When Putin’s War Meets Zelensky’s Leadership

Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash

Some time ago, when the Covid crisis unfolded, I wrote about global leadership lessons, as such instances of global disruptions have the capacity to reveal how leaders operate and who they really are. Currently, we are into the fourth month of Putin’s war in Ukraine. Zooming out from the real suffering and emotional burden of this crisis, we can yet again look at the leadership. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the end of February, the world has witnessed the prominent rise of President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has become a national hero and an inspirational figure for many of us outside of Ukraine. By contrast, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has been strongly denounced around the world.

Naturally, the beginning of the war and its development are a result of multiple powerful systemic factors and forces, including geopolitics… Yet, given how this war has mobilized and engaged masses around the world, it is easy to see that the personalities of the wartime leaders matter.

Based on my perception of the news and anecdotal evidence so far, Zelensky is a great inspiration for Ukrainian people, he drives their resistance and motivates Ukrainian soldiers to fight and, if needed, die for their vision of freedom and a better future. I would also say that Ukrainians are not fighting FOR their leader, rather alongside their leader, who refused to flee the war zone and notoriously declared that he needs ‘ammunition, not a ride’. The strong feelings of togetherness and connection among ordinary people, the military and the president is palpable in Ukraine.

Based on the charismatic, ideological, & pragmatic (CIP) model of leadership, Volodymyr Zelensky emerges as a charismatic type. Descriptions of this leadership type usually point to the presence of a passionate vision, a focus on the better future, and a strong personal role modelling of needed actions by the leader. Zelensky currently exemplifies such courageous and heroic image, because he is not only strongly conveying the vision for his people, but also visibly acting upon it. Charismatic leaders, being at the forefront of the crisis themselves, can energize followers in amazing ways. That is what Zelensky is doing—and pulling off—right now, as his efforts have already resulted in massive support, donations, and engagement from around the world.

Without doubt President Zelensky can be described also through the lens of servant leadership, or selfless as opposed to self-centred leadership. The notion of selflessness is well depicted in Zelensky’s own sitcom “Servant of the People”, which ran from 2015 to 2019 in Ukraine and features Zelensky, still an actor and comedian at that time, in the role of Ukrainian president Holoborodko. The overarching theme of the show is the corruption that plagues the country. The inspiring message of the show is in Holoborodko’s moral clarity with which he argues that the President and government should serve the people, not the other way around. Another underlying theme of the show is about the pressures on striving for democracy from more-powerful neighbours. Yet another inspiring message is that Ukraine can become a great democracy despite all these challenges. The same moral clarity and hope is what Zelensky, now in his role as president, continues to convey. In the same way the viewer of the show grows to admire the selfless and charismatic character played by Zelensky in “Servant of the People”, people admire the real version of him in the face of this crisis. Indeed, both in the show and in reality Zelensky embodies an idea of leadership that appeals to people. It is the idea of strength and power that comes from being together with and close to the people, not above them. This is in line with recent research of mine highlighting how effective leaders reduce the social distance between them and their subordinates. President Zelensky’s media appearances throughout the war have the same personal and relatable feel to them, his message is simple, yet powerful – dear Ukrainian people, ‘I am here’ among and with you.

Over the decades, the image of strength and power has been portrayed by President Putin as well… yet, in a very different way. Putin’s strength is portrayed in the moments of him bare-chested riding a horse, posing with a riffle gun, defeating opponents in sporting events, and portraying his greatness by sitting at one end of his massive white table. Putin’s image is of a leader, who is to be respected, worshipped, and feared, who is untouchable, and whose authority is unquestionable. In contrast to Zelensky, Putin comes off as remote, unrelatable and self-centred. Fortunately to the good cause, Putin’s leadership does not seem to inspire the masses. There are several accounts of demotivated and demoralised Russian servicemen, who are not willing to fight and die for the ideas of their leader, who do not seem to be united by any shared cause or vision.

Hopefully, the unbreakable will of the Ukrainian people and their inspiring leader, along with ongoing empathy, support and help from the majority of us all, is what will matter most in this war, and will determine its end result, despite the odds.

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