How Leaders Set the Tone

The Success of the Thai Soccer Coach

For two weeks people around the globe were glued to their television and computer screens searching for updates about 12 boys and their 25-year-old soccer coach who were trapped deep inside a cave in Northern Thailand. Finally, on July 10, the story that captivated and stunned the world came to an end when the final members of the soccer team exited the cave alive and well.  

“We’ve rescued everyone,” said Narongsak Osatanakorn, the former governor of Chiang Rai province and the lead rescue official. “We achieved a mission impossible.” 

And it certainly was an impossible mission. Divers and rescuers from all over the world came to help guide the young boys through narrow passages, in pitch dark, weighed down by heavy equipment. Each grueling trip took between nine and 11 hours. Some of the boys had to learn how to swim while waiting to be rescued.

The Thai Navy SEALS summarized the rescue well in a Facebook post that read: “We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what.”

What is most miraculous about this incredible rescue is the physical and mental health of the young boys when they emerged. Aside from being tired, hungry, and having lost some weight from weeks without proper nourishment, the boys were considered to be in good health after a short hospital stay.

While the rescue certainly required extraordinary feats in cave-diving expertise and medical know-how, it is steady leadership that played a significant role in helping the crisis come to a happy conclusion. The officials in charge of the rescue operations, the medical doctors, and the Thai SEAL divers were critical in pulling off the actual rescue, but it is the soccer coach who played the most critical role.

Having already gained their complete trust, Ekkapol Ake Chantawong, a former monk, kept the boys calm and focused and kept up their hopes that they would be found and rescued. It was his ability to set the tone in the cave that ensured rescuers would be able to get them out alive. If he had not done so successfully, the divers may have had to rescue boys who were dangerously anxious, panicked, or deeply traumatized. Not a state of mind you want someone to be in when you’re rescuing them from a life-or-death situation.

As a leader, it is your responsibility to set the tone for your team or organization. It is your actions and reactions that your team will follow during challenging situations and crises. However, you don’t have to wait for an epic crisis to start practicing setting the tone. Consider these three concepts during day-to-day operations to set you up for success in trying times.

1. Build Trust

We instinctually know that we will not follow someone we don’t trust, as it can be dangerous— physically, to our careers, or to the future of our businesses. Building trust takes time and effort on the part of the leader, and it can ensure that your team will follow you through thick and thin. But don’t forget! That trust can be lost in an instant if promises are broken or ethics are violated.

2. Check Your Optimism

I often say, “Nobody is going to be more optimistic than you are!” Be it completing a new project, overcoming a financial challenge, or getting through a crisis, if you shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, not sure how this is gonna go folks!” you just massively decreased your chance of success. Plus, you’ve lost trust and you will have a hard time being taken seriously in the future. Be an optimist and your team will be optimistic they can complete any task that comes their way!

3. Never Let Them See You Sweat

As a leader, you have to be steady, calm, and keep your cool under fire. Losing your temper in staff meetings or having a public emotional breakdown during a crisis will put you on a path to disaster. You will appear unapproachable and unable to lead with confidence and grace. Be honest, stay composed, and have your emotional moments behind closed doors.

When faced with a challenge or extreme crisis, it is the leader’s responsibility to set the tone. Your reactions will decide what direction a simple challenge or crisis will take – the road headed towards complete disaster or the road that will most likely lead to a positive outcome. But, don’t keep these steps in your back pocket for that worst-case scenario. Start practicing today so you can have success when challenges and crises arise.


Dr. Jeffrey McCausland, Founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership & Strategy, LLC is a retired Army Colonel with over 30 years of unique and challenging leadership experiences. As a retired military officer and veteran, Jeff’s work has taken him all over the world serving in a variety of command and staff positions in places such as the on National Security Council Staff, U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA, and the Pentagon.

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