Work Matters

Straight Talk and Solid Evidence About Organizational Life

Boss Luis Urzua and the Trapped Miners in Chile

A Classic Case of a Leadership, Performance, and Humanity

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 has already been trapped for a month and faces months more.  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.

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I was also taken with reports about the "leadership team" that has emerged.  The New York Times tells us that the oldest miner, 62 year-old Mario Gomez has "become the spiritual guide to his men, government officials said. He has organized a small subterranean chapel and is serving as unofficial aide to the psychologists working on the surface to cope with the miners' sadness and fear."  In addition, another miner, "Yonny Barrios, 50, the group's impromptu medical monitor. He is drawing on a six-month nursing course he took about 15 years ago to administer medicines and wellness tests that health officials are sending down through the 4-inch borehole and then analyzing in a laboratory on the surface."

This case is so striking to me because Urzua and his team have taken such impressive action to tend to both the performance and human needs of the group -- the blend of their competence and compassion is striking.  Moreover, if I go through the mindset of the best bosses discussed in the opening chapter of Good Boss, Bad Boss, the key elements are all there:

1. The men are being pushed by their leaders (especially Urzua) hard enough to maintain their discipline and order, but not so hard as to be overwhelmed (consistent with the notion that the best bosses strive to be perfectly assertive).

2. Uruza is showing extreme grit; in particular, a hallmark of gritty leaders is they treat life as marathon rather than a sprint,

3.  In related fashion, Uruza and his team -- and their advisers above -- are treating this ordeal as a small wins situation, where the final goal of escape (and not getting overwhelmed by this big hairy goal) depends on one tiny victory after another.

4. Uruza is clearly not suffering from detachment or power poisoning, as he is hyper-aware of how the large and small things he does affect the miners' moods, actions, and ability to survive; and he is not taking more goodies for himself than others.

5. 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.

P.S. For a take on how the miners can best survive this ordeal, check out this New York Times piece by psychiatrist Nick Kanas. 

Follow me on Twitter at work_matters.

See my book, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to be the best... and learn from the worst.

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Bob Sutton is an organizational psychologist, Stanford professor, and author of five books including bestseller The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss (September, 2010).

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