Survival instincts

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first_imgSurvival instinctsOn 1 Oct 2001 in Personnel Today Previous Article Next Article NandoParrado, one of sixteen survivors of the famous plane crash in the Andes, talksto Pepi Sappal about the challenges, skills and teamwork that got them throughthe gruelling 72-day ordeal Imaginethe following scenario: you’re stuck on top of a freezing peak in the Andes foralmost two-and-a-half months in sub-zero temperatures, wearing little more thanclothes suitable for hot climes, with no food and in agony because you’vesustained some serious physical injuries. That’s what Nando Parrado and hisrugby team mates and relatives had to endure when the private plane they hadchartered from Uruguay to Chile crashed in the Andes, some 30 years ago.It’sonly in recent years that Parrado has been able to talk about the extraordinarysaga, which is well documented in both the book and film Alive.Fromthe time the plane crashed on October 13, 1972 until their rescue on December22, the survivors had to overcome extreme physical conditions that tested theirmental limits. “One minute we were a bunch of happy-go-lucky studentsbetween the ages of 17 and 20, looking forward to the rugby match against theOld Boys in Chile, and the next we found ourselves on a freezing glacierfighting for our lives,” recalls Parrado. AtSHRM’s conference earlier this year in San Francisco, Parrado pointed out that,”Had it been a commercial flight, we probably wouldn’t have survived. Thedifferent ages, backgrounds and cultures would have worked against us. By thetime everyone started to work as a team, it would have been too late.” Thefact that they were well acquainted with each other on the rugby pitchcertainly helped. “As many of us had known each since childhood, we wereworking as a team within five minutes of the crash,” he says. It’san extraordinary tale of courage, determination and leadership that got thesurvivors through the 72-day ordeal. Although 33 of the 45 survived the initialcrash, only 16 made it through to the end. He attributes their survival toseamless teamwork. “Everyone played to their strengths. Initially it wasnatural for the team captain, Marcelo, to take on the role of leader. Heassessed that we would not survive the night unless we made a decent shelterbecause of the wind-chill factor, especially as we weren’t equipped for winterweather as we didn’t have jackets, sweaters or boots to protect us from thefreezing conditions.” Butdifferent types of leaders evolved throughout the episode. “Two amateurdoctors, for example, took the lead attending to the injured parties. Manyvictims of the crash were suffering from serious physical injuries such asbroken bones, but others escaped with hardly a scratch,” Parrado says. “Therewas very little food – a bar of chocolate and a couple of bottles of wine – soit was rationed. But a square of chocolate and capful of wine, which was fastrunning out, was not enough to survive.”Asthere was no other sign of life around, the doctors realised that their onlychance of staying alive was by consuming the frozen flesh of the crash victims,many of whom were friends and family.Itwas an issue that raised much controversy, not only within the group ofsurvivors, but also in the outside world after they were rescued.”Although it disgusted us all, we had no choice. But that was nothingcompared to the freezing temperatures of minus 25 degrees we had toendure,” claims Parrado.Afterfailing to get the radio to work to establish communication with the outsideworld, and no sign of rescue after weeks of waiting, Parrado became obsessedwith finding a way out. Despite losing both his mother and sister in the crash,he was one of the fittest and strongest of the survivors, capable of leading anexpedition to find help. “We realised we had to get out by ourselvesbefore we got too weak. We had to balance time with physical strength. Twothings, however, counted against us, the freezing weather and lack ofequipment,” he says.”Wehad prepared for the expedition by making things like rucksacks, sleeping bagsand tools with hardly any resources at our disposal,” says Parrado. Butthey discovered hidden talents and reserves of strengths they never knew theyhad. “I was amazed at the common sense, logic and genius displayed by theteam members, despite the little experience of life we had. In fact, most of ushad never seen snow before, let alone faced death,” he adds. “Nevertheless,we came up with great innovations from inventing a water-making system usingthe heat from the sun to melt enough water from the ice, to making blankets fromthe plane’s seat covers. One of the guys even made sunglasses with visors andaluminium from the cockpit. He sewed them together with copper wire from theelectric system to the elastic from plane seat covers, which we used forhead-bands. In fact, those sunglasses were life-savers as the reflection of thesun on the glaciers almost blinded us.”Aftertwo months of preparation, Parrado led an expedition with team-mate RobertoCanessa to the West, in the hope of reaching Chile. “After three days ofclimbing to the top of the summit and seeing what lay ahead, we knew that ourfuture looked bleak – we had very little chance of survival, let alone findinghelp. “Butwe had a choice – either we could give up and die there, or continue to walkand die of exhaustion. The latter was the preferred option, as it was an easierway to die,” recalls Parrado. “I made a life-or-death decision inless than 20 seconds. Today, I make decisions much faster.”Theexpedition wasn’t an easy task to complete. “It wasn’t just about hittinga deadline, we knew that the failure to complete this expedition meant thedifference between us all living or dying,” says Parrado. Luckily, afteran exhausting 10-day trek through the mountains, a shepherd came to theirrescue and Parrado and Canessa were able to get the help needed to rescue theother14 survivors. Parradomaintains it was team initiative that got them through. “The biggestlesson we probably learned was the value of working together; taking on tasksthat we were best suited to and giving more than 100 per centperformance,” he says.”Theteamwork we had at the crash was the best I’ve ever seen in action. The doctorsdid a great job keeping the injured alive, the others helped to ration food andwater to make sure it lasted and did what they could to prepare the essentialsrequired for the expedition. So every member contributed to our survival andeventual rescue in their own way.”Ina rugby game, players are prepared to make sacrifices so another player canscore. I guess we survived from that kind of team spirit. We would give up oursweatshirt or ration of chocolate if someone else needed it more,” saysParrado, who played in the second row for his team, the Old Christians Club.Parradohas attempted to encourage that type of teamwork in all his Uruguayan-basedbusinesses, including his family owned hardware business Selar Parrado SA,television production companies and an advertising agency. “It hasn’t beeneasy,” he admits. “As we live in a world that’s contaminated withselfishness, people rarely make sacrifices unless they receive credit,recognition or reward.” Thatsaid, the skills he acquired in the crash have proved extremely useful inmanaging the staff employed across his six businesses. “Getting the bestout of the survivors in what you could describe as the worst-case conditions onour worst possible days required great sensitivity. And that was difficult. ButI learnt how to read human behaviour and, as a result, I’m a better manager.”Theepisode certainly proved that he was a natural leader with great drive anddetermination – vital skills for a CEO. His enthusiasm for life and endlessenergy is displayed in his existing workload. On top of his CEO roles, he takescharge of all HR responsibility. He writes his own HR policies from how hisemployees should behave to how to deal with customers. He’s also responsiblefor the training and recruitment of staff from management level upwards. Likeevery other employer, Parrado too, believes that good employees are hard tofind. “In my experience, the best academics don’t always make the bestemployees as they often fail to perform on practical jobs. I never just rely onqualifications. “Ilook for the type of common sense, innovative and genius qualities, like thosedisplayed by the survivors in the Andes, which I test for during interview. Ofcourse, I also look for other traits like integrity, sacrifice – will they workextra hours if needed? – and most importantly solidarity. Are they teamplayers?” Courageis another essential attribute. “During that experience in the Andes, Irealised the one thing most people are scared of is confronting others.Recently, I hired a couple of young guys because they weren’t afraid tochallenge me. I admired that quality, so I took them on.”Theexperience has certainly helped Parrado put things into perspective.”Although I have a challenging and enjoyable work life, I also want tohave that barbecue with friends and spend time having fun on the beach with mywife Veronique and two daughters.” Hetries to encourage that work-life balance with-in his businesses, but admitsthat the young and ambitious just don’t understand the need for that kind of balanceearly on in life. “You can be successful without becoming aworkaholic,” stresses Parrado. “I’m living proof of that.” Comments are closed. 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