Chilean Miners: Leadership Lessons from Luis Urzua

Last Updated Oct 14, 2010 6:50 PM EDT

photo courtesy of Hugo Infante, Government of Chile, via Flickr
The heroic rescue of 33 Chilean miners, trapped for 69 days 2,000 feet below the ground, has riveted viewers around the world. But the most miraculous part of the story is not the rescue. The real miracle -- and most inspiring part of this story -- is how shift boss Luis Urzua managed to overcome darkness, despair and the prospect of starvation to mobilize a team, who worked together to ensure that every man survived and thrived in the worst of conditions.

The full story is certain to launch dozens of books and movies. But what we know today already provides compelling lessons about leadership that every corporate manager should study. We know that leadership is not about having a position of power, or getting people to do your bidding out of fear. True leaders like Luis Urzua are followed heart and soul, even in circumstances that seem impossible and hopeless.

What made Luis Urzua that leader?

Reputation: Urzua, the mine's shift leader, had a reputation for protecting and caring for his team, according to a former employee named Robinson Marquez. Brittan's Mirror quoted Marquez as saying: "He is very protective of his people and obviously loves them." This reputation had to be pivotal when he needed to convince 32 other hungry miners, many of whom thought they'd be rescued within days, to ration two-days worth of supplies to last the 17 full days before they were discovered. The miners, at Urzua's urging, reportedly ate one teaspoon of tuna and a half-glass of milk each 48 hours.

Teamwork: Everyone wants to survive. In crisis, it's tough to keep people focused on the team rather than themselves. One of the techniques Urzua used to remind the miners that they were in this together was to have everyone eat their paltry rations in the same spot at the same time. Knowing that there could be no cheating, that no one had more than another, had to help obviate the natural tendency to break away from the team into a every-man-for-himself mentality that would have sunk them all. By the end, the miners were so bonded that they asked rescuers if they could all remain on the site until the last man was brought to the surface. Not surprisingly, Urzua was that last man.

Focus: What differentiates people able to thrive in clutch situations is an unrelenting focus on the job at hand and the ability to live in the moment, said Paul Sullivan, author of "Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don't." Don't over think the obstacles, he added in an interview. In an impossible situation, thinking about the chance of success is a sure way to fail. Clutch players focus on the plan of action, Sullivan said. Focus on the goal, not the odds.

Everything Urzua had his men do was focused on getting out and surviving in the interim. In addition to rationing food, he had the men use the heavy equipment in the mine to dig to fresh water. This equipment was used sparingly because it would foul their air. He also had men map their tunnel and build a latrine. These actions not only helped them have the hydration and oxygen needed, it gave them hope and direction. After all, there's no point in having a well if you're going to starve. By saying "we need a well," Urzua was saying, "We will survive. Let's focus on how."

Discipline: Every miner had a job. One became the religious leader; others helped map their tunnel to see the potential ways out. Urzua organized work shifts, giving each miner responsibilities that kept them busy, improved their living conditions and emphasized that individual's importance to the the team. They maintained a schedule, shining lights to simulate day and night. They also maintained a strict diet even after they were delivered food. They were focused on a goal -- getting out. They needed to be disciplined to keep their living conditions acceptable and keep their waistlines in check to be lifted to safety.

Shared credit: When it came time to speak to people at the surface, Urzua stepped aside, preferring to have another miner narrate a video requested by health officials. While miners in and out of the shaft talked about Urzua's leadership, Urzua talked about the skills and welfare of his men.

Higher purpose: There's a wonderful scene in the Pulitzer Prize winning novel Killer Angels that describes what happened when Union leader Joshua Chamberlain was left in charge of more than 100 deserters immediately before the battle of Gettysburg. Chamberlain was told he could guard or shoot the men, who had been lied to and demoralized by their previous commander and just wanted to go home. He didn't have enough soldiers to guard them. He refused to shoot them.

Instead, Chamberlain spoke to the men, explaining why he was in this battle and why he felt he had no choice but to fight for the "dignity of man." They could stay where they were or they could follow him and fight, Chamberlain told them. If they followed him, he promised to fight for their rights, like he was fighting for the rights of every man. The deserters voluntarily followed Chamberlain into battle and proved pivotal in turning the tide of the war.

Keeping your job is not enough inspiration to make you follow direction -- to make you pull for a team, said Simon Sinek, author of "Start With Why" in this fascinating video. Even the threat of death may not be enough.

Great leaders are able to inspire by adhering to what Sinek calls "the golden circle." You start with why and move to how. We haven't heard the full of the Chilean miner's ordeal yet, but there's a good chance that Urzua appealed to their higher purpose. I'm going to guess that he told the miners that they must survive because they were needed at home by their wives, their mothers, their children. They needed to overcome darkness, starvation and despair because they served a bigger purpose in the world. Now, he said, let's dig a well.

Here's the Sinek video for those who want to watch:

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