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Leading Thai cave rescue diver shares top leadership lessons

When John Volanthen was 14 years old, he found himself standing before a cave in the South of England. The passageway ahead was full of water and he could travel no farther.

But something about the cave and the underground world in front of him drew him in. “I wanted to see what was beyond that flooded section,” says Volanthen.

Since exploring that first cave, Volanthen has not only continued caving, but found that he had a particular aptitude for charting maps and developing plans to venture into caves no one else had entered before. Volanthen became increasingly in-demand for cave rescues and body recoveries, which is why, in 2018, he boarded a plane to Tham Luang, Thailand where he joined the international effort to rescue 12 boys, ages 11 to 16, and their soccer coach after unusually high monsoon flooding trapped the group deep within a cave. 

Over the course of 18 days in Thailand, Volanthen played a key role in planning and executing the mission to successfully rescue all 13 people. Following the mission, Volanthen returned to his job as an IT consultant—but as he began to reflect on his time in Thailand, he realized there were valuable lessons to share.  

In partnership with EdApp, the Australian-based mobile learning management company, Volanthen produced a six-part series of leadership lessons based on the teamwork that was required to save the boys in Thailand. The series, which launches globally today, comes following Volanthen’s book, Thirteen Lessons that Saved Thirteen Lives: The Thai Cave Rescue, and Thirteen lives, the most recent film adaptation of the events.

“Many of those lessons that I’d learned along the way over decades of a career had been applied in Thailand, and in some cases—from my perspective—they were crucial to success,” he said. “It seemed a very natural extension to try and perhaps offer those not just to people in my workplace, but to others.” 

Here are three key lessons he hopes people will take away from his new course:

1. Consider three time frames

As soon as Volanthen and fellow British diver Richard Stanton dove into the Tham Luang cave and found the 13 boys trapped 2.5 miles within, the pressure to take action was on. Volanthen and his fellow rescuers had to execute the near impossible: get all 13 people—with no diving experience—out of the cave before oxygen ran out.

“When anyone is in a high-pressure situation, you tend to find that it can very easily become unmanageable,” Volanthen says. “Things feel like they’re on top of you and you grind to a halt and you start to make poor decisions.” 

Whether you’re cave diving or about to give a presentation to a room full of strangers, Volanthen says looking at your situation from three different time frames can calm your nerves.

First, he asks, what’s going to happen in the next three seconds?  “That, underwater, is often where your next breath coming from,” he says. “Because if you’re not confident where that’s going to happen, then nothing else really matters.” 

Once you know how you’re going to make it through the next three seconds, you can focus on the next three minutes. What do you have to say or do in the immediate future? From there, Volanthen says, once you make it past those three minutes—which often feel the scariest—you can start to think about the long term.  

“It could be as simple as how am I going to get through one slide at a time,” Volanthen said. “That concept of working out what is actually really crucial now is a very good way of not becoming overwhelmed.”  

2. Influence quietly

When Volanthen arrived in Thailand, he joined a team of leading cave divers from 14 countries, including his own. Each diver brought with them their own planning, perspectives, and backgrounds. United by their common goal, Volanthen had to adapt to work alongside his new teammates without sacrificing the skills and expertise he brought to the table.  

Volanthen describes this moment like being on a ship. He knew his team was headed in the right direction, so rather than standing at the front, he was comfortable supporting his team from behind, even if that meant doing so quietly.

“Sometimes where your influence is most needed isn’t necessarily at that front tiller,” Volanthen says. “Maybe there are people that are struggling, maybe there are people who need assistance, or maybe the person who’s doing the steering is doing really great but they might need support.” 

Oftentimes, according to Volanthen, it’s only the leader at the helm who gets all the credit—but their job wouldn’t be possible without support from their teammates. When the American military team arrived in Thailand and presented their rescue plan, it was up to Volanthen and others to take what they were given and find a feasible way to execute the mission.  

“The fact that everybody had a slightly different agenda, a slightly different viewpoint, whether that was cultural or organization[al]—we perhaps weren’t expecting that,” Volanthen said. “But it proved to be quite a crucial part of the whole rescue.” 

3. Understand risk versus reward  

In most situations, people tend to agree that when it comes to weighing risks and rewards, doing nothing means nothing bad will happen. If you don’t take the risk, its potential consequences are eliminated. In Thailand, though, that logic was reversed.  

“If we did nothing, none of the boys would survive,” Volanthen says.  

Volanthen believes that too many people jump to a conclusion that low-risk necessarily means the best option. But he says people need to learn to consciously take risks. In becoming comfortable with risk, you can also learn how to plan for anything that could go wrong.  

“I look at it as a deck of cards. How am I going to make sure the cards fall in my favor?” Volanthen says. “Taking a risk is not a problem if you understand it and you’re prepared to accept the outcome.” 

When it comes to planning ahead and mapping out the potential risks and rewards that may lie ahead, sometimes the simplest solution is getting rest and clearing your mind. During the Thai cave rescue mission, some people argued against taking three full days to get the boys out.  

“But we simply couldn’t have gone straight back in again,” Volanthen recalls. “A good night’s sleep in between each [day] just allowed us a little bit more time to re-energize, but also to run through the plan to debrief and then re-brief.” 

From our jobs to our personal lives, living a life without risk is impossible. According to Volanthen, knowing how to prepare for the unexpected in times of calm allows for personal growth and confidence later on. “All of us will find ourselves in a crisis of some sort occasionally,” Volanthen says. “We can handle those [crises] better if we’ve had a little preparation or thought ahead of time.” 

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