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Interview with Gustavo Zerbino: May 2000
'A leader sets the example with little gestures'

Gustavo Zerbino is a doctor; he has 48 years old, and he’s the chairman of Merck Uruguay, he’s rugby player and father of four sons, he gives advises to other executives about how taking decisions. He had to decide whether to eat human meat or not in the Andes’ accident.

He was one of the 16 survivors of the Andes’ plane crash, in which 29 people died. He shares his experience at the Chilean mountains – in which he had to decide together with the rest of his friends whether to eat human meat from the dead bodies or not in order to survive- with other executives of the same company. Last week he was advising at the IESE about leadership and decision-making. He speaks passionately without giving a fain smile about his experience. And he ensures to be a happy man.

- You became an example for the business schools why do you think you generate so much interest among the executives?
- Firstly, life has given me the opportunity of living hard and critical situations. We got good results, we could overcome the situation and we could build a strategy and a plan which allowed us to survive. People realize that from our physical and spiritual potential we only use a 5 per cent. If we define what we want to do and we set a strategy to reach that we can obtain good results. I’m an example of how to overcome a difficult situation. I have a lot of things to learn yet, and I spend a lot of time with people who make diagnostics. I have to decide what things depend and what things don’t depend on me. I don’t attach to how things should be. When somebody learns that the things that happen to us are like clouds, they divide their functions and acquire a compromise to reach an objective. Life is a party and it has to be lived with optimism, humor I can’t waste enjoying the trip. That’s what I’ve learnt of the experience. We have a rudder inside.

- To decide whether or not eat a friend even in an extreme situation you have to be very strong….
- It isn’t a matter of strength, but of decision. I’m my first manipulator; I give direction to my life. I can’t be a victim. There are people who choose to have a good time or not. If I control myself I’m going to have a shock absorber to obtain an answer. I always communicate with myself.

- You was one of the people who leader the decision of eating human meat in order to survive..
- We had the information that it had energy. We needed the energy to climb the mountains and the only thing we had were dead bodies, which contained that energy we needed to get out of there. At first it bothered me just think about that, and then we started to accept it in our minds. We had lost about 20 kilos and to get out of there we needed to eat, all of us. It was discussion and analysis stage. We had the option of a collective suicide as well. It was hard because we had the common physical, mental and religious taboos. The first step was the most difficult one but then you keep walking. Taking decisions in a rationalist culture like ours is hard. We receive the information through our senses, but then we have to act. To do that you have to be responsible, believable and that is achieved by the action.

- In adverse moments what role does the teamwork play?
- There is no work if there is no team. Who is going to take charge of some situation is really unpredictable, but what is important is be all together. We were a rugby team, we did a trip to enjoy and we crashed into a mountain. We had to live hard experiences, but we lived beautiful experiences as well. That situation gave me the opportunity of create values and to have a service assessment. We lived every second as if it was the last one. We were very creative; our creativity awoke in unimaginable limits.

- Do true leaders come up in hard moments?
- Leaders are everywhere. It is in the adversity when they seem to have stepped forward but what really has happened is that somebody has stepped back. The leader is who gives examples by little gestures. At the mountain the leader was the one who laughed, the one who comforted you, it was somebody different each time. Being at 4.000 meters high you don’t have strength not even to stand up, but when you see that one partner with a broken leg stands up, that’s your leader. The love we felt in those adverse moments was stronger than ever. You have to accept the reality and decide from that point..

- If we make a comparison between the decisions you had to make with the decisions executives made every day the second ones may seem insignificants.
- The most difficult decision is always the tomorrow’s one. If you chose to be a manager you need to know that decisions are the hot iron you have to use every day. Decide is just change the course of the things. To be a manager, or to take a decision, you have to be prepared; you have to be brave enough to recognize to which things you aren’t qualified and be able to maintain any decision.

- Does remembering experiences function as a therapy to you?
- To me what happened at the mountains was like a pre-season is in sports. It allowed me to realize about reality. We were 16 experiences, 16 people. What happened was a reality but all of us lived it differently. When you are afraid and you feel badly, the spectrum starts shrinking. Feeling well or not a decision and people tend to delegate it to the environment.

- So you’ve decided to be happy for the rest of your life?
- My days are intense. It’s an explosion. I live each day as it were the last one. When I got angry I’m fierce because I try to give people my best and if that effort is not seen by the others then I got very angry.
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