Analyzing Vladimir Putin’s Style

I remember years ago reading about a research project that tried to assess the effectiveness of different styles of leadership. I was a graduate student at the time working for my MBA degree at Columbia University.

The experiment was built around two groups of children and two school teachers. A very stern teacher, a real taskmaster, led one group; a more laissez faire teacher led the other.

In both groups, the children had to put some toys together and the researchers measured, which group was more productive.

At the end of the experiment they found conclusively that the children led by the stern, autocratic teacher produced more toys. The test was over; the results tabulated. And then something unexpected happened, when the teachers left the room the children taught by the autocrat destroyed all the toys they had made.

I was reminded of this research during my recent consulting experience in Russia.

I was working with a very authoritarian corporate president. At every meeting, he was the only one to speak. Occasionally, one of his managers or staff members would ask a question. But never ever did anyone in the room disagree with him; or even show any discomfort with what he said.

I should add these were not some low level executives. They were in the multi-million dollars annual compensation level. Nevertheless, absolute silence. They never argued with him, never challenged. Never ever disagreed.

When I developed the president’s trust, I dared to coach him. I asked him if it would be ok in the next meeting to try something different. He would remain silent and give his managers a chance to speak. To see what might happen. Let us capitalize on the brains of Russian managers, I said. After all you do not use their knowledge if you do not let them speak.

He agreed.

And then all hell broke loose. I literally could not control the group. I have been able to control the cabinets of several nations, and, in more than one instance a Prime Minister. But, not here. The participants constantly interrupted each other, and refused to follow my rules of how to conduct the meeting. It was not group dynamics as I have known it in the past. It was chaos. Worst group experience of my life.

The President took over the meeting. He immediately screamed at everyone in the room and order returned. Instantly. Than he told me: “You see. People here are not used to working as a team. Democracy is not in our DNA.”

Russia has never had democracy. Participation based on mutual respect and trust, which are the values and cultural platform on which democracy operates, is alien to its culture.

The fact is the transition from an autocratic style to a democratic style is not a simple two-step. The transformation can even be dangerous if not done correctly. Chaos and anarchy are likely to follow. I mean, the result can be disastrous; it can lead to a dangerous disintegration.

Last year, President Putin opened a seminar at which I was a speaker. I sat about ten yards from him and watched him speak. Felt his energy. I would not like to be on a dark street with him unless he were on my side. The man does not smile. He vibrates energy that says: “do not mess with me or else…” Basically, he is very powerful and thus dangerous, if he is an adversary.

How much of his style is related to his personality and how much is it a reaction to the culture that demands it, I do not know. But there is an interplay between his personality and the fact that to maintain leadership he has to act in a way that “the crowd” expects.

In Russia, they do not respect non-authoritarian leaders. The late President Boris Yeltsin is considered a clown, and people I spoke to in Russia have no respect for him. They view him as the leader who destroyed the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, who is another “friendly” leader (in style) is not respected either. Medvedev, who is open and seeks democratization within Russia, is considered a lightweight and weak.

It is Putin people respect. He is strong. He is decisive. He is tsarist.

How much of Putin’s dictatorial, autocratic style can be attributed to his genes, to his innate personality, and how much is a response to what people expect, is not yet clear to me. But I believe that Putin is caught in a trap. Even if he wants to change, he cannot do it easily.

From my vantage point working often in Russia the past two years, the West is judging him harshly, ignoring the culture within which he operates and the limitations it places on him.

Just thinking

Sincerely,

Dr. Ichak Kalderon Adizes