Leadership from Below?

Leadership from below – that’s an oxymoron. Leaders lead from the top or the front – but from the bottom? That doesn’t make sense.

But that’s what happened in Chile when 33 miners were trapped around 2050 ft underground after the collapse of a tunnel. We now know that all of the 33 miners were brought out alive after a 69 day ordeal that literally exemplified among other things, leadership from the top and below. While the world focused its attention on the flawless operation run above ground, many of us may not realize that it was ‘leadership from below’ that kept the miners alive for the first 17 days before they were discovered.

Miners are a hardy lot and many of these folks had survived many an accident below ground. But this was different. Sticking together was going to keep them alive – the miners knew. But, in my opinion the person who took charge, organized the miners, motivated them, kept the team together, rationed their meager supplies among other things literally helped save the day. That person was Mr. Luis Urzu’a, the 54 year avuncular shift foreman, who displayed exemplary leadership.

Imagine rationing supplies that was meant only for 48 hours for a few people, to the 33 of them for 17 days. Mr. Urzu’a used the sparse resources at his disposal to ensure the team’s safety and survival. He and a colleague split the miners into 11 teams of 3 to form a sort of buddy system, each person in the team responsible for the other. Mr. Urzu’a formed a hierarchy that among other things had a team medic and a spiritual guide to help the miners. When they were discovered, Mr. Urzu’a became the spokesperson of the group and helped draw detailed maps of their location and of the various tunnels that surrounded them to help the drillers above ground. He ensured that the team remained cohesive throughout the ordeal and insisted that the team break bread together no matter what. And guess, who was the last miner to be extracted out as the ordeal came to an end – it was Mr. Urzu’a. Almost like the captain of a ship who insists on being the last one to leave his sinking ship.

Leadership from behind or below – call it whatever, I can’t but help compare the Chilean miner incident to the corporate world where a good many of us reside. Have we seen such leadership? Leadership in the trenches? Where the leader rubs shoulders with his men and fights alongside them?

I, for one surely have. I have worked on several projects where I have seen the last person to turn off the lights was the person who led the team. But you just don’t become a leader if you are the last person to turn off the lights – even a janitor can do that. You are that leader when you can inspire and motivate, when you are selfless, are a great manager, have the implicit trust of your team, gives and gets respect from your team among other things.

Have you ever experienced such leadership? What qualities do you look for in leader?

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