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30th Anniversary
Interview with Fernando Parrado: October 2001
Fernando Parrado is one of the 16 survivors of the Andes’ plane crash of 1972.
This is his story and his lessons for today’s world.


At first sigh Fernando Parrado seems a normal man. He’s tall, sturdy, he has straight brown hair and he’s wearing a kaki chamois leather jacket, his gestures are a sign of his tranquility and patience.
Uruguayan successful business man who not only chairs a familiar business, Seler Parrado which is one of the biggest ironmonger’s in Uruguay, but also has two T.V. production companies and a partnership of a cable television company; He’s married since 1979 and has two daughters of 16 and 19-years-old. Not a single thing out of the ordinary life.

But he is in fact all but a normal guy. He’s exceptional.
Nando- as he is usually known- is one of the survivors, together with other 15 people, of one of the most famous air tragedies of the history: The crash of the Uruguayan’s Air Force plane at the Andes, between Argentina and Chile, in 1972.

The plane was taking the Old Christians –name of the rugby team from a Montevideo’s school- which was going to play in Santiago de Chile. One of the players was Nando. To that special event, Parrado had invited his mother and his little sister.
After a night in Mendoza, Argentina – they couldn’t cross the Andes in the planned moment due to bad weather conditions- the plane took off early. But the pilot made a bad calculation about his position and the plane crashed, leaving its tail in one place, the wings in another place and the entire fuselage in a snow and stone valley, where only the summits and the mountains which surrounded the place could be seen.

Fighting against the extremely low temperatures –less than 40 degrees below cero at night-, the hunger, the thirst, the crush –the fuselage was the only place where they could take refuge-, and against the boredom in the summit of one of the highest and inhospitable mountains in the world during 72 days, 16 people could survive. They could make it with all the probabilities working against them.

And it could be say that they made it in one part thanks to Nando, who together with a team-mate, Roberto Canessa, risked his life climbing mountains that even professional mountaineers consider
to be quite a feat. Without any technical equipment, without strengths in their bodies, without any food –except for some human meat the had in an impromptu suitcase, the only food they eat while were there- and with not enough protection against the cold, these two guys of 21 years-old set off on a ten days travesty until they could contact other human beings. Thank to these guys, the other 14 survivors who stayed up in the mountain, in a valley called “El Valle De Las Lágrimas”, could be rescued. The Valley stays just as it was 30 year ago, except for a little iron cross that rises over an impromptu stoned altar under which some of the victims are buried. Nando’s mother and sister are there –Eugenia and Susana respectively-, he had to bury them with his own hands, in an arid and freezing glacier. His mother died instantly. Susana survived the impact but died few days after it due to the injuries she had. She died in his brother’s arms.

“The hardest thing to me was burying my mother and my sister with my own hands in the ice” says Nando.
From that hart-rending experience in the personal pint of view lots of lessons remained that Nando has made sure of apply in his life, and that today are from great application in the business world. To overcome the tragedy the survivors had to learn how to work in teams, to be always paying attention to the good ideas, to innovate, to make decisions in extreme pressure conditions. They were besieged by the death for two months, but they beat it. That makes what they did at the mountains very valid –their way of working, of taking decisions, of lead-.

“The biggest lesson for me had to do, mostly, with taking decisions”, says Nando, sat at a table in a hotel at San Francisco, drinking a Coca-Cola and talking about his experience.
“It seems ridiculous what I’m going to say, but generally taking a decision doesn’t take me more than 30 seconds, no matter how hard it is. Because at the Andes I decided in 30 the way in which I was going to die. When I was at the mountains and saw what I had in front of my eyes I was dead”.

He was remembering his crossing to be rescued. He remembered the moment when, after climbing to the summit of the highest mountain that could be seen from the place where the fuselage was, he realized that they weren’t where he thought –at the West, near Chile- but that the only things they had ahead were more snow, more stones, more nothing. “It was at that moment that I decided to die walking and no watching into my friend eyes [Canessa]. Any other decision compared with the decision of how are you going to die is a joke. So every time I have to decide something I remember that moment”

Taking decision rapidly is a great virtue. Virtue that today’s businessmen, who are immersed in a competitive world, need to have. Those who don’t decide, die. “ If I take the wrong decision I have time to correct it”, says Parrado “It’s far better decide and make mistakes than not taking decisions, because there is always time to go back” Without knowing it, in the middle of nowhere, Nando learnt a lesson which is essential in the business world: The biggest risk of all is decide not to take risks. Nothing is more dangerous than the status quo.

To illustrate that first lesson, Nando sets an example: “What we had to eat (human meat) is a perfect example of decision-making. Is logical consequence of the time, of the way in which your mind starts to think there. There were just three options: 1) wait and die all together in the plane’s fuselage looking at each other eyes, but nobody wanted that option; 2) commit massive suicide, go hand in hand and jump into a crevasse. 3) eat human meat” Although it was a dramatic decision, they all decided in group to opt for the third option.

But Nando has not only learnt about decisions. He learnt as well that although taking decisions democratically is a good option for some moments, there is a time in which somebody has to decide, because is not always easy for a group to reach a decision. The person who decides that becomes the leader of that organization or in this case the leader of a group of young men fighting day after day, second by second, for their lives. “The leader is not always the person who is called in that way”, reflects Nando Parrado. “With the time, leaders were changing for his own actions. Nobody said: you are going to be our leader. There were three or four leaders who leaded us trough their actions, without knowing it. It was impossible to think further than some minutes ahead because we were freezing. how could we think about postulate a leader?

Lesson number two: leaders haven’t born being leaders but they develop their skills on the way. They develop with their actions. Important lesson for today’s businessmen, who in general believe they deserve to be the next on in the leadership of an company just for being so-and-so or for having a relationship with every Tom, Dick and Harry. They are wrong. The experience, the execution, the results all of this make you a leader. If you don’t have these qualities you’re not going to exercise a good leadership. Parrado’s words concerning this: “Leaders are normal people who have extraordinary actions in difficult situations”. To Nando a leader has to have personality, he has to be charismatic without knowing it , in that way people will believe in him and finally he must do things properly. Nobody follows a leader if he doesn’t do the right things. In other words, leaders are those who achieve good results, those who reach their purposes.

But leaders don’t exist if there isn’t any group. Contrary to that, true leaders can work in a team and let the others work too, they let each member to contribute with their experiences to make the team function as a whole. “We were supportive with each other, we weren’t selfish, which is very important. We have never been so good working in teams as we were at the Andes”, says Nando
Third lesson: teamwork. You achieve good results only if you do the things together, coordinately. There are few people able to achieve exceptional results, lots of teams able to generate those exceptional results. The fact that Nando Parrado is alive proves that. Nobody would have survived that accident if it had been alone.

A team, however, don’t function just because they do. They need to have an objective. It’s useless having the best group of people, the most coordinated one, the best executor, if they don’t know where they are going to. For them the objective must be not only unique, but also sheared. Every member of the group must be totally convinced of the objective and that they are going to achieve it, to reach it. “Our goal was survive… all our instinct, all our strength, all our intelligence, the teamwork, all designated to a unique and only objective: get out of that place on our own (because we had heard on the radio that nobody was going to rescue us). In my personal case I knew that I should keep all my strengths to the summer (the plane crashed in October, winter at the southern hemisphere) because we couldn’t even try to get out of there with that cold, you sink into the snow up to your waist. I used to say: If I become sad and cry, I’m going to lose salt through my tears. So, I can’t afford the luxury of losing that energy. I closed my mind to all suffering and I turned into a survivor machine. My only objective: getting out of there alive”

It was that obsession with the objectives and results that kept Nando and his friends alive. That obsession and visualization is what keep companies alive.
Fourth lesson: Those companies with a clear objective, that know what they want to do and where they want to go, and execute their action always thinking about reaching that place, are the ones which achieve their goals.

Those ones that don’t have a clear objective, won’t make it. That’s life, that’s business. And the daily actions have to be designated to that objective too, to justify it.
“We had a defined objective in time, place, space, what were we going to do, everything… the rest was a daily survival routine, which justified the objective instead of clouded it”, says Nando about the balance of the long term objectives and the short term ones, good advise to the businessmen who in general don’t make balance between routine and final goal.

Another lesson he learnt at the peak of the mountain is that creativity is needed to find solutions. You have to innovate. During the time at the mountain the survivors had to put all their creativity to get out of there alive. There are lots of examples of creative thought. The suitcases’ wall that the team captain built to stop the wind entering into the fuselage, as a single example, saved their lives. If that wall hadn’t existed, they would have frozen just on the first night.

Canessa, Nando’s crossing mate, invented also a sort of hammock to support the most wounded people, made up with belts and two metal poles (although finally both people who was there died due to their weakness, they were alive because they were comfortable).

Equally creative the invention to melt the snow and in that way drink water, which in Parrado’s opinion was more problematic than the food (human body become dehydrated five times faster in 11.500 feet high, which was the high of the fuselage, over the sea level). To melt the snow they make plates with pieces of aluminum they found. The sunlight melted the ice just to drink it on the day. Finally with a cold insulator they found in the plane’s tail they made a sleeping bag to Parrado and Canessa’s crossing. Without it they would have died froze in some of the summits they climbed.
The present

Two days after talking with Punto-com, Nando Parrado told his story to an audience of 15.000 people at San Francisco’s Centre of Conventions. When he finished, the audience who had heard speechless what he told, stood up and clapped during five minutes, not only for his courage but also for his determination.

And above all for his most important lesson: “Today I can define which things are important and which ones are not. I like business and I want to be successful but only if the other aspects of my life are O.K. We can’t deny that today our families are the most important thing for us. A hundred per cent of the people who were at the Andes wanted to came back to their families, not to their contracts, studies or money. We burnt all the money of the plane (7.000 dollars); we burnt it to obtain warmth. That means that money is important only if the other things are on its right place. I’d rather a successful family than a successful business”.
That’s Nando. Those are his lessons.

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