A Lesson in Leadership: Volodymyr Zelensky
A half a world away from us, Ukrainians continue to resist the advance of Putin’s armies. Because of all the communication tools available to us in 2022, “half a world away” seems like next door. With a tap on an app or a click on a laptop, we can take virtual trips to Ukraine, instantaneously seeing the faces, landscapes, and landmarks targeted by the machinations of war. It’s brutal, isn’t it? Yet, we’re also inspired by the resiliency of Ukrainians who are not about to lay down and give the keys to their country to a stronger, well-equipped force.
Obviously, I’m not positioned to provide geo-political commentary on the currents that brought so many into a quagmire they didn’t signup to join. It’s not what I do. I do culture and leadership, however, and I do believe that the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, provides all of us with an excellent profile of leadership in a time of crisis.
As many of you are aware, Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine in 2019, after gaining wide acclaim for his work in comedy and drama. Born to Jewish parents and raised in Kryvyi Rih in southern Ukraine, Zelensky acquired fluency in both Ukrainian and English before heading off to college. While comedy was “his thing” following undergraduate and graduate school, Zelensky earned degrees in economics and law before stepping in front of the small and big screen. Clearly, Zelensky is using all the tools and training right now.
One of the biggest takeaways from Zelensky’s leadership style is the importance of crafting an articulate and inspiring message and then leading from the front. While the people of Ukraine continue to receive a lot of material support from the international community, Zelensky’s messaging around national identity, resilience, and shared sacrifice keeps Ukrainians geared up and revved up to resist their adversaries. Without a resonate, repeatable message, high-tech tools are useless.
My point? I don’t think leaders need to be dripping with charisma to move their constituents to action. However, they must have a compelling vision that others can make their own. An army of one cannot defeat 180,000, just like an organization built around one cannot execute a business plan.
We all want to see a little of ourselves in those who lead us. Amid the crisis in Ukraine, Zelensky’s been a “roll the sleeves up” kind of leader who’s not afraid to show up at street level with camo on his shoulders and a helmet on his head. He’s taking risks as a leader, getting out in front of his constituents, while showing them they have the strength and ability to do what he’s doing.
When the crisis comes – and it will – all of us in leadership positions must demonstrate to our people that we walk the walk. If you talk about sacrifice, but are unwilling to make sacrifices, you will be labeled untrustworthy and fake. No one will follow a leader who isn’t willing to get out in front when the moment demands it. While none of us likes to fail, failure means we took the risk in the first place.
Wishes for Ukraine
Whatever the outcome of the war, I deeply admire Ukrainians for resisting when no one really gave them a shot of slowing the tide of Putin’s armies. I also admire the comedian turned president, Volodymyr Zelensky. He’s inspiring, he’s authentic, and he’s convinced citizens of his country that there is no alternative to putting up a fight.
The people we lead deserve this kind of leadership from us.
Inspire. Be Real. Roll up your sleeves. And send warm thoughts and wishes for Ukraine.