With Russia’s invasion of Crimea, a few commentators have described President Vladimir Putin as a great leader. Essentially the quote is “He made a decision, he told his people, then he acted. That’s leadership.”

While more of a criticism of leadership at home, it is an interesting observation to make.

Putin has kept the Russian state together, he has kept them moving forward economically, and he has rebuilt the Russian sense of pride. He’s also been accused of being a thug, jailing his political enemies, bribing other heads of state to support Russian interests, and supporting his friends through kickbacks and corruption.

Without being on the ground in Crimea and an insider’s view to the geopolitical forces at work, it is difficult to know which is the “real” Putin. However, let’s look at the facts: The Ukraine is a sovereign country. It has shared, negotiated boundaries with Russia. The Russians have invaded the country with ground troops and have taken over key bases and sites in Crimea, as they did in Georgia in 2008 under Putin’s leadership.

While the situation is much more complex than this summary, Russia has invaded Crimea with little provocation. Yes, Putin was decisive. Yes, he acted. But he broke the treaties his country held with the Ukraine and violated international law to further his interests. He acted with vision, but not with a morally grounded center.

The ethical example our leaders set for us influences our cultures. (According to Transparency International, Russia is rated 127th out of 177 countries for corruption . . . the U.S. is currently ranked 19th). The same is true for our organizational cultures- the classic example is Jeffery Skilling, former CEO of Enron. Skilling believed that money and fear were the only things that motivated people, and that organizations should win at any cost.  Skilling famously said, just before Enron imploded that “the company is in great shape,” as he sold off 60 million dollars worth of Enron shares. (During his trial he also said “I was not aware of the huge problems during most of the first quarter.  I was out of town.”)  Skilling’s lack of a morally grounded center helped make Enron successful, but it did not make Enron sustainable (not to mention that it destroyed billions of dollars and ruined lives along the way).

The same holds true, I fear, for Putin. His decisiveness without a morally grounded center may make Russia successful in the short run- they will get Crimea- but may not make that success sustainable in the long run.



Tom Epperson

Tom Epperson

Dr. Tom Epperson is the President of InnerWill, and an instructor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program. Tom is a certified business coach and has a Doctorate in Leadership from The George Washington University. Tom works with clients on cultural transformation, leadership development, executive coaching, and igniting individual and organizational potential. Previously, Tom served as the HR Director for Luck Companies, and played a significant role as one of the architects of Luck Companies’ cultural transformation.

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