Putin, the leader

In this article I want to extract four leadership lessons from a character who has been able to stay at the head of the largest country in the world for more than 20 years, has been chosen the most powerful person in the world by Forbes magazine for four consecutive years and, in the In the last month, he has been able to keep leaders of countries more powerful than his own in suspense. This is Vladimir Putin.

In history there have been many types of leaders with different styles of exercising power. In the attached graph we have some of them in pairs: antagonists, when not staunch enemies. But they all have something very important in common, they all have followers, they are able to convince their tribe to follow them. Thus, Putin won the last elections with 76.69 percent of the votes. Vlodomir Zelensky, his opponent, got 73% of the votes on his side in the 2019 Ukrainian elections. Different leaderships, equal support from his followers.

But beyond the followers you have, the important thing, the really defining thing, is in the decisions you make and, above all, in the results you achieve with your decisions. The votes tend to be volatile, the results endure.

First lesson: the type of leadership you practice does not have to condition your level of engagement as a leader.

Putin has worked on a long-term strategic vision in a sustained manner over time. Since he was appointed President, he has had 22 years to transform the country, with a firm and sustained vision. His transformational roadmap has focused on three key aspects:

  • The structure of the country. He has reduced from 89 to 7 federal districts, he has reformed the Duma or parliament, eliminating territorial representation. In short, he has centralized the state and has directly controlled all the springs of power that sustain it.
  • The army. He has kept his army up to date based on different military campaigns, which have served as a test and as a lever for national reaffirmation. Thus, in 1999, he started the second Chechen war, in 2008, he led the South Ossetian war, in 2014 Putin ordered the invasion of the Crimean peninsula. Lastly, in 2015 he authorized Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war.
  • The economy. When he came to power he changed the composition of the powerful Russian oligarchy, to limit his power to the realm of business so that they would stop interfering in politics. In the economic sphere, his performance has been successful, given the unfortunate starting situation after the dismantling of the USSR. He has managed to reduce the public debt from 92% in 1999 to 14% in 2019, as well as increase its reserves and the dependence of its raw materials on Western countries (especially Germany and Italy).

Unlike Putin, the leaders of Western countries have acted under the tactics of the short or medium term, never with a view beyond the four years of the next elections.

It seems like a winning strategy, but it has a weak point: it is not based on a realistic diagnosis of its starting situation. Thus, the reality is that Russia is far from being a power of the 21st century. His power is only based on one of the three factors that make a country a great power; the economic, the technological and the military. Thus, the United States continues to be the only power that dominates all three factors. China and Europe are strong economically and technologically, but not militarily (note, China is in it), but Russia is only powerful militarily, since a country with a GDP similar to Italy’s. Ambition is necessary, realism is essential.

Second lesson: To have a winning strategy, you need more than a tribe committed to an ideal, you need a realistic view of your starting situation.

In a hyper-connected world, the truth always ends up emerging. Putin was director of the Federal Security Service (successor to the KGB). He thus appears as a spy turned President, he is not carried away by emotions, he is cold and calculating, and he has maintained an attitude of controlling communication in his country.

But I think he has made three major mistakes in managing that communication:

  • Lack of diversity in his teams. He has pushed critics aside and surrounded himself with unconditional supporters. These belong to two different groups: the Kremlin oligarchs and hawks known as siloviki or ‘the executors’ All of them with almost identical profiles: men, between 60 and 70 years old, with training and trajectories similar to theirs.
  • An ultra-charismatic leadership. Being a charismatic leader is not a problem, in fact there are studies that state that 25% of leaders practice this type of leadership. The problem appears when that type of leadership is combined with a coercive style based on the fear factor. To illustrate this, you can see the authentic ‘slapstick’ he throws in public and before the television cameras at Sergey Naryshinkin, his intelligence chief.
  • Lack of empathy. When you realize how he addresses his close associates, how he sits away from them at huge tables, he seems to be suffering from Hubris Syndrome or arrogance syndrome. It is suffered by some people who hold great power and who end up believing that they are called to carry out great works; they show a tendency to grandiosity and omnipotence and are incapable of listening, proving impervious to criticism.

Third lesson: In the 21st century, communication cannot be controlled, and it can hardly be managed. Empathy should be your guide.

Building teams and not groups of followers is the great task of the leader. For almost everyone else you have technology. But for the team to be really useful, it must provide lateral, diverse visions, not just a predisposition towards the execution of the leader’s ideas. And for this, it must generate trust through empathy, a key competence in the SXXI. Because yes, today Leading consists of finding answers in a collaborative way instead of doing it in an individual way. Getting the team to maintain a constant will at the service of the vision but preferring to be respected than to be loved by the team. And the best way to become a respected leader is by respecting the opinion of those led.

Fourth lesson: Now, building teams is the great job of leaders. The main task of the leader is to build leaders, not followers, from empathy.