Learning & Development

Leadership Lessons from the Leader of Ukraine

For over a month, the world has been gripped by the unfolding war between Ukraine and Russia—the largest military mobilization in Europe since World War II, causing the greatest number of European refugees since the second World War.

While the Ukranian people suffer indiscriminate shelling of their cities and homes and are uprooted in a quest to find safety, millions are remaining to fight the Russian invaders and are seemingly willing to pay any price to liberate their homeland.

Against this backdrop, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has emerged as a surprising hero and wartime leader. Just as many doubted the political prospects of the former-comedian-turned-politician, so, too, did many doubt the military prospects of the Ukrainians in the face of Russia’s massive troop buildup, significantly larger economy, and advanced military technology.

And yet, Zelensky and Ukraine remain defiant, and the president’s wartime leadership has been an inspiration around the globe. It’s not every day that the world is given a modern, real-life example of exemplary leadership, so we asked business leaders and experts to remark on what lessons American leaders in business—or really any field—can take from Zelensky.

The Face of the Nation

One of Zelensky’s most remarkable and effective achievements has been his ability to establish himself as the face of the Ukrainian nation and their struggle against the Russian invaders. His bravado in making his now legendary response to American offers to evacuate him to safety (“I don’t need a ride; I need ammunition!”), as well as his mastery of social media and messaging, has unified his people and given them an example and a symbol of defiance and courage.

“What Zelensky has done is to become a lightning rod for the outpouring of international outrage, empathy and shock to action,” says Vivian James Rigney, a leadership and executive coach, as well as President and CEO of Inside Us, LLC. “Above all, his ability to immediately recognize the moment and tap the nerve endings of his own people in defending their homeland and way of life, stands out. As a wartime leader, he leans into every situation with purpose, determination and with cold optimism. Not the delusional optimism of Putin, but rather optimism that recognizes the outcome will be costly, painful and difficult. This reality check taps into authenticity and people immediately connect with it.”

Face to the Nation

In addition to his external-facing role as the face of Ukraine, Zelensky has also demonstrated the impact of a leader being visible internally. Zelensky has made it a priority to appear on video to his country regularly and consistently to demonstrate his continued message of defiance and refusal to leave the capital in the face of the Russian threat.

“If you want to be recognized as a leader, you must be visible,” says Jennifer Denehy, cofounder and marketing director at PeopleSearchFaster. “Those who report to you or regard you as a leader must regard you as such. Transparency is necessary for credibility, leading to trust and cooperation. If you want people to follow you, you cannot hide behind your ‘rules and regulations.’ Communicate frequently and complete transparently.”

Showmanship

Underlying Zelensky’s successful messaging at home and abroad is necessarily an element of showmanship. This is in no way intended to suggest a lack of sincerity or genuine commitment on the part of Zelensky. Rather, the point is that even the best-intentioned and most capable leaders can fall short if they can’t effectively communicate with their constituencies. Often, that communication is one way, with leaders giving speeches or presentations to their country or company. In these one-sided contexts, being able to present the image of a courageous, competent, trustworthy leader can be just as important as being a courageous, competent, and trustworthy leader.

“The lesson in leadership is that technical knowledge, superior resources, and experience are not good enough,” says Doug Noll, an attorney with Noll Associates. “Effective leaders understand the power of emotions, know their audience, and communicate their message with passion. Good leaders demonstrate integrity, courage, and strength. Their followers know their leader can be trusted to do the right thing even if it’s the hardest thing imaginable.”

Preparation for Crisis Management Conveys Competence and Inspires Courage

For weeks before the actual Russian invasion of Ukraine, Western intelligence was uncharacteristically open about its assessments of Russia’s intension. Indeed, the massive buildup of over 100,000 Russian soldiers along Ukraine’s borders was a pretty strong hint, as well, not to mention the fact that Ukraine has had hostile Russian and Russian-proxy forces on its territory in both the Crimean Peninsula and the Donbas since 2014.

This means Zelensky had time to prepare for the most likely crisis to face his country for some time, and by most accounts, his government did not squander that opportunity. “Through the course of the war, in addition to staying an inspiration for many, Zelensky has taught business leaders like me to be prepared for crisis management and emerge ready to take risks if the circumstance requires us to,” says Rajeev Kumar, cofounder and CEO of DocuCollab. “More than the charm and the hard work that goes in, he has taught us that leaders need to be obsessed enough to save something they are passionate about.”

The world is full of those with a vast reserve of leadership potential that may never be revealed given the surrounding circumstances. It often takes dramatic and history-making events for hidden leaders to show their true colors. Zelensky started his career as a comedian and actor.

Today, he’s an international celebrity and a symbol of strong leadership. Unfortunately, it took a hostile invasion of his country from a powerful neighbor for his mettle to find the spotlight.

Fortunately for other promising leaders, it’s not necessary to experience the trauma and adversity Zelensky has in order to appreciate and adopt some of the leadership lessons he displays to the world on a daily basis.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.