He made a pretty significant mistake. Some might call it a failure. Maybe a failure in judgment. Maybe a failure in managing risk. Maybe a failure in seeking to know relevant information before making an informed decision. The world watching is not aware of the circumstances that caused "Coach Ake" to lead a group of 12 boys into life-threatening conditions, so we are left to presume.
Starting With the Facts
Here is what we do know. Coach Ake was orphaned at age 10, and out of that experience he became a novice monk. He spent years in the monastery, leaving in his 20's to help care for his aging grandmother. While caring for her, he took the job as the assistant coach to the Wild Boars Soccer team.
We also know that Coach is "stateless", which is defined as "someone who does not have a nationality of any country," also noting that "some people are born stateless, while others become stateless over the course of their lives." Most of the stateless from Thailand are from hill tribes, with ancestral ties to their territory and ethnically different from the Thai majority. Others are children of illegal migrants who fled to Thailand. While Thailand now has a way for those that are stateless to become citizens, many are uneducated on what it takes to do that.
Another fact is that the Wild Boars Soccer club, consisting of multiple teams, is designed to take those boys that, for social or capability reasons, did not make their school team. Three of the Wild Boars trapped in the cave are also stateless and not recognized as citizens of Thailand (or any country for that matter).
The soccer club was founded to give local schoolboys in this impoverished community a place to go after their teachers had gone home. The founder states, “We are the club that would welcome and train anyone that wanted to play football.” While the soccer team does not generally carry bragging rights of a winning record, they boys celebrated their first region tournament win this past May.
We also know some things about the head coach, who was not with them in the cave, and left to suffer many sleepless nights worrying about his assistant coach and team that were lost and trapped. We know that his work with the Wild boars consumes him and his passion is to mentor them towards professional leagues, giving the under-privileged boys a chance at a successful future - and several of his previous boars have been scooped up by paying leagues. He spends 6 to 7 days a week with these boys and the assistant coach. He states that, “If they are sick, I take medicine to their homes. If they are in hospital, I stay with them there." He coaches, not because of his love for soccer - matter of fact, he's never been a soccer coach before in his life - but because he wants to help these boys achieve their dreams.
Back to Coach Ake. While in the cave, he ate as little as possible, with some reports saying the first 4 days he ate nothing - giving all of the food to the boys. He taught them to meditate, keeping them calm in the life-threatening situation. He gave them pointers to keep them safe, such as to move as little as possible so that you don't burn energy, and to drink the water dripping from the cave, rather than the muddy flood waters. We know he was the last one to emerge from the cave. The condition of the boys, both physically and emotionally, is largely attributed to the leadership of Coach Ake within the cave, and the fight for victory in soccer and in life, that these boys have experienced thus far in their short lives.
And finally, we know that the parents and community members that know Coach Ake, not one single person has dared to utter a negative word or point blame at the coach for the unlikely circumstances. Something the rest of the world didn't necessarily follow suit with. While many questioned his judgment, those who had much more reason to blame the young coach, hailed him as a hero.
Let's Look at Why and What We Can Learn
1) Strong leaders create other leaders. While likely some of the leadership we saw from Coach Ake can be attributed to his past experiences in life and at the monastery, the culture and leadership of the Wild Boar Soccer team, is also likely a major factor behind the selfless sacrifice demonstrated. The founder and the head coach both consistently demonstrate their love and deep desire for these boys to successfully navigate life. All coaches in the chain of command demonstrate the loyalty to one goal, and one goal only....the boys. When this is demonstrated in a culture and on a team - others learn this behavior, and in turn, become servant leaders themselves. And just as this concept would predict, you now see servant leadership behaviors emerging from even the youngest Boar, as the first question that he asks when he got out of the cave was, "How's my coach?"
2) Strong leaders serve. We saw this demonstrated from the head coach in his comment that he takes the boys medicine when they are sick, and stays with them in the hospital. We saw this demonstrated by Coach Ake in his sacrifice of food so that the boys would have it to eat. We saw this in the skills that he taught them while inside the cave. And we saw this when he was the last to exit the cave. There was no doubt from all of these actions, that the boys were the most important priority to Coach Ake - not himself. Strong leaders put the best interest of their team above self.
3) Strong leaders' character rises above all else. It is important for leaders to have both strong capabilities and competence, along with strong character. Which one is most important? This is the most perfect example that I have found that answers that question. Coach Ake demonstrated strong character consistently. Every parent that was interviewed, every community member that was asked, and every family member that spoke out all said the exact same things about him - that he consistently demonstrated integrity, kindness, love and willingness serving others. As a football coach he is regarded as a generous and patient teacher willing to help even the least skilled kids. Everyone who knows the coach completely rejected the idea that he was negligent in any way and they refused to place blame on him.
Why? Because character beats competence any day. His consistent character allowed for grace and forgiveness when his competence failed him.
Yes, there is no question that the young coach made a poor decision when leading the boys into the cave on June 23rd. Every single leader is going to make mistakes. What you do with those mistakes, how you lead your team after the mistake has occurred, and how your character defines WHO you are, is what matters. That's what we call failing forward, and when I fail - I will remember Coach Ake and all he has taught me through the Thai Cave Rescue.
If you ever doubted that leadership matters, may you doubt no longer. I can assure you Coach Ake knew how much his leadership mattered to whether or not the boys would survive. Leadership matters.
So let me ask you - if you were in the shoes of Coach Ake - what would those outside the cave say about you?
Next up, a look into the response from the country and world.
Until next time - lead strong,
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