Leadership In the Mines

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Leadership In the Mines

I once had a boss who told me that our company’s leadership philosophy was called “Mushroom Management.”

“Mushroom management?” I asked, confused. I had not heard about it in any of the corporate training classes.

“Yeah, it's pretty simple," he said. “This is how we treat people: keep ‘em in the dark, feed ‘em a load of  crap, and can a bunch of ‘em every now and then.” He broke out into a roaring fit of laughter as I slunk down in my chair.

Good Boss, Bad Boss

I think we can safely say that “boss” and “leader” are not necessarily interchangeable terms these days.  Just because someone has been promoted to a position of greater responsibility does not mean that they have amassed the competence or people-smarts to be effective in that role. In fact, a lousy boss can make a worker's life miserable.

Bob Sutton, a professor of psychology at Stanford, has made a career out of calling out bad bosses. He is the author of the best-selling book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, and also has a Blog, Work Matters, where he doles out advice and research on boss behavior.

Sutton glibly pronounces an ominous tag line: people don’t quit organizations, they quit bad bosses. The impact managers have on the workplace is huge.

So what does a good boss look like? Sutton’s definition is very simple: He or she promotes both performance and humanity, and strikes a healthy balance between the two. Great leaders and bosses, he says, are both competent and benevolent.

Competence Plus Compassion

A couple of weeks ago, the world cheered as it watched the Chilean miners ascend from the ground in a miraculous rescue. In a recent post at his Work Matters Blog, Sutton dissected the leadership dynamics of the 54-year old foreman, Luis Urzua, who valiantly displayed both competent and benevolent leadership characteristics while attending to the physical and emotional needs of the miners during those very dark days while trapped underground with little food or knowledge of their impending rescue. 

Sutton recounts the evidence of Urzua’s exemplary leadership: he delegated other leaders to care for the spiritual and medical needs of the men. He organized their physical surroundings into work areas and sleep areas, and rationed food. He arranged simulated daylight by turning on the headlights of the trucks for a period of time each day. All of this allowed the workers to survive the ordeal, and avoid messy conflicts that could have easily occurred under such duress.

In short, Urzua displayed the five key elements that, according to Sutton, make for good leaders:

1. Perfectly Assertive: He pushed the men hard enough to maintain a disciplined routine, but not hard enough to push them over the edge

2. Grit: The best leaders know how to stick to the goal and persevere over time. Urzua showed in his attitude and actions his ability to push through the negative feelings and maintain focus on the hope of rescue.

3. Small Wins: Urzua viewed the final goal of escape out of the mines as a series of micro-victories along the way that would eventually get them to the end.

4. Avoids Power Poisoning: Urzua was very aware of how his actions and words affected the miner’s outlook and emotional state. Rather than being detached and distant, he saw himself as one of the team, knowing that they were all in it together.

5. Has His People’s Backs: In dealing with the rescuers up above, there were times when he cut calls short in order to protect the miners’ emotional needs. The men saw how Urzua was looking out for their best interests. 

Although the Chilean miner rescue is extreme, it illustrates the powerful affect a leader can have in bringing out the best of both performance and well-being. So take a good look around. You might be surprised how many of your own people feel as if they have been trapped in darkness for days.