“Too many heroes stepping on too many toes, too many yes-men nodding when they really mean no.” — Jethro Tull, “Too Many Too”

Just three weeks into his invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is facing increasingly grim news. At least four of his senior generals have been reported killed. His air forces have been unable to achieve air superiority, with the skies over Ukraine becoming increasingly deadly to Russian pilots. Rasputitsa, the notoriously muddy spring thaw, came early, constraining his assault forces to the main roads where his four axes of attack met stronger than expected resistance and quickly bogged down. His logistics, already strained to the breaking point by early culmination along each line of advance, struggled to meet resupply demands. Their only hope, a 40-mile-long convoy of support vehicles that sat motionless for days along one of the main routes into Kyiv, became a glaring symbol of Russian ineptitude for all the world to see.

Clearly, Putin had counted on quick success to rapidly advance on Kyiv and other key cities, force the Yelenskyy government into capitulation, and install some form of puppet administration in its place. The attack should have taken no more than three days but had already dragged on for two weeks. But the losses have been staggering. Conservative estimates place the Russian war dead at 7,000 and counting, with scores of field commanders at the top of that list. “Ukraine has become a graveyard for Russian tanks,” announced a recent report; what hasn’t been destroyed has been abandoned in place or seemingly towed away by Ukrainian farmers. Morale is plummeting, conscripts are deserting, and the whole world is watching.

hear no evil leadership

Over the course of the past decade, Putin invested hundreds of billions into a revamped and rearmed Russian military: smaller, better, and, he believed, more lethal. In Putin’s mind, someone was responsible for this fiasco, but not him. That blame, Putin likely believes, lands squarely on the shoulders of his inner circle of advisors. After the invasion’s second week, he placed Sergey Beseda, chief of the Federal Security Service’s (FSB) foreign intelligence branch, and his deputy under house arrest, blaming them for the stiff resistance his forces were facing. Another week later, he ordered the arrest of General Roman Gavrilov, the deputy chief of the national guard, in what has been reported as a purge of senior military and intelligence advisors by the FSB.

In Putin’s twisted view of the circumstances, they were at fault for not telling him what he needed to hear. Ignore for a moment that he selected his own inner circle. And forget the simple fact that speaking out in his presence is a risk no one in his inner circle would ever take. It was, according to one official, the end result of Putin populating that inner circle with senior Russian leaders who “tailor their information” to avoid telling him “what he doesn’t want to hear.” Something Putin is now learning the hard way.

That should come as no surprise to anyone. Some leaders love a good echo chamber. We are drawn to people who reinforce what we already believe. Yes-men and sycophants stroke the ego like no one else can. It’s like being covered in a warm blanket of praise, where your innermost insecurities are deafened by the soothing sounds of vindication and validation. And while it’s perfectly natural to prefer the presence of people who are consistently – almost persistently – supportive and agreeable, it typically doesn’t end well. As Susan Tardanico and Kristi Hedges noted in a 2012 Forbes article, these people might make you feel good, but they’re not good for you.

Hear No Evil leadership has been the way of Russia since the days of the Bolshevik Revolution. Through the rise of Stalin and the halcyon days of the Cold War, none of that changed: find yourself delivering bad news to the Kremlin, and you were likely to end up warming a cold cell in a gulag somewhere. Assuming you survived the ordeal. That legacy survived the dissolution of the Soviet Union, somehow bypassed the promised peace dividend of the 90s, and became Putin’s inheritance when he ascended to the presidency in 2000. Twenty years later, it’s still his calling card.

If sycophancy is a toxic elixir, then dissent is the cure.

CHANGING THE CULTURE

Creating a culture of respectful dissent as a leader isn’t that difficult, but it does require that you park your ego long enough to allow the change to take root. The single most challenging obstacle to establishing this culture is the yes-men problem. Leaders often assume that the team is the problem; rather than address the true issue – themselves – they instead take steps to replace team members. The truth is that if you find yourself surrounded by yes-men and sycophants, that culture starts with the leader, not the team. A leader who, whether by choice or not, communicates that they only want to hear good news and general agreement from those in their circle of trust will only hear what they want to hear, not what they need to hear.

In a 2019 blog post on workplace culture, Atlassian author Dominic Price listed two keys to fostering respectful dissent on your team: one, acknowledge that people don’t always agree, and two, people don’t always share the true thoughts. According to Price, to forge a culture of respectful dissent, leaders have to acknowledge the first and address the second. The creative conflict that results might be uncomfortable and “lead to tense moment or feelings getting bruised,” the but end result is better thinking, better honesty, and better decision making.

Getting there won’t always be easy, especially if you’re the problem. To help you do so, think in terms of Abraham Lincoln’s renowned Team of Rivals: his inner circle of advisors was comprised of trusted confidants who were confident enough to disagree with him. We could all be so lucky to have that much talent surrounding us. But what we can do is make our own choices: surround yourself with cognitive diversity, listen more than you talk, and be the role model your people need you to be. After all, it’s never about you, so get over yourself already.

putin’s problem

A leader who goes to the lengths Putin has to cultivate such a hyper-masculine image – think bare chested riding a horse through the wild country – likely suffers from an unusually fragile ego, one that requires the constant soothing provided by an inner circle of sycophants and yes-men. As a result, he’s never going to hear what he needs to hear, and he’ll continue facing the same frustrations whether it’s in Ukraine or some other distant country. His ego will continue writing checks that his army can’t cash.

We can’t do anything to prevent him from doing the things he does, but you can save yourself from following in his example. Give your yes-men the boot. Say goodbye to your sycophants. Stop getting angry when people disagree with you. Be the kind of leader who listens and takes constructive criticism. Be the kind of leader who grows great teams.

 

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.