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Leadership Lessons From Putin: The Yes People Culture

Often our best leadership lessons come from bad leaders rather than good leaders. Such is the case with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Recent news reports have speculated that he has surrounded himself with yes men and thus is not receiving accurate information on the war in Ukraine, its impact on the Russian people, and the worldwide reaction.

What are yes men? According to Merriam-Webster, a yes person is “one who endorses or supports without criticism every opinion or proposal of an associate or superior.” Authoritarian leaders are the most likely to create teams of yes people. Autocratic pastors, for example, often control the hiring process as well as who sits on decision making teams like deacons, elders, personnel and finance. This allows them to hire and appoint people who they know are either of like mind or who will rubber stamp their ideas and plans. This is somewhat akin to the words found in 2 Timothy 4:3-4: For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

The Problem With Yes-People

Yes-people create many potential problems for the leader. Here are a few.

They are two faced. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that yes-people undermine authenticity within a team or organization. Yes-people talk behind people’s backs instead of sharing their true opinions in a constructive manner.

They create resentment. Those who maintain a front of false agreeability often grow to resent their leader and begin to work to undermine the leader’s plans. 

They foster groupthink. Yes-people don’t challenge ideas or offer different solutions, so the idea presented by the leader is never properly vetted.

You don’t get the best possible outcome. Yes-people don’t offer alternatives or innovation.

You don’t hear what you need to hear. We all make mistakes. None of us can see or understand the full impact of our decisions. Surrounded by yes-people leaders never hear what they need to hear because they won’t critique a leader’s plans and or challenge his ideas. This leads to ill-advised decisions.

They over promise and under deliver. To keep a leader happy, yes-people make promises they can’t keep. As a result, you can’t rely on yes-people to deliver on everything they say they’re going to.

You get a false sense of reality. One of a leader’s primary responsibilities is to understand the realities within and without their organization. Yes-people tend to provide a leader only positive information, often distorting any reality or narrative that reflects negatively.

How To Avoid A Yes-People Culture

So, what can you do to ensure you don’t accidentally foster a yes-people culture? Here are some tips to consider:

Avoid creating a fear culture. Yes-people often arise in an organization where there is a climate of fear. They say yes to the leader because they are fearful of being:

  • reprimanded
  • embarrassed
  • perceived as not supportive
  • fired

Leaders who respond angrily or threaten those who provide feedback they disagree with will inevitably create a fear culture that produces yes-people.

Provide positive affirmation. Showing appreciation for feedback, even when you disagree, makes people feel valued and encourages more honest and helpful feedback in the future.

Respond respectfully. Even if you believe the critique or idea is way off base, responding respectfully will help ensure the person isn’t embarrassed and will continue to offer feedback.

Invite feedback. Create opportunities specifically designed for feedback on an idea, decision or initiative. Make it clear that if there is disagreement then it should be accompanied by potential solutions or alternatives. Further, make it clear that this is a time for feedback, not vetting and evaluating.

Encourage disagreement. Asking your advisors to express their concerns and to offer contrary opinions to yours is a way to invite disagreement.

Listen to their point of view. People are more likely to provide you honest feedback when they know that you will listen. The best way to demonstrate that you have heard what someone has said is to repeat it back to them in your own words.

Try to understand. You can demonstrate you are trying to understand their viewpoint by asking how they arrived at their conclusion and asking follow-up questions.

Follow their counsel. The most effective way to show that you value someone’s advice is to follow it! Leaders who, at least on occasion, follow the counsel or demonstrate they have seriously considered the advice of their advisors rarely create a yes-people culture.

Don’t be defensive. A leader who continually argues or is overly defensive of their position will shut down any feedback that challenges their thinking.

Don’t surround yourself with people just like you. Often a leader never hears disagreement because they have hired or enlisted people who think just like they do. As Walter Wrigley once said, when two people always agree, one of them is unnecessary.

Some people are go along to get along kind of people by nature. In my experience, I’ve found that more often than not, yes-people are made not born. Leaders create a working environment that encourages this behavior. People learn quickly what behaviors will bring a positive response from their leader and what behaviors will bring anger or even punishment from their leaders. Creating a yes-people culture is a mistake that you want to avoid making as you lead your team or your organization. When you work with a team of yes people, they can’t help prevent you from taking leadership actions that lead you and your organization right off a cliff. Yes-people may be good for your ego, but they are bad for your organization. To get the best results, it’s important for you to give your advisors the power to speak their convictions.

Posted on May 17, 2022

Jim Baker

Jim is a Church Organizational Leadership and Management Coach, Consultant and Trainer. Throughout his career Jim has demonstrated a passion for showing Pastors and Ministers how to use organizational tools for church and personal growth and health.

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“For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see how well ordered you are and the strength of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:5