Friday, February 24, 2012

Profiles in Leadership: Nicholas II

I'm continuing to make my way through A People's Tragedy, a book on the Russian Revolution, and I find myself fascinated by Tsar Nicholas II. The last of the Romanov monarchs, Nicholas is such an interesting figure because his life is pretty tragic and his rule is rather pathetic. The book makes the case that it was primarily his refusal to institute any meaningful reforms throughout his reign that led to his, and simultaneously his country's, downfall. Basically, the Bolsheviks didn't overthrow the monarch-- he undermined himself and the Bolsheviks took advantage of the situation presented.

Throughout the later stages of the revolution (1905-1917), Nicholas seems to be completely oblivious to the magnitude of the events going on around him. It would almost be comical, lest we forget that this actually happened. For example, as revolution is spreading and the government is on the point of collapse, here is his diary entry from 26 February 1917 (pg. 339):
"At ten o'clock I went to Mass. The reports were on time. There were many people at breakfast, including all the foreigners. Wrote to Alix and went for a walk near the chapel by the Bobrisky road. The weather was fine and frosty. After tea I read and talked with Senator Tregubov until dinner. Played dominoes in the evening."

His countrymen are tearing each other apart and he's writing about playing dominoes!


I get the sense that he thought that simply his title, that of Tsar, was enough to get him through any problems that arose. When the war starts going poorly against Germany and Austria, he sacks the commander of the armed forces and takes over command himself-- he who has zero combat experience and next to zero strategic insight. In his mind, he is Tsar, and knowing that the Tsar is in command is enough to inspire the troops to fight for victory-- right?


The war continues to go awfully. While in meetings, he sort of milled about on the periphery of the briefing room so as not to get in the way of the generals who were actually planning the conduct of the war. In a word, he was inept.

Here's my favorite part about studying history: What is there to learn from Nicholas II? I think he provides a meaningful example of poor leadership. Let's break it down:

Skills: Minimal. Placing himself in command of the armed forces while not knowing a things about how to conduct a war meant that he set himself (and his country) up for failure. The saying goes, "With great power comes great responsibility", and with great responsibility comes a great need for specialized skills. Without those skills, responsibility will be neglected, and power will be illegitimate. Those in positions of power who lack the necessary skills often delegate to subordinates who have the requisite skills-- and these are the people who hold true power. Think Dick Cheney and George Bush. Jeffery Skilling and Ken Lay (if you haven't, see the documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room). Hitler and Hindenberg (for a short time). Boy-king and regent. In Nicholas's case, nobody was in a position to assume the responsibilities that Nicholas was not equipped to handle, hence the revolution continues and ultimately succeeds. In this respect, Nicholas errs in two respects: he fails to institute reform himself and, predictably, fails to delegate power to others with the proper knowledge. Personal pride begat ultimate failure.

Motivational technique: Bearer of title. Nicholas's mistake was that he assumed that his office, that of Tsar, was all the legitimacy he needed. A title, however, is meaningless unless there is respect for the holder of that title. A title can be a measure of success but it can also be rather meaningless. On a personal note, I've learned over the years to have a healthy skepticism for most things in life, including anybody with a name-tag and anybody who introduces themselves with a title. It sends up a red flag (pardon the pun).

Nicholas's obliviousness to the situation around him only further blinded him to the increasing uselessness of his title. He was raised under the impression that "the people" loved their Tsar, believed that the Tsar was chosen by God (literally), and that the Tsar had the power of life and death (again, literally) over all in his domain. Nicholas didn't recognize that that vision of the Tsar had faded and that "the people" no longer considered the office as sacred.

Vision: Limited. Nicholas saw his reign as an end unto itself-- truly, the Alpha and the Omega. There was nothing to strive for except an expansion of his domain and continuity of his power. When legitimate grievances were presented, he ignored them. Limited vision also meant that he could not empathize with the proto-revolutionaries and possibly prevent, or at least forestall, a revolution. Yet another lesson on why it is bad to be a spoiled rich kid.

Ultimately, I think it is fair to say that Nicholas was probably a nice guy who was in over his head, lacking any skills whatsoever associated with his office, and too proud to do something about it. A more tragic figure is hard to find.

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