Focus on Leadership

About Captain Vanin and Marketing manager

Alexander Kopylov


Some time ago a friend of mine told me what had happened to his fellow man working at the marketing department of a well-known American company - soda water producer in Holland.

The topic of our conversation was as follows. We focused on the fact that if the employee and the company he/she worked for were of the same national status it should give advantage to such employee. We referred to major international companies. As for me, I worked for a Dutch company at that time and my conversation person was a Dutchman.

He agreed with me and to confirm the above he recollected a small incident happened to him of which I would like to tell you. As I have already said earlier his fellow colleague worked at the marketing department of an American company. He drew up a marketing plan for one of the company’s products. The plan was submitted to his local supervisor who highly appreciated the job done. Later the plan was to be approved by a representative from the company headquarters who had specially arrived for that purpose.

The guest’s reaction to the material submitted to him appeared to be extremely negative and critical. But the worst of it was that the guest expressly demonstrated that he had not expected anything else and had specially come to teach the local “guys” how to work. Well, then my conversation person has construed this incident just as an example of the biased attitude of “the Varangians” (foreigners) to the people working for their companies in other countries. As for me, I have seen one more interesting collision in this case in addition to the abovementioned.

I asked my colleague what about the local supervisor of his friend who had first highly appreciated his job. How did he behave during the presentation? It turned out that the local supervisor fully aligned with the guest from the headquarters, as if nothing had happened, without even trying to back his subordinate employee.

“How did your friend feel after it?” - I asked him a question, the answer to which was evident. My Dutch colleague only shrugged his shoulders and chuckled in reply: “I need hardly say how he felt, you know.” And I did know.

I often witnessed the situation described here at numerous meetings attended by the great number of participants. I saw silent yeas-men who easily allowed others to wipe up the floor with their subordinate employees in their presence, to scold and criticize them. And I don’t want to say that criticism was always unjustified, but, I don’t know why, nobody felt better when it happened. For the truth’s sake, I’d like to add that I often saw executives who sincerely supported their employees standing up for them.

I recollect this incident time and again, especially when the role of managers and leaders is discussed. And in this connection I frequently think of another story.

On April 7, 1989 “Komsomolets” submarine sank in the Norwegian Sea. Before going down the submarine emerged which circumstance made it possible for some crew members to survive. The commander of the submarine, Yevgeny Vanin, perished. He stayed with his people to the very end even when the submarine began to settle down rapidly. Vanin and four seamen locked in the cockpit trying to escape using a rescue capsule. It was only warrant officer Slyusarenko who managed to remain alive.

I read various opinions on the decisions taken by captain Vanin. Critical, as well. The truth in this case, if established, belongs to experts. I am sure that there is one fact raising no doubts in captain Vanin: it is his sense of duty and personal courage he displayed.

The two stories are hardly comparable and I understand that business is not the army. But, however, the laws of leadership are the same in both environments.

The manager who leaves his subordinate employees face to face with other managers without any support for the purpose to avoid conflicts with his senior officer cannot expect them to be committed, loyal and to work efficiently.

This story which some people can consider trivial wouldn’t be noteworthy unless it were a fine illustration of two issues.

First, it demonstrates the circumstance when the leader does not control the situation. Certainly, if we asked the Dutch supervisor whether he controlled himself at the time when he demonstratively “forgot” that he had praised the job initially he would answer “Yes” and find a reasonable explanation to this fact. The matter is that the behavior which I call “domination” rather than “control” is contradictory to real control. In fact, this incident has multiplied the degree of his isolation from the subordinate employee. After the incident in question it is impossible to pin hopes on trust relationships with subordinate employees, it means that the risk of unpredictable events, such as the unexpected dismissal of the manager, would-be revenge, sabotage and inefficient work, rises automatically. All these developments entail unpredictable consequences which are sure to be of no help in achieving the objectives of the leader.

Second, each such incident poses a difficult dilemma to the employee: how to react on such behavior of his supervisor? Suffer wrong and pretend that nothing has happened? How to live thereafter? Or, on the contrary, take it into consideration and act accordingly? How to act? Then it will become the matter of one’s own leadership. But leadership is the matter of choice, whether to stay with one’s own submarine and the crew knowing that it will most likely mean death, or…. However, you have already learnt about the “or.”