[November 28, 2014] A theme in the understanding of leadership is that there are so many variations on its style and quality, that it keeps academics in business simply studying the complexities of the subject. To those of us who want to learn directly from the successes of leaders, we take a more nuanced look at how current leaders achieve significant accomplishments. Today, I’ll provide a short review of the Russia President, Vladimir Putin.
Putin is an excellent example of a modern day world leader to study – his successes actually make other world leaders pale in comparison. I wrote about his leadership in an earlier post and recommend it for background (see link). I also recommend an article published today on Putin by Tom Parfitt of the UK’s The Telegraph1. Parfitt has done a pretty good job of laying out why Putin has, what he calls, a “popularity cult.” I think calling Putin’s popularity a cult is a bit misleading because Parfit does so in a pejorative and subjective way.
Putin is very popular in Russia. Yet outside Russia, Putin is seen as unpredictable, potentially destructive, cannot be controlled, who makes up things as he goes along, and boosts of Russia’s “superior place in the world.” We do need to remember that Putin is a Communist, although socialist is a better descriptive term because with the concept of socialism we get all the baggage of that system.
What makes Putin so popular in Russia? Regardless of the reasons, and they follow below, one will find the same reasons across all spectrums of the most well-known leaders throughout history. The reason I think is that Putin has figured out what leadership really means. Quick note to my readers: Let’s not get too distracted by my positive comments because I’m not advocating for socialism or Putin-style government. There are some good lessons for leaders to emulate and therefore the purpose of this post.
Putin is most popular when he is decisive. If we can use opinion polls as an indicator of popularity (yes, they do have some merit), then we see that Putin’s popularity was at its height when he sent troops into the country of Georgia and later into Chechnya, and when the Sochi Olympic games were ongoing. He was clear on what he wanted to do and made a quick successful decision to use military forces.
Putin understands the Russian past and the long-standing desire to be a great civilization. His actions to take Crimea back into the Russian fold plays to this desire. Crimea has a significant place in Russian patriotic history. Much of the country has hungered for the return of Crimea since it was added to the Ukraine in the early 1950s. By bringing it back to the Russian motherland, he has swelled the pride of his country.
Putin understands the importance of having an outside threat to Russia since it brings people together. He plays up the threat of the United States, Europe and much of the West. Some real threats from international sanctions imposed on his country but also some imaginative threats in that he believes the U.S. is targeting Russia for political reasons. By making himself the cheerleader of Russia he endears himself as the motherland’s heroic figure.
Putin also uses the legal system and the media to marginalize any political opponents. His opponents have been charged with various crimes and public accusations which have had a dampening effect on them. The media is a big supporter of Putin and repeatedly show him as a strong fatherly figure. This is what Parfitt meant when he wrote of the cult status of Putin. Some will tell us that the media is controlled and has less freedom than Western media. While there is some truth to the charge, the effect of their media is nevertheless not unlike Western media in elevating specific persons to elite status.
Putin understands the importance of a strong economy and its impact of the citizenry. Since Putin came to power the Russian economy has gotten much stronger; largely due to oil production. There are some who will disagree and say that the economy is artificially buoyed by oil, but the results speak for themselves in that Russians are better off today than before Putin.
In summary, as a world leader Putin is strong, decisive, patriotic, and is understanding of his people. These are the things people love in a leader … it’s not a fad to love a strong leader but a fundamental part of leadership. The fact that he is also controlling and uses the legal system and media to strong-arm his opponents is overlooked and adds to his strength.
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