Leadership Lessons From President Zelenskyy

Former comedic actor Zelenskyy’s leadership is no joke – and others should follow his exemplary actions. The Ukrainian President was viewed as something of a comedian until Russia invaded, but by staying in Kiev and rallying his people around a common cause, he has shown his authenticity and immense bravery.

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Les Brookes, Partner and Chief Executive at Oliver Wight EAME, takes a look at what business leaders can learn from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

I can understand why many people worldwide have been raving about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s leadership in the face of such adversity since Russia invaded his country in late February. First and foremost, he deserves great credit for staying put in Kiev and vowing to defend his nation, literally. That action has set the tone for the Ukrainian people. As a result, they are willing to fight and even die for their homeland. 

Until a month ago, most people outside Ukraine viewed Zelenskyy as a comedic actor with no previous political experience. All that is true, but the Ukrainian leader has proven he is far from a joke, having rallied and mobilised his people – and even others outside Ukraine – behind a common cause. The same can be said about Vitali Klitschko, the Mayor of Kiev, and his brother and fellow champion boxer Wladimir Klitschko. 

A natural leader

Often people are selected or elected to be leaders whether in politics or business and in these situations leaders still have a choice to make – they can either use their position to truly lead and set out the agenda or they can just use their position as a leader to manage. Surely the latter is a lost opportunity to enlighten people and teams.

Some people are natural leaders, and their charisma and authenticity shine through. People will follow them over the top, as it were. Can leaders be trained? I believe that natural leaders are more successful because they provide direction and inspire those around them. So they always have great, engaged teams.

There is a difference to call out here between management and leadership in this world we live in now. There is a move away from a command-and-control type approach, even in the military. Instead, leaders and organisations now realise that they must empower their managers and teams, support them with data and technology, and trust them. 

Granted, different organisations require different leadership styles depending on where they are in terms of their maturity. For example, in a price-competitive world, tight management needs to focus on business outcomes, which requires leadership to engage with the teams of people responsible for delivery.

Empowering teams and managers

As a leader in 2022, it’s all about having that great, engaged team around you. Even if you are not a natural leader, that team can still be successful. Now, leaders don’t need to be the people who own the organisation’s ultimate goal. Today, they must engage with people to build leadership responsibilities throughout the organisation and remove traditional hierarchical structures, which stunt agility and innovation. Leadership could and should happen at every level, and with a flatter organisation, there is a great opportunity for anyone to shine.

A leader can provide the boundaries for people to take empowerment so the team members can find their inner leadership skills. Then, setting out the vision down through strategy, and connecting that to those empowerment boundaries, will help gather people around that common cause. That, in turn, will help teams work out how to deliver the strategy.

It’s interesting to see a trend for organisations to appoint leaders outside of the industry. Almost having a lack of experience, and seeing things with fresh eyes, is viewed as a plus. For example, in late March, Jim Rowan, who has a technology rather than an automotive background, took the wheel at Volvo, becoming CEO and President. 

Albert Einstein said: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” 

By selecting leaders from within the same industry, it could be argued that this is repeating the cycle, so it makes sense to bring in someone who can provide a different level of challenge from an external standpoint. It’s like making the leader the customer’s voice in many ways. With that perspective, leaders can truly deliver innovation and thought leadership rather than achieve incremental improvements of what’s happened previously.

As a leader, I have supported people to achieve their own levels of ambition and helped people learn from mistakes while encouraging them to have an entrepreneurial spirit. I have lived by the values that I have set for desired outcomes and ensured that I have been people-focused. I’ve always thought that if I could reach a point where somebody didn’t need me from a process point of view, that would be a success. 

As a final piece of advice for leaders, I would say: understand people at all levels of life, not just those you consider to be in your peer group. This is something that Zelenskyy excels at and is why he is rightly earning plaudits around the world.

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