What’s Making Zelensky a Great Leader

Posted 03.01.2022

You’ve no doubt seen the video by now. Holding his phone up in the dark outside his office in Kyiv last Friday night, Ukrainian president Voldymyr Zelensky filmed himself and his top advisors to let his citizens and the world know he’s here, they’re here, and they’re not going anywhere. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched the video mesmerized by the courage and resolve as he says again and again, the Ukrainian word for here, “Tyt.”

Zelensky has met this moment in a Churchillian way. His leadership is analogous to Churchill’s during the Blitz but more immediate in the sense that he’s mobilized his people to literally take up arms against the invaders and defend their homeland as directly as one can. When told that the U.S. could evacuate him to safety, Zelensky’s reply was “I need ammunition, not a ride.” The olive drab t-shirt and camo that he’s wearing in the streets of Kyiv stand in vivid contrast to Putin isolating himself in vast rooms at the Kremlin in the expensive suits bought with the money he stole from his own people.

Just a few weeks ago, the conventional wisdom was that Zelensky was in over his head and that Ukraine would fold in a day or two after being attacked. Now, thanks to the way Zelensky is leading his people and the influence he’s had on the leaders of other Western nations, it appears that it’s Putin who’s in over his head and looking for a way out. At this point, Zelensky isn’t just leading Ukraine, he’s leading the leaders of much of the rest of the world in taking a stand against the authoritarian model of leadership which has recently been resurgent.

How has he done it? Clearly, Zelensky’s personal courage, connection with his people and clear and sincere communications are extraordinary. In those ways, he exemplifies the two characteristics of great historical leaders that Harvard’s Howard Gardner wrote about in his book, Leading Minds. First, they tell a compelling story about the journey their people are on. And, second, their life and actions embody the story they’re telling. With his demonstrated personal commitment to fighting for Ukraine’s freedom, Zelensky could be a case study in Gardner’s book.

He is also a role model of what two other Harvard professors, my former teachers and lifetime mentors Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky call adaptive leadership. I would argue that the sudden transformation of Voldymyr Zelensky from someone who appeared to be in over his head to the heroic leader of Ukraine and inspiration to much of the world is because he quickly identified and leaned into what Heifetz and Linsky call the adaptive challenge. Clearly, when your country is being invaded, you have to adapt quickly as a leader if you’re going to effectively mobilize your people. Thus far, Zelensky has been masterful in practicing three key principles that Ron and Marty highlighted in their book, Leadership on the Line:

Orchestrate the Conflict: While leading in a literal deadly conflict, Zelensky, starting with the video he filmed with his colleagues, immediately did two key things that Heifetz and Linsky teach are vital to orchestrating the work that needs to be done. First, draw attention to the tough questions and, second, give people more responsibility than they are comfortable with. As all great leaders do, Zelensky has been defining reality while offering hope. And the hope he’s offering is not pie in the sky verbiage, it’s the hope that emerges when people grab hold of their agency and, in this case, weapons, to shape their own outcomes.

Give the Work Back: Zelensky understands that his role is to inspire and equip Ukrainians to do the work of defending their country and freedom. Through role modeling courage, distributing AK-47’s and posting online instructions for how to make DIY Molotov cocktails, Zelensky and his team are doing everything they can to give the work back to their people. In the process, they have prevented the Russians from scoring a quick victory and, in turn, have given their allies around the world time to mobilize sanctions that have dramatically turned up the pressure on Putin.

Hold Steady: In their book, Heifetz and Linsky write, “Holding steady in the heat of action is an essential skill for staying alive and keeping people focused on the work. The pressure on you may be almost unbearable, causing you to doubt both your capacities and your direction. If you waver or act prematurely, your initiative can be lost in an instant.” In the coming days and weeks, Zelensky’s capacity to hold steady will be tested in ways that very few of us will ever experience. Thus far, he’s held steady as a rock. For his own sake and that of all Ukrainians, we must hope that he continues to do so.

As a student of leadership, I had to write this post if for no other reason than to sort through one of the most inspiring examples of leadership I’ve ever seen. I don’t mean to suggest that what Zelensky is up against compares in any way to what most of us face in our everyday experience. His challenges are far greater than that. Still, when we are presented with such an astounding real-life case study of leadership, I think we need to pay attention to any lessons we can glean while, at the same time, cheering it on.

Long live free Ukraine. Long live Voldymyr Zelensky.

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