Leadership: Off With Their Heads


January 3, 2011: Russia recently fired two senior managers of the Russian Space Agency, plus some lesser managers. 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.

The prompt dismissal of so many senior managers was actually pretty typical. Russia 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.

That said, the Russian satellite launchers are far from perfect. Including the partial failures, the Proton has about a ten percent failure rate. The Russian launchers, and Russian launch facilities, are cheaper than those in the West, and nearly as reliable. But the higher failure rate of the Proton rocket causes some concern among potential customers. But the Proton is still cheap, even if you have to pay more for insurance. And there is some comfort in knowing that the Russian Space Agency suits put their jobs on the line every time one of those rockets is launched.




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