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Great leaders

Great leaders are made, not born

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.

If keeping a calm mind is one of the reasons the team managed to survive in the dark cave for 18 days, another would be the way Chantawong dealt with the crisis. He bravely took the crisis as his own responsibility. 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.

In 1914, British polar explorer Ernest Henry Shackleton and his team had set out on an expedition to cross Antarctica via the South Pole. In early 1915, their ship got trapped in the ice and later sank. The crew had to abandon the ship and survive on floating ice. They were marooned thousands of miles away from civilisation with just three lifeboats and some canned food. In April 1916, the crew set off on their boats and reached Elephant Island. Five members, along with Shackleton, spent 16 days crossing 1,300 km to reach South Georgia. Later, they trekked the island to reach their station. Not one member of the expedition died in the incident. Shackleton did not have much to rely on when it came to leading his crew members to safety, except for some canned food and lifeboats. But within him was the resilience and will to survive that he inspired in his men, conveys Harvard historian Nancy Koehn in her book Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times.

As for leadership itself, she further goes on to write: “(…) courageous leadership is actually a result of individual people committing to work from their stronger selves, discovering a mighty purpose, and motivating others to join their cause.” Shackleton and Chantawong lived by this thought. In the midst of a crisis, they had no chance to falter or give up. Instead, they took ownership of the situation, kept the fort from collapsing, and navigated through the high tide. Koehn writes: “Each of the leaders and the people they inspire is made more resilient, a bit bolder, and in some instances even more luminous. When this happens, impact expands, and the possibility grows for moving goodness forward in the world.” It’s not often that we see leaders with qualities that Koehn has described. Chantawong is one such leader, an inspiration to many.


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