.


Towards the climax of the 19-day drama, the Thai authorities have to decide the rescue strategy; otherwise, the boys will die. They have considered all the options, and there isn’t a straightforward or safe solution, so they must take a risky decision. They choose to back the recommendation of the expert cave diving team, but, shockingly, it’s strongly suggested that if the rescue fails, the group who are voluntarily risking their lives may be prosecuted and jailed.

Observation: Leadership is about taking those risky decisions and owning the accountability for the results.

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