Luis Urzúa, Shift Foreman – Leader of the Decade

So here’s the situation.  You’re the shift foreman for 32 other men.  They are descending into chaotic hopelessness.  Fist fights are breaking out.  Resources are nearly exhausted.   All you can really do is wait – hope – and panic.  Or…you can take the lead.  What do you do?

If you want to survive, you take the lead.  And that is exactly what Luis Urzúa, the 54 year old shift foreman did with his crew of 32 men over 2,000 feet underground.

He divided the men into three groups.  He gave them “specific/tangible” tasks to perform.  He evenly and fairly divided out their incredibly sparse resources.  And, he waited until they all made the surface before he left the mine.  And when he was greeted by President Sebastián Piñera, the President told him:  “Mr. Urzúa, your shift is over.”

Alex Ibanez/Chilean Presidential Press Office, via Associated Press


Luis Urzúa, one of the happiest moments of his life (EFE)


It’s simple:  Luis Urzúa is the leader of the decade.

This post has two parts:  the story of Urzúa, and the insight of Robert (Bob) Sutton, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best…and Learn from the Worst. (Bob Morris reviewed this book on our blog here).  Here’s the last paragraph of Bob’s review:

Sutton identifies the “what” and explains the “why” of a good or bad business decision or initiative, then focuses most of his attention on how to do what must be done while avoiding (or repairing) the damage of what should not be done.

The Story — Urzúa’s Leadership:
You can read much about what Urzúa actually did here: Chilean mine foreman works heroically to keep hope alive. Here are some excerpts:

For Urzúa, the command challenges began within moments of the mine collapse — he quickly ordered his men to huddle while he took three miners and scouted up the tunnel, searching for information on the massive cave-in. Correctly deducing that the men were trapped, Urzúa instituted a set of rules and regulations that were both methodically rigid and crucial to the men’s survival. He ordered that the mine’s stash of emergency food be rationed into minimal portions — two spoonfuls of tuna fish and half a glass of milk every 48 hours.

As rescuers spent 16 days in frustrated attempts to drill a rescue hole 700m down to the trapped men, Urzúa also used his training as a topographer to make detailed maps of the miners’ underground world, which includes more than 2km of tunnels, caves and a 35m2 refuge.

With a white Nissan Terrano pickup truck as his office, Urzúa drew maps; divided the miners’ world into a work area, a sleep area and a sanitary facility; and used the headlights of mining trucks to simulate sunlight in an attempt to provide a semblance of routine to the men’s daily lives. Urzúa also kept the men on a 12-hour shift schedule.

When the first letters from the trapped men arrived “top side,” rescue workers were heartened to see the messages carefully worded and dated, a sign that the miners were not disorientated.

“You think they wrote those letters in the moment? No,” Manalich (Chilean Minister of Health Jaime Manalich) said. “Urzúa had that material prepared. He knew there would be a rescue mission.”

As Urzúa’s 12-hour shift stretches to over a month of command and control, the former soccer coach has such complete dominion over the situation that on Friday last week during a daily medical conference call, he told Manalich to “keep it short, we have lots of work to do.”

The Chilean government has three separate rescue plans in place, called simply plans A, B and C. Each effort is a multimillion-dollar gamble; all count on Urzúa to organize a host of tasks for his mining crew.

Insight from Sutton, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss:
Luis Urzúa has been a good boss (make that a great boss).  Robert (Bob) Sutton, the author of Good Boss, Bad Boss, wrote a blog post entitled Luis Urzúa and the Trapped Miners: A Good Boss, Performance, and Humanity. Sutton was interviewed on CNN about Urzúa’s leadership in the mine (I cannot find the interview on-line), and on PRI’s The World, which I heard (listen to the app. 6 minute audio here).  Here are a few excerts (taken from the audio – maybe not a perfect transcription, but close):

A boss has two jobs:  One, to be technically competent. Two, he has to have the compassion and caring about people.

Sometimes we have this romanticized view of leadership that the boss is sort of a superhero who runs around doing everything himself.  (But Urzúa) organized teams below him; a medical team, a spiritual team.  He consistently puts his own needs last.

He let people know what was coming.  Give people as much predictabilty as possible.  Small wins…little sort of steps that they can take.

Very often, leadership is sort of described in a big, broad brush sort of notion.  What great bosses do is provide the little steps so that we can move along, and clearly he has/and his team have been doing that.

We all want to be on a team where the right people are in the right seats.

I suspect that the work of this remarkable leader, and his appointed team leaders, will get a lot of attention in the coming months. But I think it is time to go ahead and state the obvious: Luis Urzúa, Shift Foreman is the Leader of the Decade.

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