3 Things Business Leaders Can Learn From Ukrainian President Zelensky

3 Things Business Leaders Can Learn From Ukrainian President Zelensky

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The recent invasion of Ukraine, despite ample warnings, caught many off guard. With such a shocking military escalation, it was easy for many people inside and outside of Ukraine to panic. At the time, we didn’t know what might come next. Yet we felt an overwhelming desire–even a need–to do something. But what? Though the conflict in Ukraine is unfolding thousands of miles away, analyzing its lessons can inform the way leaders react to disruptions and threats.

Managing the threat of Covid-19, for example, is still top of mind for most leaders. But disruption to the daily order is not confined to a pandemic. Similar disruptions occur when the market presents an opportunity for a merger, there is a chance to open an office overseas, or stock prices plummet forcing a series of tough decisions. Whereas the 20th century system favored those who pressed their advantages in efficiency and scale, the modern climate rewards those leaders who make intentional pivots towards adaptability and resilience in the face of uncertainty. 

It’s easy for leaders to feel frustrated by the need to do “something,” without necessarily knowing what that should be. When the path forward is unclear, and we lack resources, there are three actions leaders should take:

  • Take time to pause and reflect before acting

  • Return to the basics

  • Give people the first step on the path

Standing Still Is Not Doing Nothing

When asked what I would do differently in preparing to assume command in Afghanistan, I replied, only partly in jest, “go whitewater rafting.” I suggested that I, along with the President, Vice President, Secretary of Defense, and other key National Security leaders should have bought several cases of beer, bags of pretzels, and headed to a river. Listeners looked at me like I was crazy.

My point was that the actual challenges we would jointly confront were, at that point, difficult to clearly identify, and impossible to begin solving. Our time would have been best-spent establishing rapport, building trust, and creating the relational foundations that would prove essential in the months that followed. 

In short, great leaders don’t rush off and just “do stuff.” But they do act. In those times when there is a clear need for decisive action, but the direction isn’t clear, they focus on building within their teams a strong sense of common purpose–which may begin with stopping first to remember what that common purpose is in the first place, and how leadership decisions must sustain the followers of the organization and be tailored to the operating environment.

In Ukraine, President Zelensky’s refusal to leave Ukraine inspired average citizens to continue to defend their land. The simplicity and bravery of his actions bound the Ukrainian people to the overarching values of duty, pride, honor, and respect. This has led to a level of commitment and engagement that far overshadows the invading Russian force, in turn creating tangible results on the battlefield.

Go Back to Basics

After 9/11, many military units wanted to rush off to the war, but mature ones went to rifle ranges, increased time in the gym, and focused on cohesion within their teams. Deliberately focusing on the fundamentals, they knew that whatever actions they would later take, a well-prepared and united team would be valuable, no matter the challenge.

From the moment of the invasion, Zelensky has focused on the fundamentals of protecting his people and defending their homeland. This has included working international channels to garner support, refusing to leave or back down despite pleas from the West, and establishing a functional HQ for military and evacuation operations. 

What are the ‘fundamentals’ of your business? What are the actions you can always take to ensure you are delivering success for the organization and delivering on the promise of your common purpose? If you can answer these questions, you can both stabilize the team, and ‘sharpen the saw’ for the next challenges that come your way.

Give Your People the First Step on the Path

It is remarkably easy to be overwhelmed by choices. The ‘paradox of choice’ is a dangerous enemy under normal circumstances; it can be downright frightening when emergency strikes. For example, the Russian military’s plan for invasion has failed in large part to the highly centralized, command-and-control structure of Russia’s forces. They’ve struggled to adapt to Ukrainian forces, which operate with decentralized autonomy and constantly adapt plans of action to frustrate Russian advances. High-ranking Russian generals, lacking on-the-ground knowledge, have panicked when confronted with this constantly-shifting threat and have made a series of bad calls. 

As leaders, it is our job to establish, and re-establish order. In times of crisis, we can put a multitude of choices in their proper place by providing a roadmap forward, even if we don’t know where the road leads. It does not mean having all the answers. It means having situational awareness, making an educated guess about what the future holds and then pointing to the first step in front of us on that path. That first step should be informed by the fundamentals of our business and aligned with our organization’s common purpose. 

In business, we saw this formula play out during the pandemic. Leaders might not have known the best direction to head in. But taking the time to ensure the boat wouldn’t sink was the first vital step. Effective leaders, while working to figure out what an evolving situation required, focused first and foremost on protecting their team members, while also increasing communication to reduce their teams’ angst. They provided a singular focus–safety first–and regular touchpoints that led their people forward through a terrifying period of uncertainty. 

The Takeaway 

In my experience, it is leaders who adapt to suddenly changing circumstances with their feet on the ground, that survive to fight on for another day. There are a number of leaders that did this in the face of Covid-19. President Zelensky has demonstrated this through his mastery of mass communications, leveraging his expertise in media to connect with a global audience and lead his people on a public platform

The Great Resignation, Covid-19, inflation, racial justice protests, and the war in Ukraine are all examples of sudden events that have created broad and far-reaching implications for the future. Perhaps more than with any other factor, these events of massive uncertainty can rob us of our sense of control. Faced with complexity and unclear answers, it is easy to feel frantic, frustrated, even slightly unhinged. But we don’t have to feel this way. We can choose to reset, to go back to basics, and to tackle crises one step at a time. That steady foundation provides the basis for becoming comfortable with the chaos and confusion all around, allowing you to keep calm while others panic. And it puts you in the perfect position to take advantage of the new opportunities that arise when others are too frightened or too stressed to act.

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