Until a few days ago, stateless Ekkapol Chantawong was just the assistant coach of the Wild Boars Soccer Team of Thailand. But now, coach ‘Ek’ is hailed as the reckoning force that held the fortress together when it was on the brink of collapse. It’s certain that he played a pivotal role in saving the lives of his team members—all between 11 and 16 years of age—who along with him were stuck in Tham Luang Cave in the northern part of Thailand.
After an 18-day ordeal, braving thirst, hunger, and darkness inside the cave, the team and the coach were rescued with help and expertise from more than 1,000 individuals. Perhaps, this rescue mission will go down in the annals of history for more than one reason—for the brave fight the children put up in the face of such a calamity; for the former Thai Navy SEAL who sacrificed his life during the rescue, and for the exemplary leadership exhibited by the people involved in the mission.
Clearly, the success of the rescue mission cannot be attributed to one person alone. The credit goes to all the individuals who slogged for days, with sheer determination and resolve to bring the team and the coach safely out of the cave. Their efforts finally paid off when they succeeded in their mission.
However, one name does stand out in this incident—Ekkapol Chantawong. Though not much is known about the events that transpired inside the cave, one thing is clear: Chantawong strived to keep the team’s morale up by talking to the children. As a leader of the pack, the coach did everything in his ability to keep the boys alive. His equanimity in the face of such a calamity is commendable. Perhaps, he gets it from his experience in the Buddhist monastery. Chantawong had joined the monastery after his parents’ death, and it was there that he learnt to meditate. So, when the need arose, he taught the children meditation as a means to keep them calm.
That’s what great leaders do. When everything falls apart, they strive to hold it together. They are calm and focused, and they concentrate on solving the problem. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna warns Arjuna about the perils of a preoccupied mind, especially in a leader. Krishna explains that when the mind is preoccupied, a leader becomes short-sighted, unable to see the problem in a circumspect manner, as he is caught up in his own worries. The Lord advises Arjuna to look at problems with a clear and unoccupied mind, one that is not anxious, reactive, or fearful. Perhaps, Chantawong’s expertise in meditation helped him achieve this calm state of mind, and he was able to motivate the children to do the same.
The world blamed him for pushing the boys into danger. But let’s not forget that it was Chantawong who kept the boys alive by giving them his share of the food supplies. Able leaders put their own needs on hold in times of distress.