I confess, I get a little mushy when it comes to Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Perhaps it’s because I am a former theatre guy. I mean, before this brutal war with Russia, Zelenskyy was a comedian and a comic actor. He played a president on Ukrainian television. Then he had the audacity to run for the actual office at the age of 40. The Ukrainian people had the audacity to overwhelmingly elect him with 72% of the national vote.
And then Russia invaded.
Expectations of Zelenskyy were low, very low. Zelenskyy was written off as a lightweight – a television actor turned wartime president! Really - an actor?
As contemptible as this invasion by Russia is, and the suffering and carnage it has caused - the heroic spirit of the Ukrainian people, under the leadership of Mr. Zelenskyy, inspires. Mushy me is stirred by the David and Goliath dimensions of the war. By the fish-out-of-water aspect. By the complete defiance of expectations. By the extraordinary ability to rally support from global leaders in the most unlikely places.
That’s leadership at play. Pretty extraordinary leadership.
Thank you, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then you are a leader.”John Quincy Adams
I hope that you will never need to lead under the wartime conditions of Mr. Zelenskyy, not in any aspect of your life. Not at work, not in your civic endeavors, your volunteer commitments, or your domestic life.
We passed the 1-year anniversary of the Russian-Ukrainian war last week. Here’s what stands out for me about Mr. Zelenskyy, from my vantage point as an Executive Coach to CEOs and C-Suite leaders. Here are some of the things I see Mr. Zelenskyy doing really, really well. Consider how they may apply to you and your circumstances.
Zelenskyy IS an actor. He knows how to communicate on camera. He does this really well. From the moment the war began, Zelenskyy addressed his nation via video every single day. That’s a lot of communication. He also showed up on video in parliaments all over the world, at the Venice Film Festival, the Grammys, the Oscars. He was THERE..
Smart leader. Zelenskyy is at times called the social media president. Heck yeah. Zelenskyy knows how to show up. Knows how to deeply connect with folks on camera. This is a strength. He is using it magnificently.
Zelenskyy is supported by impeccable wardrobe choices. Consistently dressed in the camouflage garb of a wartime leader. This visual reminder that he, and his people, are at war compellingly triggers pathos and empathy in me, the listener. I cannot think of a more effective wartime advocate on the international stage for his people than Mr. Zelenskyy. He knows what he’s good at it, and he plays his strengths to the hilt.
Zelenskyy is blessed with a decent command of the English language. He is wise to call on it often in his international communications instead of relying on a translator. It deepens the immediacy of his impact. Because Zelenskyy’s English is not flawless, not honed by years of studying at an American university, it makes his use of the English language that much more endearing. We experience Zelenskyy as a genuine, not slick communicator
Zelenskyy uses two speech writers to craft his messages for him. The writers vacillate between keeping his messaging very simple and bringing in broader historic allusions, as when Mr. Zelenskyy quoted Winston Churchill in his in-person address to the US Congress. Memo to the speech writers: I appreciate the itch to write the big soaring language for Mr. Zelenskyy- but I urge you to resist the temptation to paint in big strokes for someone whose English is functional but not sophisticated. Trust the simplicity. Mr. Zelenskyy communicates the simple very powerfully.
The defiant belief in winning. The deep faith in the Ukrainian people. The unwavering ability to forecast a favorable outcome. The gritty fighter spirit. The dogged determination amidst staggering hardship.
True leaders know they need to communicate an unshakeable optimism. Zelenskyy does it with a soul fervor that I believe. It’s a fervor that does not feel like an act. And actor that he is, we know Zelenskyy could fake the optimism if he had to.
I shake my head at the idiot politicians who suggest that Zelenskyy negotiate with Russia. Do they really not “get” the power of unshakeable optimism? Do they not understand that pragmatism, more often than not, will get you nothing? These politicians have the luxury of getting weary of a war that others are fighting. They don’t have a clue about winning. Mr. Zelenskyy doesn’t have their luxury. His optimism is one of his weapons.
Zelenskyy’s job is to ask for help. More help. And then some more. From every ally, all the time. More than the allies wish to offer. More than he knows he will get.
He does this by challenging the allies, thanking them, rattling their fear of getting pulled into a war, dragging them out of their illusions of stability, making the business case for staying involved. Creating urgency, urgency, and more urgency.
I think of the business world where I play. I witness great fear of asking for what a business truly needs to succeed. Constantly. I witness the fear of being branded if we ask for too much. I understand and respect this fear. Reasonable leaders, however, rarely succeed. Zelenskyy is not reasonable. He always asks for too much. Let’s learn from him.
It’s a quote that has become a classic. Often attributed to Marianne Williamson but believed to originate from Nelson Mandela, or even further back in time, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.”
For Volodymyr Zelenskyy, playing small isn’t an option. It’s a privilege to watch him step up. Not playing small looks different in different situations. Have a conversation with yourself: Where in your life are you unnecessarily playing small? What’s the fear that fuels the smaller play? And what might playing a little less small, situation by situation, look like?
War is a very ugly thing. Volodymyr Zelenskyy is the right leader for his people at this very ugly time. And he is a teacher for all of us.
Let us observe. Learn. And please, be an ally.