Leadership: Off With The Heads


May 24, 2011: Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, following through on a recent threat, fired half a dozen senior (generals, colonels and equivalent civilians) procurement officials for not doing their jobs. Medvedev promised to fire more if there was not significant improvement in Defense Ministry performance. Medvedev was mainly upset at the delays in spending money for new weapons and equipment. The military has been asking for this stuff since the 1990s, and has been quite specific about what it needs. But the Defense Ministry bureaucrats can't seem to get the purchase orders out to cash-starved Russian defense firms. Medvedev demanded to know who was responsible for this mess, and made mention of how in the bad-old-days, such people would be sent to labor camps. This reference to Stalin era brutality (especially towards officials who failed) is still popular in Russia.

This is not the first time Medvedev has had problems with the Defense Ministry leadership, and the senior officers who came up during the Soviet days. His message (reform or get fired) does not appear to be getting through. And this is not the first such firing. Earlier this year, two senior managers of the Russian Space Agency, plus some lesser managers, were fired. The reason was the loss of a Proton satellite launcher due to poor management and supervision. Last December 17, Russia lost three GLONASS navigation satellites when the Proton rocket carrying them malfunctioned and caused the satellites to crash into the Pacific. The Proton rocket had been fueled incorrectly, causing imbalance and failure to achieve orbit. Medvedev means business, and will apparently keep dismissing senior officials until everyone gets the message.

The prompt dismissal of so many senior managers was actually pretty typical in Russia. There has a long tradition of the "vertical chop", where several senior leaders in the same chain of command are dismissed (or even executed, at least in the old days) when there was a screw up in their area of responsibility. This approach has fallen out of favor in the West, where the tendency is to fire as few people as possible when there is a major failure. After September 11, 2001, for example, no one got fired.

But the vertical chop still lives in some areas. The U.S. Navy, for example, will fire the captain of a ship, and often several other officers as well, when there is an accident. This recognizes the fact that accidents with ships can be very expensive, and get a lot of people killed. While the officers fired don't like it, most naval officers accept the vertical chop as a necessary evil. There are always plenty of capable officers available to replace those dismissed, and the replacements have the fear of the vertical chop to encourage them to do better.



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