My favorite president and politician on the world stage is Vladmir Putin. Several times, his name has appeared as the most powerful man in the world.
However, President Putin has a sad background and very humble pedigree that would not give a child the promise of a global leader. He grew up from a starving family whose only improvement in childhood life was moving into a one-roomed communal apartment that was full of rats in the war-stricken city of St Petersburg.
After graduating from the law school, Putin luckily got recruited into the organization of his dream, the KGB. After series of intelligence training and posts, he was deployed to East Germany where he worked as foreign intelligence officer until the fall of the Berlin Wall at the end of 1989. He returned to Russia and resigned from the intelligence services in 1991.
After the resignation he got himself involved in some local politics in his home city of St Petersburg. He worked as the adviser to the mayor of the city who was his own former college law professor, Anatoly Sobchak. When Sobchak failed to secure a second term and quit politics, Putin became jobless and went to the capital city, Moscow, to try his luck in national politics at the very heart of the Russian administration.
This is where the story of Putin as the world knows him today really begins. He arrived in Moscow as a largely an unknown job seeker in 1996 aged only 37 but three years later, he had managed to beat the power plays of the Kremlin and scale up the echelons of power into becoming the Prime Minister. Can you imagine the odds of such a thing?
From that day in August 1999 until today 20 years later, global leaders have come and go, but Putin has never moved out of power and never lost an election. He has either been Prime Minister or President. I mean, who has ever pulled that off?
How did Putin, unknown to the public and very knew to the Kremlin administration, conquer Russian politics within 3 years and conquer the world shortly afterwards?
There are possibly more answers but one that I know very well has to do with Putin’s own childhood lesson that he learned from a rat.
According to the book entitled “First Person” which is kind of an autobiography of Putin published in 2000, Putin discloses that he grew up in poverty stricken communal apartment where he spent part of the day chasing rats. But one day, he spotted a huge rat and as usual, he began to chase it down the hall until he forced it to a corner where it had nowhere to run. Trapped to a corner, suddenly, the rat lashed around and threw itself at young Putin. He was so surprised and scared that he begun to ran away and now the rat was chasing him. Luckily, he ran faster and slammed the door in its nose.
What Putin learned from this encounter with the cornered rat was the power of projecting strength. Projecting strength is all about appearing to be powerful enough not necessarily to threaten others but to earn their respect. The projection of power is usually done through actions not words. You project strength by taking certain daring and bold actions and making the toughest of decisions in unexpected circumstance to the surprise of many.
That is what Putin has always done. He projects strength in many ways, and mostly out of actions. And where he issues a verbal threat, an accompanying action follows.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Americans celebrated and salivated at the prospects of quick full-fledged democratization of Russia and the making of money through privatization of Russian companies and business concessions among several other interests, unlike Boris Yeltsin the puppet, Putin made tough decisions against the bullying of the West for the prestige and self esteem of his people. And each time they try to intimidate him whether with sanctions or purging diplomats, he sanctions back or purges back diplomats, etc.
Another example of a leader who knew how to project strength was Bingu wa Mutharika. Many were never confident in his leadership until he resigned from UDF in 2005 to distance himself from the incompetence and corruption of Bakili Muluzi and his cronies. He kicked vendors away from the streets to their designated markets to keep streets safe and clean. He stood against the world to ensure subsidized farming for the poor Malawians and literally made the country food secure after a decade of starvation and hunger-related deaths.
Finally, my point is that a political leader must not just issues threats to project strength and power, but must make real bold and daring decisions in the interest of the people. When that happens, the people reciprocate with respect and love for the leadership. Thats how you win political warfare.