Many leaders face moments when overwhelming crises or hardships are stacked against them, and they have a sinking feeling they are not up to the challenges. Let’s look at how one leader dealt with a historic worst-case scenario. As The New York Times described it, “Russian tanks were rolling over the border and Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, was in the grips of fear and panic.” What President Volodymyr Zelensky did next was an inspiring example of servant leadership.
After the war began, Zelensky did not flee into exile, but instead went out onto the streets of his besieged capital to reassure his people. The comedian-turned-politician communicated his confidence through selfie-style videos. Simply being present sent a powerful message.Avoiding the me-first route of protecting his personal safety was just one facet of Zelensky’s servant leadership.
As an actor, Zelensky had played a high school teacher propelled to the presidency after a student’s video of him ranting about corruption in Ukraine went viral. The TV series was called Servant of the People, a name adopted by his political party. After life imitated art and Zelenskyy became president, servant leadership helped him keep his administration intact. In a country that has substantial pro-Russian factions and regions, he was able to unite often-squabbling politicians behind the cause of resisting the Russian invasion.
Zelensky’s outward communications were simple, clear, and authentic, starting with his famous dismissal of an offer of help getting out of Kyiv: “I need ammunition, not a ride.” He recorded nightly videos for his people and speeches to Congress, several other parliaments, and even the Grammy Awards, always tailoring his message to the audience. He made specific, repeated demands for international help and didn’t shy from describing the horrors of civilian casualties. As the Los Angeles Times observed, “The president’s wartime speeches are notable for their displays of raw emotion, but at the same time, he is capable of evoking piteous scenes without asking for pity.”
The international embrace of the Ukrainian resistance shows many signs of being a team effort, involving speechwriters, interpreters, graphic artists, and all kinds of strategists. As Zelensky became a familiar world figure looking unshaven in olive drab fatigues, he might have come off as a lonely underdog. But he seemed willing to share the spotlight as cabinet ministers, diplomats, and other allies spoke for Ukraine, and then a parade of foreign dignitaries risked dangerous journeys to appear by his side. In contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed a more isolated figure.
The Ukrainian president’s consistent message to his people, to political detractors and foes in his government, and to potential allies around the world was that getting behind him was being on the side of good versus evil. Those of us who are business leaders don’t often have such a compelling moral imperative to rally a team around, but we still can take lessons from Zelensky.