The Biden-Putin Summit: Reflections on Leadership for Us All

Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin in Geneva, 16 June 2021

The Biden-Putin Summit: Reflections on Leadership for Us All

By Peter Cunningham, Co-Director of the Geneva Leadership Alliance

Leadership can mean different things to different people, and comes with many – sometimes competing – expectations. It cannot be ignored, therefore, that two influential leaders and their delegations met this week in Geneva, and a lot of people have been paying close attention to the significance of what transpired at the meeting.

Much has been discussed, analysed, and written about what was or was not achieved at the summit. You can find some excellent insights from both perspectives (Russian and US) at #GCSPNewsroom. 

Throughout the coverage of the meeting several themes emerged that are both features of this summit and also likely to be relevant to many other leaders today. I will share three of them here and offer a few ideas on how they can be successfully navigated.

1. Polarisation

Polarisation is a situation where two or more parties have seemingly opposing views something this Biden-Putin summit had in abundance. We are living in a time when we see many such polarising issues intensifying and dividing nations, societies, and communities. A polarising issue is often not a simple case of right or wrong as such, but rather results in a situation where each opposing view has both advantages and disadvantages. This leads to a tendency among stakeholders to focus on the advantages of their preferred view and the disadvantages of the opposing one. The outcome is often that they disengage altogether, stop talking, and – equally importantly – stop listening to each other. This can produce a downward spiral in which the disadvantages on both sides are ultimately realised.

One way to avoid this spiral is to focus on issues where there are perceived advantages of both poles to both parties. Both leaders mentioned this in their post-summit press conferences following the Geneva summit: see #genevasummit2021.

How well are you able to (help others) stay engaged in dialogue and work together with people who have different worldviews or perspectives?

Staying engaged on a polarising issue can be extremely uncomfortable and requires high levels of self-awareness and self-control, especially when the stakes are high. Yet in our increasingly diverse working environments and communities, this is a key characteristic of true leadership, and it must continue to be learned and practised expertly in all contexts where effective leadership is needed, including in diplomacy.

2. Trust

The question of whether the two leaders should meet at all was a highly contested topic preceding the Biden-Putin summit, especially from the US perspective. The meeting itself was in some ways positioned as a positive outcome from a Russian perspective and considered a sign of that country’s increasingly influential role on the world stage.

When President Biden was asked by a journalist whether he trusted President Putin, he responded:  “This isn’t about trust. This is about self interest and verification of self interest.” This may well have been said to reassure certain factions back home in the US, but it certainly indicates the current nature of the Biden-Putin relationship. That said, trust between individuals has seemingly been a factor in how much progress has been made during and following past summits. Trust between Biden and Putin will either increase or decrease as a result of what happens in the weeks and months following the Geneva summit. Just being able to hear from each other what their stated intentions and red lines are will possibly help to start building the foundations for trust.

The importance of trust has really hit home for many people in the last 18 months as a consequence of the global COVID-19 pandemic. We have all been asked questions that have tested the limits of who and how we trust, including trust in our governments to do the right thing, trust in political and local leaders to say the right things, trust in people working remotely from each other to deliver acceptable results, trust in our neighbours to each other’s wellbeing.

A powerful question you should ask yourself before any interaction is as follows: “Is my approach to this interaction going to increase or decrease trust?”

Rarely has a decrease in trust between people led to more stability or better outcomes. When there is low trust, any opportunity to continue or resume dialogue and discussion is hugely important.

3. Legacy

Not so much talked about during this summit – at least, not openly – but almost certainly in the minds of both leaders is the issue of legacy. This may have been to varying degrees, with Putin the slightly younger of the two, while their mandate durations vary significantly, but both are at a stage where this factor could influence their thinking. This is the case for most leaders who have occupied an influential leadership position, especially towards the later stages of their careers.

Time will tell the extent to which legacy considerations influence how the relationship between Biden and Putin evolves, and whether either leader sees a de-escalation of tensions and a healthier US-Russia relationship as desirable. Considering the intractable nature of many of the other issues they each face both at home and abroad, however, this may be something they see as mutually beneficial.

The influence of legacy on leaders and leadership is something worth reflecting on more broadly and is not talked about enough. It is entirely a human need and drives many people to do great things. It can also become a barrier to progress when a focus on legacy starts to dominate other interests.

It is perfectly acceptable to think about your legacy, but do it early and link it to the interests of your organisation, your stakeholders, and your beneficiaries, then everybody benefits.

Now that the summit has closed and the commentary has died down, we will see its longer-term outcomes manifested through the subsequent actions of both the two leaders and their countries.

Ultimately, summits come and go, but polarisation, trust and legacy have been features of leadership since time immemorial, and you do not have to be a world leader to harness their power for the benefit of peace and security. 

Do you want to learn how you can improve your leadership skills and help others to better navigate polarising issues or build trust with diverse stakeholders? Join our September 2021 virtual learning journey: Lead and Influence with Impact

Are you interested in becoming directly involved in advancing the understanding and practice of leadership? On 20-23 October 2021 the GCSP is co-chairing the International Leadership Association global conference in Geneva entitled Reimaging Leadership Together



-    On polarities: And: Making a Difference by Leveraging Polarity, Paradox or Dilemma: Foundations, Dr Barry Johnson.
-    On trust: Maister, David H., et al. The Trusted Advisor. Simon & Schuster, 2001.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the written texts published by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of the GCSP, its Foundation Council members or its employees. The GCSP is not responsible for and may not always verify the accuracy of the information contained in written publications submitted by a writer.

Peter Cunningham is founder and co-director of the Geneva Leadership Alliance, a partnership that combines Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) expertise on peace, security and global governance with leadership development expertise of the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). The mission of this Alliance is to advance the understanding, practice and positive impact of leading in public, private, non-profit organizations and civil society: especially those dedicated to advancing peace and security.