Six Leadership Lessons from Putin's Mistakes

  • Investing in the unsexy stuff pays dividends for customers and ourselves.
  • Honest dealing and straight shooting are the best policy.
  • Difficult truths and challenging debate yield the best paths forward.
  • Bonus: Invest in relationships and relationship-building skills. Consider the impact on relationships when making business arrangements.
  • There's no substitute for business basics like ROI calculations, weighing opportunity costs, and risk assessment.
  • Recruit for insight, judgment, trustworthiness, and a belief in our mission — then get out of the way.
  • Keep focused on what's best for the organization, not ourselves.
April 11, 2022
~1936 words
~10 minutes
Published April 11, 2022
~1936 words // ~10 minutes
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Russia's invasion of Ukraine hasn't been the easy victory the world expected. What can we learn from some of Putin's mistakes?

1. Those who Rely on Personal Connections or Instill Fear Often Can't See Reality

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Rather than a political party or a military selecting top government advisers, Putin surrounds himself with familiar loyalists. Given the possibility of a coup, addressed elsewhere in this article, that might sound clever, but it also has its downside.

It might be misguided senses of friendship or loyalty that led Putin's advisers to deceive him about his military's prospects in Ukraine. Alternatively, it might have been that his advisers are afraid to provide him with accurate information he won't want to hear. After all, many of his counselors have now been fired or jailed. They oversold the Russian military's modernization, undersold the will of the Ukrainian people to fight for democracy, and likely oversold our division in the West.

The Lesson for Us: While it might be comfortable or gratifying to be surrounded by people we like who tell us how great we are, getting the truth and finding the best ideas requires setting aside our egos, examining hard facts, and listening to other people – even antagonists. Moreover, we have to make it clear in word and deed that it's safe to talk us so that folks will be willing to tell us the unvarnished truth. Without real information and robust debate, we miss out on the better paths forward.

2. Those with Extreme Power Dare to Take Extreme Risks

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It's common, especially in tech circles, to glorify risk-taking and even failure. However, there's a difference between, on the one hand, taking a risk and failing but recovering and, on the other hand, taking extreme risks and failing catastrophically.

The autocratic Putin has been growing his domestic power by poisoning some opponents and jailing or exiling others, censoring speech and the press, and using the Internet for mass surveillance and social control. Now, he uses that power to crush dissent, even arresting school children.

Putin's invasion of Ukraine risked isolating his country economically, scientifically, and otherwise. He has risked provoking a war with NATO that could cost millions of military lives or even result in the detonation of nuclear weapons on Russian soil. Yet, despite tanking the Russian economy and failing miserably at his goals of swiftly capturing Kyiv and further dividing the West, Putin's power in Russia has not faded. The risks to his country were not risks to him personally.

The Lesson for Us: When our own power results in a lack of resistance, we may feel encouraged to execute on our passion for a new innovation or a perceived market opportunity. But that could be exactly what brings about the downfall of our organization or business unit.

There's simply no substitute for business basics like ROI calculations, weighing opportunity costs, and risk identification, calculation, and mitigation.

3. Those who Centralize Power Squander Resources, Create Single Points of Failure, and Stifle Agility and Innovation

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Dictators like Putin must concern themselves with the possibility of a palace coup. In mitigation, the Russian military is heavily reliant on its officers and vertical command structure. Officers have a high degree of authority over their subordinates. The minister of defense has almost absolute power, and is subject only to Putin.

Centralization of operations can sometimes create efficiencies and limit the risks taken by less seasoned personnel, but extreme centralization of authority is problematic.

Without the empowerment to do so, enlisted soldiers and even mid-level officers can't be agile, taking initiative and seizing quickly-fading opportunities. They can't respond to the facts on the ground until they run their ideas up the chain of command and secure permission to act.

A result of this is that high-ranking officers with vast knowledge and experience, high value resources to be sure, must leave the spaces where they can efficiently and effectively leverage their unique skills and instead exercise their authority in the trenches.

Furthermore, when the command and control structure isn't available, then lower ranking soldiers may be left without a clear mandate. In other words, if the general is shot and the lines of communication are down, then the soldiers on the battlefield may be unable to act.

The Lesson for Us: We must recruit people not just for their hard skills but for their insight, judgment, trustworthiness, and their belief in our mission. Then, we have to provide them with the proper training and tools, and exercise discretion as to when to lend a guiding hand and when to stay out of their way.

When appropriate, we must train them to do the same in recruiting their own subordinates, so that they can continue to leverage their own unique skills instead of investing their time in putting out fires.

If we do this, then we're not a single point of failure. We can actually turn off our phones at dinner time now and then and know that Rome won't burn in our absence.

4. Those who Fight for their Personal Power Misuse Resources

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Putin's building and preserving his power means preventing a palace coup, manipulating media, and crushing public dissent. Naturally, this requires investing resources in these objectives.

The Rosgvardia, Russia's National Guard, has been given responsibility for crowd control and quashing dissent. This reduces the motivation of the military to attempt a coup, since they don't like being used for crowd control or political ends. The FSO (Federal Protective Service) protects Putin and other top leadership, but also duplicates the functions of other agencies and monitors the military. The Main Military-Political Administration is responsible for managing the political commissars. The Federal Security Service (FSB) has counterintelligence officers embedded directly in the Russian military to monitor the armed forces. And Putin has had to invest his own time and political skills to put all of this into place.

The Lesson for Us: If we're fighting for our own personal power, we're misusing our organization's resources. Even if we only use our own time and skills, they are resources themselves. Whenever we find ourselves doing this, we need to return to our focus on what's best for the organization.

5. Those who Ignore the Unsexy Stuff Will Regret It

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When we think of warfare, our initial thoughts aren't about procuring vehicles, supplying fuel, feeding troops, or doing research. Nevertheless, forgetting any one of these or the myriad other unglamorous tasks a military must perform can cripple its operational abilities. In Ukraine, the Russian army is running out of trucks, their tanks flounder for lack of fuel, their soldiers are going hungry, and it seems they didn't realize Ukraine would have great anti-tank systems.

The Lesson for Us: It's easy for us to get excited over adopting new technologies or adding a new product or feature that we think will delight our customers. It's not nearly as exciting to perform market research, improve code hygiene, and collaborate with others on our internal business processes. But all of these activities are essential and can have a high ROI.

When you add a new product feature, do you have research to indicate that the feature will move the needle for your organization? Or are you just investing resources where the product dev team thinks is cool? When your customers can't access your systems and services, will it take your developers a half hour to get everything back up and running? Or will it take three hours because they have to unpack messy, tangled systems to fix the problems. Will the right people start working on the problem immediately? Will your customers be sated with clear messaging? Or will the lack of defined business processes result in your website and your call center being overwhelmed with angry customers?

Investing in the unsexy stuff pays dividends for customers and in quality of life inside our organizations.

6. Those Who Obscure the Truth Will Alienate Others

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Russia shares ethnic, linguistic, religious, and historical ties with Ukraine. Many Ukrainians have relatives in Russia. This should be enough for Putin to forge significant alliances inside Ukraine, especially in the country's east where he has recognized the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which are partially controlled by Russian separatists.

However, Putin is telling obvious lies about the motivation for his invasion. Specifically, he claims that Ukraine is not a legitimate nation and that he's morally obligated to save Russian-speaking Ukrainians from a Nazist genocide.

The world at large recognizes Ukraine as an independent, sovereign nation. It has a constitution, a government, a military, and a currency. ‘Nuff said. His "de-nazification" lie is especially egregious as President Zelinsky is a Russian speaker. And Jewish. And his grandfather fought the Nazis. And some of his other relatives died in the Holocaust.

Inside Russia, Putin has fooled a lot of people, though not all – not even all of those in Donetsk and Luhansk. But the Russian government can't completely stop us from getting the truth to the Russian people. Furthermore, for the rest of the world, these lies only delegitimize Putin and galvanize us against him.

The Lesson for Us: Honest dealing and straight shooting are the best policy. Machiavellian machinations may tempt, but they're impossible to maintain forever. In the long run, such tactics only serve to alienate us from others.

7. Bonus: Those Who Alienate Everyone Have No One as Allies

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It's too early to say how things will go now that Russia has redefined its mission as a focus on Ukraine's eastern regions, but if Putin allows the Russian military to continue to operate as it has thus far, there are two reasons he will likely alienate all Ukrainians.

First, Russia has been killing and maiming savagely and indiscriminately – a maternity hospital, a nursing home for the elderly, a theater marked "children", and much more. The discoveries of what Russia left behind in Bucha were particularly grotesque. Second, the general incompetence shown by the Russian military thus far leaves me skeptical that its soldiers would be able to avoid violence against its would-be allies and their assets.

The Russian-backed separatists only control about a third of Donetsk and Luhansk. If what's been happening in Ukraine overall persists in the east, then even the separatists may turn on Russia and fight with the rest of Ukraine to preserve their lives, their property, and their humanity.

The Lesson for Us: We must take the time to cultivate relationships inside our own organizations, in professional organizations, in government, and across the regions where we do business. We should invest in the development of our verbal and nonverbal communications skills to ensure that we're communicating what we intend. It's also wise to pause a moment before making our business arrangements to consider how they will be perceived by those around us.

These lessons are not only worth remembering; they're worth conveying to our subordinates who may vary in business training, interpersonal skills, and live experience.