Shaking off the Satrap

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Only a resource-rich country like Russia can afford such an archaic system of management, says Sergey Vorobiev.

Source: HBR-Russia

In one of the well-known jokes Robin Hood is completely at a loss when he meets middle class: his frame of reference doesn’t allow for its existence. In the same way, frames of reference of most Russian CEOs don’t allow for free, strong-minded people, other leaders. The executives don’t believe such people exist and, when they meet them, they don’t know how to deal with them. The principle ‘I da boss – you da fool, you da boss – I da fool’ keeps dominating in our management. In the developed countries they have more or less defeated this problem: competition has made them fight for talents, nurture successors, build teams and develop leadership as a science. Meanwhile in Russia with its deeply rooted paternalism system and the ensuing vertical of power and dull competition, hardly anybody sees the necessity of developing the competence of free people management. Initiative is punished in our country, and a deliberate manifestation of will is chastened or raises eyebrows. Only a resource-rich country like Russia can have such an archaic system of management and attitude to people when the chief may turn out to be a real satrap ignoring everybody’s opinion but for his or her own. And since the state capitalism keeps prevailing whatever you do, the CEOs, especially those whose companies are protected by the monopolistic branch position, have no incentive to change anything. The internal context in which our business exists does not further the eradication of the ‘satrap’ management method.

Attempts to hold on behind the curtain of monopoly will finish off our quality and productivity, and we’ll have no more ballet, no space, no aviation, no science and no talented people: the real doers eager to create and ready to take responsibility and make independent decisions will inevitably wash out and settle in a more suitable environment.

The system appears survivable. But look at Chekhov: he had enough courage to admit that ‘all life long, drop by drop, he was squeezing the slave out of himself’. It’s high time the executives should start moving from the opposite direction and squeezing the satrap out of themselves. Which means they should master other – and various – management styles: from the matrix and horizontal to that same vertical focusing on team development and co-creation. Which means they should welcome any initiative, encourage people making independent decisions – even if they are wrong. They should admit their own mistakes, publicly apologize to undeservingly punished or offended members of staff, give attention to developing the employees’ talents and skills, moreover – nurture opponents. And, of course, accept the fact that modern CEOs cannot and don’t have to know everything and have to hire people smarter than themselves and more competent in their sphere, as well as learn together with their employees. These measures are not only indispensable for competitive performance, but they will give the CEOs an opportunity to communicate with smart and respected people who don’t hang upon their lips and who are a good company to share the joys of team-work and collaborative achievements – and do it at work, not out of public view, in the company of other satraps.

In converting to the new management style, business has someone to rely on. Thanks to the remnants of brilliant Soviet education and the experience of the turbulent 90’s, in Russia there is quite a large community of creative managers and experts who scorn blending in the paternalist system, don’t want to compromise with their attitudes and are not ready to sacrifice their perception of the world.

It makes no sense to keep trying to catch up with the world leaders giving them such an allowance in management. For me personally, the last drop in understanding the narrowness and inherent persistence of the ‘paternalist-satrap’ approach was another failure in the attempt to transfer experience to my own child. It was beyond the limits of this article when I finally explained to myself why the ideas of lifelong education or leadership education for adults don’t work in our country. Bingo! How can one respect those who study leadership if the system is single? Does it mean that those who agree to study are not there yet? Or are they some kind of weak satraps? But there is no such thing! However, if you admit that models, like people, are numerous, the western ideas and principles of management stop being treated as something strange, funny and unseemly, and the squeezed out satrap will be succeeded by a modern understanding of leadership as a measurable value that can be developed – all life long!