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Luis Urzua: Chile's underground leader

After nearly 70 days, the actual rescue of the Chilean miners is finally underway. Within hours, shift leader Luis Urzua could be pulled out of the rescue shaft, reportedly the last of the 33 miners who will return to the ground above.

That's as good a time as any to reflect upon the extraordinary leadership that's been on display amid this harrowing crisis. Yes, there have been countless examples from the rescue team and the Chilean government. And among the miners themselves, a cohort of leaders emerged--from elder miner Mario Gomez, who became something of a spiritual adviser, to Yonny Barrios, who took on the role of medical chief.

But it is Urzua's story that offers the most compelling lessons for other leaders. True, as the shift supervisor, Urzua was already the group's official leader. But he serves as a reminder of the important difference between nominal and actual leadership, and the role both play in a crisis.

Immediately after the miners became trapped, Urzua reportedly got all of them to share in the sacrifice by rationing their two-day supply of food to last 17 days--when they were finally discovered--and to eat their food together at the same time. He crafted a disciplined structure to their subterranean lives, setting up orderly work shifts and creating a map of the miners' topography to help rescuers. And he appealed to his compatriots' emotional needs, encouraging miners to talk on camera to their families, serving as a "calming" presence, according to one miner, and sharing the spotlight with others when he reportedly asked another miner to narrate a video requested by health officials.

Perhaps the greatest act of leadership Urzua has taken is that he will exit the mine last. While some stories have said the men all wanted to be the final one to ascend to the surface--each wanted to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records--Urzua is expected to be the last to return above ground. With the rescue going well at the time of this writing, that may not actually create significantly more risk for him. But the signal it sends to the other miners is true leadership, indeed.

Urzua could have done little with his official role as the "leader" of these trapped men. Many people who hold a manager's title are technically skilled, or may be more senior than others, or played all the right political games to achieve their position, but that hardly means they can rally a team of hungry, anxious men fighting for their lives in a cramped, dark, hot space half a mile below the earth. Urzua appears to have taken full responsibility amid the crisis, offering his colleagues order, structure and emotional support at a time when many would be fearing for their lives.

This is what bothers me so much about Corporate America's incessant use of the word "leader" to describe anyone in the company with a manager's role. What they are really deploying is a euphemism they hope will make the job of "managing" sound more glamorous.

Don't get me wrong--I'm all for encouraging people to aspire to the values of leadership, whatever their title, and people in charge don't need a two-month disaster to prove their mettle. But until they've been tested by a real emergency--whatever that may be in their line of work--they're leaders in name only. A title may make someone a manager, but it takes a crisis to make a leader.

By Jena McGregor

 |  October 12, 2010; 1:25 PM ET |  Category:  Crisis leadership , Leadership skills Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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The author alludes to, but doesn't quite state explicitly, that there are two types of leaders: hierarchical and functional.

Hierarchical leaders are leaders by fiat - i.e. only because someone with more power declares them to be so; those whom a hierarchical leader leads follow only out of fear.

Functional leaders are leaders because they have the respect of those whom they lead, and they follow the leader not out of fear, but out of respect.

Of course, any given leader can be either type, or in rare cases, both.

The most important leadership advice I ever received, from a Boy Scout Scoutmaster, was that if those you lead know that you're acting in their best interests, they'll follow you to hell and back. That advice has served me quite well.

Posted by: dfl1 | October 13, 2010 4:03 PM

DSKIFF needs to tell us how well the Exxon Valdez payout is going for the folks up in Alaska. Then he can compare that to the $20 billion President Obama demanded and got for the PEOPLE that were damaged by the blow out in the gulf. After all - Exxon has appealed the judgement more times than a person on death row and it has been REDUCED and REDUCED.

Had Bush been in charge we'd still be accusing the Axis of Evil for being responsible. And we'd still be looking for the WMDs.

Had BUSH been in charge - the folks on the Gulf would still be standing around like the folks at the dome in NOLA -- waiting for help.

Had Bush been in charge there would have been no disaster like there was no recession and when the financial debacle became the GORILLA in the room all of the conservatives jumped up and said let there be bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy would have destroyed the savings of millions of Americans who had their savings in big divident banks and mutual funds. I guess that is the conservative way -- destroy the little guy and do nothing to save them.

Conservatives seem to prefer letting the people sufer rather than making those responsible PAY and PAY now -- rather than 20 or 30 years later.

Posted by: Freethotlib | October 13, 2010 2:07 PM

Jena said. "A title may make someone a manager, but it takes a crisis to make a leader"
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
Spoken like a true "manager" ! :-)
A crisis doesn't "make" a leader. A crisis gives a leader the opportunity to demonstate Leadership!
Urzua WAS a leader when the crisis occurred. He immediately assumed the role of Leader and rallied the men, rationed the food and kept them busy.
Jenaa on the other hqnd had the terrible job of keeping her day care appointment and carpool schedules manageable - but she is the expert?!?!?

Posted by: thornegp2626 | October 13, 2010 12:17 PM

Watching Fox News will turn your brain to mush. I'm too late to help DSKIFF, but hopefully others of you will be encouraged to turn off America's foremost propaganda machine.

Posted by: VeloStrummer | October 13, 2010 11:39 AM

The world needs a "good news story" every once in a while.

I read about this and I think of the BP oil disaster.

Had our president been in charge:

There would have only been 6 miners reported missing.

Foreign assistance would have been rejected.

All mines would be shut down pending a review.

"We were on top of this the minute it happened" - three weeks later.

The mining company would have been shaken down for $20 billion for lost wages. The mining company would have paid for the funerals and death benefits after the administration's lack of experience resulted in the deaths of all those underground.

President Bush would be blamed.

President Obama would flash his smile and use "I" and "me" 824 times in his memorial speech.

Posted by: dskiff | October 13, 2010 10:44 AM

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