Vladimir Putin: Lessons from the Board Room

As with almost everything during this Presidential election season, the actions of foreign actors are spun for political effect. Russian President Putin’s insertion and withdrawal of troops into Syria has been used to bash the U.S. Administration’s efforts by contrasting them with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “winning” foreign policy strategy. A recent “Politico” article was entitled, “Did Putin Once Again Outfox Obama?”

As I noted in my Cipher Brief piece “Putin the Bully”, Putin’s foreign policy reflexively supports whatever the U.S. is against, and fights against everything the U.S. supports. Such a policy will automatically make him look right when the U.S. stumbles. However, does it mean that he has a winning strategy?

There are a number of reasons to be less sanguine that Putin has a vision for long-term success for Russia, and insights from the literature on business leadership offer some clues as to why.

Any effort to really understand Vladimir Putin’s long term plan is fraught with uncertainty. A recent NPR article concluded that Russia is just too hard to read for western analysts. Indeed, western journalists often fall into the trap of using a western lens to view Russia. Russia is not, and never has been in the European mainstream. Unlike in the West, Putin does not have to worry about public opinion. Nor does a drop in economic performance jeopardize his power. A recent Stratfor article by Steve Hall highlighted this difficulty in interpreting Russian policy, noting a comment from a senior Russian official, “We are not Westerners. It is one of the biggest mistakes you Americans make. You don’t make that same mistake with the Chinese, do you? It is because they do not look European, while we do.”

Further, Russian policy is largely Vladimir Putin’s policy, and it is near impossible to predict what he has in mind. As former commander of NATO forces, retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis commented, “…at the end of the day, the strategic terrain is not on a map somewhere — it’s in between Vladimir Putin’s ears.”

Despite my career in intelligence, the key insights that might provide a lens on Putin’s ability to succeed can be found in recent literature on business leadership.

As outlined in the recent best-selling New York Times business book “Team of Teams” by General Stanley McChrystal and CrossLead, Inc. CEO David Silverman, the traditional top-down means of managing organizations is just too slow to win in today’s complex environments. The pace of change rewards those companies and leaders who can create an atmosphere of constant communication, empowered execution, and feedback. Today, organizations are required to do the right thing, at the right time, fast enough.

McChrystal and Silverman’s book describes four key characteristics that are necessary to form and sustain a thriving enterprise — shared consciousness, empowered execution, common purpose and trust. That is, leaders must create an environment that pushes the necessary information and context throughout the enterprise so that execution can take place without constant approval from on-high. The standard model of information flowing up the organization for decisions to be made at the top is too slow. Instead, leadership needs to give the organization the context and information to decide, act and execute at their level. McChrystal and his team of Special Operations Forces learned this lesson the hard way as they faced a nimble and networked Al Qa’ida foe in Iraq.

Business leaders today need to share information and create a networked environment in order to succeed — a team of teams.

If there is anyone who is living in this old world where the leader holds all the cards, it is Vladimir Putin. Rather than empowering his people, he is intimidating them. Over time his people will hesitate to act for fear of upsetting the czar and at best, are likely to share only rose colored information. Better to lay low and wait for orders. A modern economy cannot compete in such an environment.

So, while his tactical moves look prescient, Putin is likely a loser over the long term. When we apply the team-of-teams model, it suggests that Putin’s efforts to strengthen Russia are likely to fail. Try as he might to wield total control over his society, he will not be able to move fast enough for today’s economy. His actions will fail to empower the people he needs to build an adaptable system. Indeed, we are seeing signs that his economy is failing, and his efforts to bully Ukraine has pushed them further toward the West, and away from Russia.

Putin’s absolute power will continue to allow him tactical success and hold internal enemies at bay. However, it will also ensure that Russia becomes less and less relevant as a world power.