Bob Sutton on Luis Urzua, the Trapped Miners and Leadership

Trapped Miners Rescue-San Jose Mine, Copiapo, ...Image by DigitalGlobe-Imagery via FlickrVia Work Matters from one of our favorite authors, Bob Sutton:

I first wrote this post on September 6th.  I am highlighting it today to celebrate the rescue and to show some of the nuances of Luis Urzua’s impressive leadership.

When people ask me for one sentence summary of a great boss, I answer “He or she promotes both performance and humanity, and strikes a healthy balance between the two when trade-offs are necessary.”   In Good Boss, Bad Boss, I quote a cool 2008 American Psychologist article by Mark Van Vugt, Robert Hogan, and Robert Kaiser who, after examining descriptions of admired and effective leaders in settings ranging from ancient human tribes to modern corporations and sports teams, conclude the best leaders are both “competent and benevolent.”

In light of this perspective, I am intrigued with reports (see here and here, for example) about 54 year-old foreman Luis Urzua and the impressive steps he is taking to oversee, organize, protect, and tend to the emotional needs of the 33 men trapped in the mine in Chile — a group that faces months trapped underground.  Urzua kept the men alive by immediately rationing food (two spoonfuls of tuna and a glass of milk every 48 hours for each man), which enabled them to survive and to avoid dysfunctional conflict until food started arriving through a small hole drilled be rescuers — a crucial move because none the miners had run out of food 48 hours before despite the rationing.  Uruza has organized the underground space (he is a skilled topographer) into a work area, sleeping facility, and so on, and is keeping the men on 12 hour shifts by using the headlights of trucks in the mine to simulate daylight.  He not only needs to keep the group healthy and focused to survive the ordeal, he  needs to stay in control because, under some rescue scenarios, the men will need to remove many tons of rocks to help with their own rescue operations.
There is no doubt that he “has his people’s backs,” that he will do whatever is possible to protect them.  One way that good leaders protect their people is by limiting outside intrusion, and you could see this mindset when he urged experts to keep the medical conference call short because “We have lots of work to do.”

This is clearly an extreme situation, and you could argue that parts of it don’t transfer well to the mundane organizational settings where most us work.  But I do think that extreme situations sometimes bring into focus what human groups need to thrive in terms of both performance and well-being, and what the best leaders do to help make that happen.  Indeed, I gleaned the five elements of the mindset of great bosses — being just assertive enough, grit, small wins, avoiding power poisoning (and being aware that followers are watching the boss very closely), having people’s backs largely from research and cases in ordinary and mundane settings.

Read the whole thing here.

The last man to be rescued after 60 days plus of being trapped underground in Chile’s San Jose mine is you guess it, foreman Luis Urzua.