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The Ukraine crisis reminds us that the world desperately needs leaders like Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Courageous, integrous, authentic, vulnerable and deeply human.

The war in Ukraine has proven a devastating assault on the senses.

Night after night, we watch, with mounting horror and outrage, the bombardment of a proud and defiant people who refuse to be trampled under the boot of aggression and brutality.

Women and children flee their homes, clutching small, totable fragments of their old lives.

New mothers huddle in abandoned subway stations, desperate for temporary, tenuous relief from a monstrous bombing frenzy.

And achingly young men and women, some barely more than teenagers, clutch unfamiliar weapons with a steely determination to protect their loved ones from a brutal dictator.

This is the unfolding story of the Russian invasion of Ukraine: Searing pain, loss and destruction.

But also, incredibly, a story of hope, unity and humanity.

And an almost inconceivable show of courage – sparked, in large part, by Ukraine’s inspirational, lionhearted prime minister, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Who could have imagined, at the start of this unprovoked and unjust war, that an affable former comedic actor – the man affectionately known as the Tom Hanks of Ukraine – would come to symbolise such phenomenal courage and illuminate the disproportionate impact of leadership?

Or that a young, untested leader with barely any political experience would rise up to stare down Vladimir Putin, becoming, in the process, the global face of righteous defiance, and moral fortitude?

A deviance and fortitude that, at the time of writing, has frustrated and thwarted one of the mightiest nuclear militaries in the world, and brought a brutal dictator to the brink of humiliation and, if not outright defeat, a mortifying retreat.

Regardless of what unfolds in the days and weeks ahead, Ukraine has already won.

From Hlukhiv in the north to Kherson in the south, the country has suffered unimaginable violence. Thousands of people have been killed, and millions displaced. Entirely cities lay in ruins.

But the Ukrainian people have not been defeated.

If anything, they rise from the rubble of Mariupol and Kharkiv prouder, more determined, and more united than ever. And more fiercely loyal to their heroic leader than before the first Russian tanks rolled across Ukraine’s eastern border.

Under the most harrowing of conditions, under extreme and prolonged threats of violence and death, Ukrainians never lost faith in their leader. They never questioned his tactics, nor faltered in their execution of his orders. They stood their ground and faced the enemy head-on – showing their faces, not their backs. And in doing so, disempowered a dictator.

The genesis of this war was about the Putin effect. It’s conclusion and aftermath will be about the Zelenskyy effect.

Much has been written about the David-and-Goliath Ukrainian air force. About Putin’s many miscalculations. About a demoralised Russian military. And about Ukraine’s makeshift armies outflanking and outsmarting Putin’s tanks and artillery.

But there is widespread consensus, from five-star generals down to the general public: Zelenskyy singlehanded changed the trajectory and, ultimately, the narrative of what could so easily have been a Russian walkover.

As the conflict unfolded, and the military and humanitarian crisis deepened, Zelenskyy became not only the face of courage. He has become the face of leadership. A new generation of leadership.

Leadership steeped in courage, but not distorted by swagger or bravado. Leadership that unites, rather than divides. Leadership that inspires rather than dictates. And leadership that rallies and galvanises the very best in us, in service of the very best in others.

Mural by graffiti artist Kawu

Cometh the hour, cometh the leader

In Kiev, that leader turned out to be the most unlikely of war heroes.

Small in stature, genial and soft-spoken, and endearingly devoted to his parents, his wife and his young children, Zelenskyy is the very antithesis of what we expect our leaders to look and sound and act like.

Two thousand years of global conflict, war, invasion and tyranny have socialised the world into thinking that leadership is synonymous with power and ruthlessness. That strength necessary presents as force, and that vulnerability signals weakness. That leaders get to dictate the world we live in, and command respect and compliance through the sheer force of their ironclad will.

This battlefield persona has filtered into every aspect of modern society, including our organisations. Leaders are remote and resolute. They are unyielding and inflexible. Unapproachable and unrelatable. They rarely admit mistakes for fear of appearing weak and are quick to see dissent as disloyalty. Even betrayal. They demand followership, rather than seeking to earn it.

Two thousand years of conflict, war and tyranny have given us leaders like Putin. The Ukraine crisis reminds us: What the world desperately needs are leaders like Zelenskyy.

Leaders who are courageous. Integrous. Authentic. Humble. Vulnerable. And above all, deeply human.

A new lens on leadership

Late last year, TPA embarked on an ambitious project: To redefine what values-based leadership looks and feels like in a human-centric world.

Because the events of the past few years – including, but also preceding a global pandemic – have left no doubt that our old, archaic ways of leading, rooted in an outdated, industrial-era command-and-control model, were fundamentally broken.

This has culminated in a series of Insights under the banner, A New Lens on Leadership, in which we have lifted up the salient elements of what it takes to be an inspiring, liberating and impactful leader in a new world of work.

I have previously written about the importance of having a clear and audacious vision of the future – not as it is, but as it should be. About the passion to inspire, motivate and mobilise others to follow this vision. And about the integrity to choose, always, to do the right thing, morally and ethically.

The Zelenskyy effect is a powerful reminder of another, increasingly relevant leaf in this lens: Courage.

Of course, courage in our boardrooms and C-suites looks a lot different than it does on the battlefield. Few of us are called upon to make life-and-death decisions, and our failures and miscalculations rarely make international headlines.

But as business leaders, we carry the responsibility of not only safeguarding the livelihoods of our people, but contributing to their well-being, liberating their potential and creating the environments in which they can find purpose and meaning.

It is a tremendous responsibility which requires, in addition to vision, passion and integrity, extraordinary courage:

  • The courage to make difficult decisions and own and answer for them with fortitude and humility.

  • The courage to be decisive, but also inclusive, leading not by edict but by consultation and collaboration.

  • The courage to call out injustice and discrimination, no matter the personal and professional costs.

  • The courage to make space for other voices. Including dissenting voices. Especially dissenting voices.

  • The courage to admit mistakes and acknowledge weakness, uncertainty and even fear.

  • The courage to be vulnerable and to ask for help.

  • And, perhaps most importantly, the courage to be deeply, authentically and imperfectly human.

Because values-based leadership is not rooted in authority, it is rooted in connection. And we cannot connect authentically with others, especially those who gift us their followership, if we do not meet them as authentic human beings.

Elizabeth Edwards reminds us:

It is this vulnerability and imperfection that has made Volodymyr Zelenskyy one of the most admired leaders in the world today.

Not his wartime strategies, nor his battlefield tactics or his commander-in-chief heroics. Rather, courageous, disruptive leadership that eschews authoritarianism for authenticity, empathy and a shared humanity.

© Natalie Maroun


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