Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Community Voices is generously supported by The Minneapolis Foundation; learn why.

The parallels between Vladimir Putin and corporate DEI leadership 

Perhaps DEI isn’t something a CEO is looking to galvanize employees around, and that is up to them in the end. But if CEOs are saying it’s important, then they must walk the walk and be seen on the frontlines.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

Volodymyr Zelenskyy is showing the world what bold leadership looks like.

When America offered to get him out of Ukraine, Zelenskyy famously replied he needed more ammunition, not a ride. In addition, Zelenskyy chose not to hide in a bunker, but rather go on the streets with his fellow country people and post regular updates letting his people know he’s got their backs and is willing to do the same things he is asking them to do.

In contrast, Vladimir Putin is growing more distant by the day, metaphorically and literally. Putin’s inner circle grows smaller daily as his citizens become more and more confused.

Both leaders are unknowingly demonstrating the two leadership styles that exist in corporate America as it pertains to a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

Article continues after advertisement

Let me be clear, I am not comparing any CEO to Putin, but rather dissecting the approaches to leadership with the goal of showing the real impact a leader has on an initiative when they’re willing to go on the front lines.

Walking the walk

President Zelenskyy has galvanized Ukrainians and the global community by leading out loud and going to the front lines to fight against the Russian invasion. President Zelenskyy understands his military is smaller and that there will be casualties and that he may very well be one of them; however, the issue is so important to him that he is willing to take the risk.

His actions have contributed to a high “esprit de corps,” which is defined as a feeling of pride, fellowship, and common loyalty shared by the members of a particular group. The impact of morale being so high is that everyday people with no military background are taking up arms. Grandmothers are confronting soldiers. Men are kneeling in front of tanks. Celebrities, athletes, and models are joining the resistance. Everyone is lining up to stand behind President Zelenskyy and willing to go into battle with him.

In contrast, Putin governs from a safe distance. Recent photos of Putin sitting at large, grand tables with his generals on the opposite side of the table speak louder than words. His soldiers and country people see this and perceive that Putin is not interested in them or their wellbeing in any form. It kills all semblance of “esprit de corps” within his ranks translating to his soldiers just going through the motions.

In the corporate world, releasing a press release from a CEO addressing issues that contribute to the inequity among Black people is the Putin style of leadership. It’s keeping a “safe distance” from any possible danger. Danger in this case is being asked a question one is not prepared for, walking on a DEI landmine during a press conference or team meeting, or being ostracized by the business community for being too loud.

Another example of Putin leadership is leaving it to the “generals” to get the message to the front lines. Now, I’m not saying one shouldn’t ever delegate to leaders, but if the objective is to galvanize employees around an issue, one can’t delegate leadership responsibilities to someone else.

Perhaps DEI isn’t something a CEO is looking to galvanize employees around, and that is up to them in the end. But if CEOs are saying it’s important, then they must walk the walk and be seen on the frontlines.

Community representation really matters

Analysts report that the Russian soldiers were told they would be welcomed in Ukraine with open arms. Many reports have also come out that Putin was grossly misled into believing the resistance would be a fraction of what it’s been.

Article continues after advertisement

Online, you can listen to audio clips of Russian soldiers being utterly confused as to why they are being confronted. You can hear the pain in their voices as they confusingly speak with Ukrainians on the streets. Anti-war protests in Russia, fuel shortages on the front lines, logistical mistakes, and slow progress are the consequences of the lack of shared vision exacerbated by how distant Putin is.

The same thing happens in corporate America as it pertains to tackling issues surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion. Board rooms filled primarily with white men discuss how the company should address issues such as the wealth gap among Black employees.

Sharon Smith-Akinsanya
Sharon Smith-Akinsanya
This leads to initiatives and strategies that fail to make any real impact. This is why we see initiative after initiative fail to put any real dent in the many areas of impact that DEI seeks to improve. This is why so many corporations step on DEI landmines and launch campaigns that are not well received by the Black community. Instead of being welcomed with open arms, corporations get lambasted for “not getting it.”

This is why it’s critical for leaders to receive information from people who have a real pulse of what’s going on in the community. Corporations must put a stop to getting strategy from executives who rarely spend time in the communities they’re trying to help.

Is diversity, equity, and inclusion a priority?

If there is one thing we see time and time again, it is that a company’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is directly linked to the investment the CEO puts into it.

We know many CEOs have signed pledges and made promises to increase diversity at all levels of their organization. The real question is, which approach are they taking? The Putin model or the Zelenskyy model?

That my friends, will tell you everything you need to know.

Sharon Smith-Akinsanya is the CEO of the Rae Mackenzie Group and founder of People Of Color Career Fair.