Anchor Lisa Mullins speaks with organizational psychologist Robert Sutton of Stanford University about how one of the Chilean miners acted as the epitome of the ‘good boss’ to his colleagues underground.
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LISA MULLINS: One relative of the trapped miners was quoted today as saying that the rescue operation cannot be considered a success until the last miner is up on the surface. The last miner is going to be Luis Urzua. Luis Urzua is the 54-year-old foreman who’s credited with taking charge down below shortly after the mining accident. He insisted on rationing food, organizing the space, he even creating shifts of simulated daylight, which all helped the miners cope, especially in those 17 dark, literally dark, days before rescuers first made contact with them. In organizational psychology terms, Luis Urzua has been a good boss. That’s according to Robert Sutton, who is professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University. He’s written about the leadership qualities of Luis Urzua. What is the evidence that this particular miner has operated like a good boss to his fellow miners for all this time?
ROBERT SUTTON: I think it’s a fascinating case and I’m probably overly obsessed with it. And if you start with Luis Urzua, to me the first thing is, and this is something that I wish many corporate bosses would do, is that the guy clearly has a perspective where he’s got two jobs. One is to be competent, to be technically competent, and as you mentioned, sort of rationing the food, organizing the space and so on. And then the second part is he has the compassion and caring about people and to me that’s the qualities of a good boss and you see it in sort of everything that he has done throughout there. So to men that would be number one. And the second thing which – sometimes we have this romanticized view of leadership, that the boss is this sort of superhero who runs around and does everything him or herself. And one of the great things that came out from the beginning is he sort of organized a team of three or four people below him to take care of other things. So one guy focuses more on taking care of the medical needs of folks. There’s other folks who are more involved in sort of the spiritual leadership of the group. And he sort of draws on the expertise so he has a team to draw from so he doesn’t have to personally do everything himself. And by the way, compare this to so many people in industry, you notice he consistently puts his own needs last. And just like they say in the military that officers eat last, he’s going to be the last guy out of the hole.
MULLINS: Yeah, although we should say that some people say that’s so he can set the world’s record as being the longest person to survive. But what you sound like you’re saying is that that’s not one of his characteristics.
SUTTON: To me that’s like way too much cynicism because if I was in that hole I would want to get out of there because the chance that something’s going to go wrong are pretty high. At every stage he has been selfless, so I think that even if he’s turned bad, let’s forgive him in this case.
MULLINS: Among the things that he did, one of the them was you said was rationing food. There were two spoons full of tuna fish and a glass of milk for each miner every 48 hours.
SUTTON: It doesn’t sound too good.
MULLINS: It doesn’t sound too good, but it worked though didn’t it and I wonder what he did to make it work, not only in a nutritional sense, but also to calm nerves, to keep things from turning dysfunctional because clearly the situation could have turned into at least mutiny. I mean that has happened in crisis situations before. How does one, and there’s so much we don’t know right now that we’ll be learning, but how does one prevent that from happening?
SUTTON: One thing that does help is that he was the authority below ground as it is, so you have an existing structure that they rely on.
MULLINS: He’s the shift supervisor at the time.
SUTTON: Yes, so he’s the boss as it is. So that helps. But the other thing, as you can see what this notion you mention of like in the beginning they turned the truck lights on for 12 hours to simulate daylight and then turned them off. And the other part from the reports, when they were done to, as you say a spoonful of tuna fish every 48 hours, it was predictable and he let people know what was coming. So in addition to sort of displaying confidence and competence, one of the most important things that you can do with any group in crisis or in fact any group that’s under stress at all, is to give people as much predictability over even little elements of their life in a very difficult situation. Psychologists sometimes call this “small wins.” Little sort of steps that they can take. And very often leadership is sort of described in this big, broad, brush sort of notion, but what great bosses do is they provide the little steps so that we can sort of move along and clearly he’s been doing that, and his team has been doing that, every day in sort of every way.
MULLINS: This gentleman, Luis Urzua, took the lead in terms of rationing, in terms of keeping morale up, et cetera, but there are other people who took leadership roles as well. The 62 year old you’re referring to, Mario Gomez, was known as kind of the spiritual guide. There’s someone else who’d apparently taken a very brief nursing course many years ago and he became the kind of medical monitor down there. It feels a little bit tawdry to assign certain labels to each of these guys like they were a character in a play. On the other hand, is it also the case that if you’re in a crisis situation such as this underground environment that you’re basic traits, your basic instincts, are going to surface?
SUTTON: The way that group psychologists would describe it is essentially what it is is a role structure emerged. And believe me we all want to be on a team where the right people are in the right seats. And you’ve got to make do with the best that you have. So to me that’s a characteristic of an effective group is that you take the material you’ve got and you put each person in a position where their skills can shine the most and it’s the best you got.
MULLINS: I’m curious as you continue to watch this case, what you’re going to try to find out about specifically as you study the kind of psychology of what happened beneath the ground?
SUTTON: The thing that I sort of want to know in the case of the leader, Luis, in the intense sort of stress I would like to have a sense of the really focused tiny little things that he and the other folks around him did to help one another get through this ordeal. And maybe there’s a lesson that all of us can learn from that for the more mundane challenges that we face in our lives.
MULLINS: Very nice to speak with you. Robert Sutton, professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University and the author of Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to be the Best and Learn from the Worst. Thanks very much, Robert.
SUTTON: Thank you.
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