On leadership and hard times

14 Apr 2020

(Meduza) Editor's note: Konstantin Sonin, an economics professor at the University of Chicago and Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, is a regular contributor to the opinion page at the well-known Russian business newspaper Vedomosti. His latest column, “Hard times of responsibility: How the Igor Sechin era at Rosneft might be remembered,” addressed how popular opinion is likely to shape the narrative surrounding the CEO of Russia’s state-controlled oil company. The op-ed was published on the newspaper’s website at about 10:00 PM local time on April 12. However, shortly after midnight, the piece was deleted on orders from the newspaper’s controversial new acting editor-in-chief, Andrey Shmarov. Meduza has published Sonin’s column instead with his permission.

It would seem that presidents and CEOs should be judged by the results of their efforts. In reality, though, this is hardly ever the case. Leaders are judged and remembered by results even if those results were determined by circumstance. That attention and those memories become even more intense when the leaders in question are acting in hard times. In such times, the people behind the wheel are responsible for just about everything, at least in the memories created by popular opinion.

Here’s one textbook example. Yegor Gaidar became Boris Yeltsin’s finance minister in the fall of 1991, at the height of an immense crisis. Not one economist would ever think to hold him responsible for that crisis, which had already been unfolding for several years when he took office. Gaidar left the government after a year of incredibly difficult work but is still remembered as a villain in the crisis. It would be similarly well-founded to blame an ICU doctor for the death of a patient who has just experienced a massive heart attack. [...]

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