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Chile's President to Luis Urzua: "You acted like a good boss"

As readers of Work Matters know, like so many of us, I am quite obsessed with the (now) feel-good story about the trapped miners and their rescue. I was taken with Luis Urzua's leadership, especially during the first couple of weeks when they were trapped with little food and no knowledge of the efforts being made to rescue them. I love what the President said to Luis, of course, because I am quite focused on good and bad bosses these days—given that is what my new book is about. Here is the story and the exchange was reported as follows:

"A 70-day shift is a very long shift," said Mr. Urzua, standing before Chilean President Sebastien Pinera to symbolically hand over his leadership. "The first days were very difficult." Mr. Pinera told the miner: "You acted like a good boss. I receive your shift."

Lovely, isn't it?

I had written a post in early September called "Luis Urzua and the Trapped Miners: A Good Boss, Performance, and Humanity," which considered the reasons that he appeared to be such a competent and compassionate leader. That post emphasized how he was a good boss because he understood how to be "perfectly assertive,had grit, used the power of small wins, understood how to stay "in tune" with the emotional needs of his people, and he "had their backs." As the stories have been been emerging about what Urzua did in those scary early days, another theme emerges, a set of lessons, that are also worth mentioning. As I write in Good Boss, Bad Boss and also in my HBR article on being a good boss in a bad economy, when people are facing stress, fear, and uncertainty of any kind, the "recipe" that good leaders follow reflects four main ingredients:

1. Prediction. In crisis situations, the big things—like whether the rescue will happen or the next round of layoffs will cost you your job—are often impossible to forecast. But a useful palliative is create as much predictability in terms of the small things—when meals occur, what they will be, and other little details of life. You could see with how Urzua rationed the food in the early scary days and in how they used the lights underground—including the headlights of trucks—to simulate 12 hours "days."

2. Understanding. Even when people can't change elements that cause distress, understanding why bad things have happened and the implications for what people should do know is very important. This not only helps people understand what to do, it gives them a sense of purpose. Urzua and his team were kept apprised of the details of the three rescuse attempts and instructed what the implications were for how they could themselves and why.

3. Control. Along related lines, even when people can't influence the final outcome—including bad ones (unlike the miners). when there are elements of their lives they can have some "Mastery" over, it has a big impact. You could see it in their efforts to stay in physical shape (I love the story about the miner who ran miles each day), and even in Luis Urzua's expressions of concerned that, although they had cleaned up things as well as possible before leaving the cave, there was a lot grabage that they couldn't get rid of. Also, the efforts of 62 year old Mario Gomez as the group's spirital guide was important—he organized a small chapel, led the men in prayer, and counseled them about their fears and other emotional issue—- both provided a way to introduce predictability in their lives and provided a way they could take control over their time.

4. Compassion. The compassion that Urzua conveyed for his men was evident in his concern for them, and also the concern for others. He was completely devoted to their safety, physical health, and well-being—as all the reports show. And I loved that he was the last miner out... it reminded me of the old saying "officers eat least." I would be very curious to know the more micro-details of his demeanor during the ordeal. The reports thus far is that he was very calm, which is the best possible emotion for a leader to convey and spread during scary times.

I should also note that prediction, understanding, control, and compassion isn't just a recipe for crises, following these four guidelines can help bosses do a better job of all sorts of mundane but important things, especially when doing management "dirty work" like dealing with employees who are poor performers or are behaving in destructive ways.

Reprinted from Work Matters

Robert I. Sutton, PhD is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. His latest book is Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best...and Survive the Worst. His previous book is The New York Times bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. Follow him at