Khrushchev, Belfort and the NYT Anonymous Op-Ed
It is difficult these days to avoid the news coming from Washington. Last week, an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times strongly criticized the rule of Donald Trump. Because of it was anonymous, the author has been labeled as gutless (Sanders), a coward (Perry), amateurish (Pence), dishonest (Ryan), and even treasonous (Trump). When I heard this, my first thought was that this is nothing new. In just about every history book discussing leaders, there has been dissent. More importantly, the truth about power is how it suppresses genuine and constructive response through fear. This happens in the White House, but also in our own professional lives at the office and even in project teams. Why do good people not stand up to this more often? The answer is fear.
Life under Stalinist Russia was one of constant fear of arrest, deportation to gulags, interrogations, and summary executions. From 1936 until his death in 1953, Stalin is estimated to have killed 20-15 million people. During that time, Nikita Khrushchev, a rising star in the party, also dutifully carried out purges, including those of friends, colleagues, party loyalists, and innocent bystanders, often exceeding the required quotas.
However, after he succeeded Stalin and consolidated his power, he repudiated Stalin’s policies. In a now famous speech during the Twentieth Party Congress on February 14, 1956, having lived a long life under Stalinism (he was now 64), Khrushchev proposed to change course for Russia. He strongly criticized Stalin’s crimes, naming the names of well-known people who had been victims of the purges. This came as a surprise to many of the party members present – there was tension and consternation in the hall. At one point, a heckler in the audience yelled out: “You were one of Stalin's colleagues. Why didn't you stop him?” Khrushchev looked up and yelled back: “WHO SAID THAT?” The place fell to a deafening, agonizing silence. No one dared to raise their hand or speak up. After a long pause Khrushchev said quietly: “Now you know why.”
The very act of physically placing someone in such a vulnerable spot to demonstrate the use of power is a master stroke of leadership. Of course, recognizing the precise moment to use this tactic is a combination of skill and lived experience. To fully understand the power of it, one must have been at some point on the receiving end of it. Khrushchev also lived in constant fear of being arrested and it is why he understood this so well and knew how to apply it to make a point. Experiencing the very condition of repression makes one keenly aware of the use of it for oneself. Of course, there is also some comfort in remembering that those who use it learned about it from personal experience.
Of course, this strategy has other applications as well, such as in sales. When Jordan Belfort, masterfully played by Leonardo Dicaprio, in the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, challenges conference attendees to sell him a pen, most of them fail because they do not create need. The salesman’s approach is to take the pen and then ask the other person to write something down. It’s a very powerful statement that takes a situation from the hypothetical to one of physical, real and present need. In effect, it places the client in the same position that Khrushchev placed his heckler.
To understand this thoroughly and to be able to use it at the right moment requires skill, but also experience. This is where professional experience, especially after a well-established career (or two, or more) presents such an overwhelming advantage. Having grown up in the Bronx of New York, graduated from college and hustled his whole life starting companies, Jordan Belfort was no newcomer to sales. Likewise Khrushchev had worked in mining, survived two world wars, and navigated Stalin’s purges all the way to party leadership. Those experiences undoubtedly included some hard lessons along the way.
Being able to put a critic, heckler, client, or opponent in a position of absolute need requires an understanding of being on the receiving end. Now most of the readers here are not living under Stalinist conditions and it is unlikely their work involves as much risk as that of the writer of the NYT op-ed. However, those with some experience and wisdom will realize that sometimes it isn’t simply cowardice, but also a learning experience in the making.
This blog post was previously published in The Gigster 'Zine, our free newsletter discussing new and innovative part-time opportunities & strategies for anyone with a college degree. To sign up for the newsletter, click here.