The invasion of Ukraine by Russia is truly shocking.
Those of us fortunate to be far enough away that we are observers and not participants in this horror, have the privilege of watching one of history’s great leaders emerge from this tragedy.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected President of Ukraine in 2019, and in the brutal 6 weeks since 24 February, we have seem him take on the mantle of an extraordinary wartime leader.
Luckily for us, the context of organisational leadership is a world away from Zelenskyy’s living nightmare, but there are lessons for us as leaders in his inspirational example.
1 Expert Communicator
What is leadership if it is not communication?
Possibly the most used skill needed by leaders is that of communication.
The complexity of any leader’s context is such that they need to rely on the team around them for specific expertise in most circumstances. But leaders can’t rely on others to provide the skill of communication. That skill might exist in the team that surrounds the leaders, but the most effective leaders are also skilled communicators.
Much has been made of Zelenskyy’s background as a comedian and actor. And a common reaction seems to be that it is surprising how someone with that experience could effectively lead a nation at a time such as this.
But what is an actor and comedian if not a highly skilled and practiced communicator?
Is it surprising that someone who has spent two decades focusing on creating, shaping, targeting and delivering compelling messages, amplified with emotion, is now drawing deeply on this expertise?
Zelenskyy is not just in Kyiv, he is visibly so.
But in the digital world we live in, not only is he physically visible, he is also expert at projecting his messaging.
He demonstrates mastery of all the modern communication tools, including social media and video conferencing.
3 Discipline and Consistency
The performance discipline required to succeed at high levels in the arts is also on show.
To craft polished messages with clarity and cut through might look spur of the moment. But they draw on decades of skill building.
As a former Improv comedian, Zelenskyy quite likely did just rattle off “I need ammo not a ride” but this cut-through messaging drew on decades of building his craft.
His imagery is also consistent (khaki t-shirt, backdrop etc) and he knows never to allow silence to grow.
His communication is not sporadic as it is with so many leaders. He doesn’t disappear for a few days or weeks.
He is omnipresent.
To a fair degree relevance is achieved at least partially through all the others listed above. More than six weeks into this war, Ukraine and Zelenskyy remain on the front page.
The skill at which all of the above are executed and build on each other is a major reason why Zelenskyy continues to maintain relevance. And maintaining relevance is critical to the survival objectives of his country that depends on maintaining and growing support from the West.
But Zelenskyy also takes the time to increase relevance by targeting his messages (eg quoting Shakespeare and Winston Churchill in his speech to the UK parliament) and adapting them to what is happening on the ground, in Ukraine and with his audiences. Another skill he has learned as a performer.
His mastery of all four of these attributes creates a multiplicative effect, each building on the other.
All four of these attributes are impressive in their own right, but the foundation on which they are all built is the courage that Zelenskyy demonstrates every day.
He has played many roles in his career as an actor. He’s probably playing one now – after all, all leaders play roles and adopt personas in some form.
Whether he is playing a role or is authentically himself, either way he needs extraordinary courage.
His decision to remain visibly in the centre of Kyiv, and for his family to also remain in Ukraine, underpins and amplifies everything he does with the courage and sacrifice that these decisions symbolise.
He is not only demonstrating physical courage.
His messages to the many parliaments where he has spoken demonstrate his courage to speak truth to power. To challenge governments and world leaders in their own places to do more. To call out inconsistency and hypocrisy. To ask without fear or favour for what his country needs right now.
His example is an inspiration to all of us.
All leadership takes courage. If we’re not uncomfortable, then we’re probably in our comfort zone.
If you’re not uncomfortable then you probably need to step up more as a leader. While you’re asking for feedback on your communication skills (see next point), ask for some feedback on what more you can do to show leadership in whatever it is you are finding challenging.
It will feel uncomfortable to ask, but that’s what courage is for.
Building communication skills and practicing their use are essential attributes for leaders.
Take a stocktake on your communication skills. Where are you weakest? Ask for feedback on your communication from the people around you.
The best communicators make it look effortless. Except effortless communication doesn’t exist. That’s magical thinking.
We can be grateful that we are not Zelenskyy and that what is asked of him and his people is not asked of us.
But as leaders, we can hold up his example in contexts that are unquestionably safer and less challenging than his.
We might not be facing bombs and living in a war, but good leadership still takes courage and is uncomfortable.
Are we asking enough of ourselves?
Today, we can ask: What can I learn, and how can I be a better leader?
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