10x President Zelenskyy
Leadership lessons from Ukraine's wartime President
What if I told you, the actor who voiced the endearing Paddington bear, now plays a president who is staring down a nuclear threat? I bet you’ll squirm, “What a terrible casting choice!”. Of course, the truth is stranger than fiction, as these events are being played out in real life (and real time!)
Here is the quick rundown on the events that have transpired. On 24 February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine by Russian Armed Forces previously concentrated along the border. The invasion followed by targeted airstrikes of military buildings in the country, as well as tanks entering via the Belarus border. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyyy declared martial law throughout Ukraine.
Leaders are created, not born!
Zelenskyy rose to the challenge, swiftly and decisively. Once a comic actor, almost overnight, transformed into a wartime president, to the world's surprise and delight. He is still putting smiles on the faces around the world, but that’s more of awe, wonder, grit and inspiration. If you looked at his resume from the lens of a politician, you may find no proof of him being even successful at acting for such a role, but he has truly seized the moment. In doing that, he has provided a categorical proof that leaders are created, not born. More accurate in this context is the insight from this medium piece that states, “Leaders are created by the demands that are placed on them”.
Leaders communicate and communicate!
Zelenskyy is leveraging the power of social media to share messages of defiance and courage. In this video, “We are here. We are in Kyiv. We are protecting Ukraine,” Zelenskyy is seen surrounded by his top advisers. “We are all here. Our army are here. Citizens and society are here,” he says. “We are defending our independence, our state, and it will remain so.” Zelenskyy, using his fluency in Russian speech, has also appealed to Russians in another video, urging them to “just stop those who lie, lie to you, lie to us, lie to everyone, to the whole world. We need to end this war. We can live in peace, in a global peace.” The world is surprised at the pace the West has moved to break away from decades of foreign policy, choosing freedom over prosperity, and swiftly uniting to implement historic sanctions against Russia - very much rooted in the way Zelenskyy has crisply and persistently communicated his ideas, punctuated by an emotional appeal.
Leaders lead by example!
"I am here. We are not putting down arms. We will be defending our country, because our weapon is truth, and our truth is that this is our land, our country, our children, and we will defend all of this," Zelenskyy said in the video. He didn’t mince words. He didn’t just ask the people of Ukraine to take up arms in opposition to a Russian invasion, he has led the charge himself, all the while knowing that he was as high value a target as it gets.
Leaders show empathy!
Ukraine opened a hotline for families of Russian soldiers who were likely captured as POWs as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine launched the website 200rf.com where it publishes photos and documents of the dead and captured occupiers so that their relatives can find them. Vadym Denysenko, advisor to Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs informed, that Ukraine treats prisoners very humanely – no one insults them, they are given medical care.He also said that the Russian authorities had confiscated their phones before sending the soldiers to the war, so the prisoners could not contact their relatives. Denysenko also said that Ukraine’s Interior Ministry can provide a paid service for Russian citizens for DNA identification of the bodies. “Ukraine has appealed to the Red Cross to carry out a humanitarian mission to hand over the bodies of your victims.”
Leaders have an inspiring vision!
Zelenskyy set the tone early: “If we come under attack, if we face an attempt to take away our country, our freedom, our lives and the lives of our children, we will defend ourselves. When you attack us, you will see our faces. Not our backs, but our faces.” Colin Powell said, “Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers.” Zelinsky has mastered the craft of setting a few aspirational targets people can unite around and communicate them over and over again. “We are fighting for our rights, for our freedoms, for life, for our life, and now we are fighting for survival”, Zelenskyy addressed the European Parliament.
Leaders show vulnerability!
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told EU leaders "this might be the last time you see me alive" during a video conference. He also said he has been marked as the number one target in Russia's assault on Ukraine. He defiantly stated that he and his family remain in the country.
The citizens of Ukraine are vulnerable under attack. Zelenskyy, as their leader, has chosen to be vulnerable along with them. “We Ukrainians are a peaceful nation. But if we remain silent today, we will be gone tomorrow!”
Leaders are selfless!
In his inaugural address as the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy said, “I really do not want my pictures in your offices, for the President is not an icon, an idol or a portrait. Hang your kids' photos instead, and look at them each time you are making a decision." I cannot even begin to imagine the weight of the pressure President Zelenskyy must be feeling at this time. It also feels rotten to think about balancing personal and family safety with the sovereignty of the country. When the US offered safe passage out of Ukraine, Zelenskyy said, “I need ammunition, not a ride”. His unwavering courage has brought in universal praise, but he brushes off praise for his wartime response saying “I'm not iconic, I think Ukraine is iconic”.
I’ll leave you with this quote from the American Revolution by Abigail Adams, a brilliant thinker and one of only two women to be married to a president and give birth to one, wrote this in a letter to her son, “It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues.”