SuperEval Blog

Leadership Lessons from the Thai Cave Rescue

July 24th, 2018

Idea, Strategy and Success conception textsOn July 10, 2018, a collective sigh of relief was heard around the world as 12 boys and their soccer coach were rescued from a cave in Thailand, where they had been trapped for 18 days. The international rescue effort brought engineers, divers, doctors, volunteers and countless others together from all over the world in an effort to save the team. Last week, the boys met with the media for the first time since their rescue. They appeared happy and gracious for the efforts and prayers of so many.

One of the NAVY Seal divers involved in the rescue is quoted as saying, “We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what.”1 Regardless of whether you think it was a miracle or science, you can learn a lot about leadership and teamwork from this story.

School leaders, the following are seven leadership lessons that you can learn from the rescue efforts.

  1. Be prepared. Perhaps all of this could have been avoided if the team was more experienced in hiking, if they had checked the weather, if they had packed more food and water, or if they had an experienced leader with them. Lots of “ifs”. As a leader, you should never go into a situation without doing your research. Of course you cannot predict everything that might happen, but you can lessen the odds of something going wrong when you think about the what if’s ahead of time.
  2. Build a strong team. The “Thailand cave rescue operation assembled from an amalgam of muscle and brainpower from around the world: 10,000 people participated, including 2,000 soldiers, 200 divers and representatives from 100 government agencies.”2 In this story, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. A leader is not supposed to be the expert on everything. A leader surrounds him or herself with the best of the best. In Thailand, some of the world’s best engineers, doctors, divers and volunteers gathered to make the near impossible rescue, possible. Recruit the best and brightest. Surround yourself with top talent.
  3. Step up. Even though the coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, was criticized by many for being irresponsible and leading the boys too deep into the cave — when faced with having to be strong so that the boys survived, he stepped up to the plate. His resourcefulness, positivity, and hopefulness kept the boys calm and helped them survive those long days and nights without light, food, water, and a limited supply of oxygen. He stretched what little food they had, conserved battery power in their flashlight, and also showed the team how to drink condensation from the roof of the cave to try to stay hydrated. Leaders step up when faced with a challenge, they don’t back down.
  4. Focus on goal achievement. Having a goal-aligned school district is one of the best things that you can do to transform your leadership team. But a goal is nothing unless you strategize with your team on how to accomplish it. In Thailand, the goal was to rescue everyone without losing a life. It took much strategy, planning, and focus to make that goal a reality.
  5. Remember to breathe. CNN reported that the boys in the cave were “trapped with a former Buddhist monk of 10 years, their soccer coach, who was able to guide them in meditation, a time-tested technique that diminishes distress.”3 Stress can wreak havoc on the body both mentally and physically. School district leaders can certainly experience high stress situations. Remember that self care is important. Being able to tap into techniques to calm your mind during stressful times can help reduce cortisol levels in the body and help you make better decisions. Practicing meditation, yoga, exercising or taking up a hobby such as painting can help relieve anxiety and stress, helping you to better serve your community, parents and students.
  6. Encourage diversity. Approximately 50 of the divers involved in the rescue were foreigners. Communities came together involving hundreds of experts who flew in from around the world to help. Diversity is a critical component of your leadership team and your educational environment. Diversity matters in education because it helps to build understanding and allows people to embrace differences. It lends itself to being able to listen to new ideas, approaches and ways of doing things.
  7. Be decisive. Narongsak Osatanakorn, the former governor of Chiang Rai province, was in charge of coordinating the rescue mission. The Wharton School reported that his leadership skills included “discipline, organization and decisive decision-making.”4 Even in the face of a dire situation, Osatanakorn faced each dilemma, twist and turn with assurance. Leaders must make a decision and stick with it. You must convey that you know what you are doing and that you are self assured.

Overall, the Thailand story reminds us that leaders must know that anything is possible. It’s important to remember every day brings a new challenge. However, being prepared to meet those challenges head on will help you achieve your goals and lead with confidence.


1. Geddie, J. (2018, July 11). ‘Nobody thought we could do it’: Rescue of Thai boys accomplished. Retrieved July 24, 2018, from https://in.reuters.com/article/thailand-accident-cave/miracle-or-science-thai-cave-rescuers-lead-all-12-boys-coach-to-safety-idINKBN1K005V

2. Beech, H., Paddock, R. C., & Suhartono, M. (2018, July 13). ‘Still Can’t Believe It Worked’: The Story of the Thailand Cave Rescue. Retrieved July 24, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/12/world/asia/thailand-cave-rescue-seals.html

3. Rosa, R. D. (2018, July 19). Thai boys had a powerful survival tool. Retrieved July 24, 2018, from https://www.cnn.com/2018/07/12/opinions/thai-boys-who-were-trapped-in-cave-have-powerful-survival-tool-de-la-rosa/index.html

4. Business Radio. (n.d.). The Thai Cave Rescue: What Are the Leadership Lessons? Retrieved July 24, 2018, from http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/leadership-lessons-thai-soccer-team-rescue/

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