A year and a half ago I accidentally stumbled upon a documentary on YouTube, which has inspired me like few other things in my life. It is the story of Nando Parrado and the survivors of the Andes plane crash in 1972. It is an incredible tale of courage, determination and leadership, in the most extreme conditions that a man could ever witness.
A decade ago, Nando Parrado himself wrote a book describing in the first person such an extraordinary story. Here is the synopsis from Amazon, which perfectly sets the tone.
In the first hours there was nothing, no fear or sadness, just a black and perfect silence. Nando Parrado was unconscious for three days before he woke to discover that the plane carrying his rugby team, as well as their family members and supporters, to an exhibition game in Chile had crashed somewhere deep in the Andes. He soon learned that many were dead or dying—among them his own mother and sister. Those who remained were stranded on a lifeless glacier at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, with no supplies and no means of summoning help. They struggled to endure freezing temperatures, deadly avalanches, and then the devastating news that the search for them had been called off.
As time passed and Nando’s thoughts turned increasingly to his father, who he knew must be consumed with grief, Nando resolved that he must get home or die trying. He would challenge the Andes, even though he was certain the effort would kill him, telling himself that even if he failed he would die that much closer to his father. It was a desperate decision, but it was also his only chance. So Nando, an ordinary young man with no disposition for leadership or heroism, led an expedition up the treacherous slopes of a snow-capped mountain and across forty-five miles of frozen wilderness in an attempt to find help.
Thirty years after the disaster Nando tells his story with remarkable candor and depth of feeling. Miracle in the Andes—a first person account of the crash and its aftermath—is more than a riveting tale of true-life adventure: it is a revealing look at life at the edge of death and a meditation on the limitless redemptive power of love.
I have subsequently read the book, and I strongly recommend it if you enjoy an inspiring read. If you are more of a visual person instead, here is the documentary. It will be a fantastically well-spent 90 minutes, trust me.
In a strict interpersonal sense, the story is an astonishing demonstration of leadership within a larger (the group of survivors) and smaller team (Nando and the two friends who proceeded to escape the mountains). If you read the book / watch the video, and then consider a list of the top traits of a leader (one example here), you will recognize most of these at their peak in Nando. What strikes me the most is that such traits come out naturally, not because of a template that he was following. As the synopsis states, he was “an ordinary young man with no disposition for leadership or heroism”. However, the extreme situation pushed him to find the strength to affirm his desire for life over the fear of death and the extreme ambient conditions, and pass it on to all other survivors.
He was able to inspire in his friends a vision which seemed objectively impossible, but which led them to salvation. He had to persuade the rest of the group of difficult decisions, and make risky but necessary choices about teamwork during the final expedition. And he had the impressive resilience to commit to his vision even when it seemed bound to fail. Forgive me for the spoiler – the most touching moment in my mind is when Nando and his friend Roberto climb the first mountain. They thought that, after two months in the Andes, they would finally see “the green valleys of Chile”. All they saw was an endless and hopeless series of mountain peaks. Nando inspired his friend not to give up.
The story resonated with me so much because it is a bold affirmation of life against all odds. I have had a few tough days (and I swear they were not related to the MBA application!) since watching the documentary, like everyone does in the ups-and-downs of their own daily life. In those days I thought of this story, and I felt an even deeper sense of courage and grit within me, which kept me pushing towards my objective or a resolution of any difficulty I might have been facing.
I truly hope I will be able to shake Nando’s hand one day and talk to him. It will be a dream come true. I have actually discovered on his website that he has given a leadership talk at both Harvard and Wharton business schools. So, who knows, perhaps he might consider Stanford as well in the future!