Leadership Lessons — How Zelenskyy is demonstrating expansive leadership, Part 1

May 5, 2022
7 min read
Photo by Issac D on Unsplash
“The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”
— President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

With these words, former comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy set a path to becoming one of the world's most respected and admired leaders. 

However, leaders use words all the time. "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home” declared the CEO of Digital Electronics Corporation back in 1977. More recently the last CEO of Blockbuster declared that Netflix is "not even on the radar screen in terms of competition."¹

Leaders commonly make bold statements about addressing strategic and cultural challenges. They then fail to take the follow-up actions to practice what they preach.

Effective and successful leaders don’t just declare. They demonstrate. 

Zelenskyy is a perfect example of this. 

Since that bold statement, he has demonstrated what fassforward considers to be the four pivotal elements of leadership: Ethics, Vision, Reality and Courage. 

As individuals, we default towards certain elements more than others. fassforward refers to this as Thinking Patterns

Ethics is about people. It’s leaders who earn your trust. They are fair and principled, and make the commitment to listen to and understand you. It's the "should be" of leadership. Think Mother Theresa.
Vision is about possibility. It's leaders who explore options and set direction. They define what's important in a reasoned, systemic way. They inspire you.  It’s the ‘could be’ of leadership. Think Martin Luther King Jr.
Reality  is about data. These leaders face facts and explore evidence. They define the plan and detail ‘how’ it’s going to be done. It’s the ‘is’ of leadership. Think Dwight D Eisenhower.  
Courage  is about action. It’s leaders who take-charge and make bold moves. They set the ‘when’, do what’s difficult, and encourage you to take risks. It’s the ‘will be’ of leadership. Think Malala Yousafzai.

In Part I of this article, we’ll explore how Ukraine’s leader has been demonstrating Ethics and Vision, and how you can do the same in the workplace. In Part 2, we’ll review Reality and Courage.

Ethics — The “Should be” of Leadership

Ethics in wartime

It would have been easy for Volodymyr Zelenskyy to accept the offer for safe passage, and continue to lead Ukraine's resistance from a protected area. 

Instead, he understands that great leaders lead from the front. Zelenskyy's first priority is to the people of Ukraine. By staying in Kyiv as the primary target of Russia's initial invasion, he demonstrated to the Ukrainian people that "our weapon is our truth. And the truth is that this is our land, our country, our children. And we will defend all of that." 

Notice the lack of "I's." It's all about "our" and "we."

Zelenskyy is demonstrating on a daily basis that his primary commitment is to protect and advocate for his people. He is touring destroyed towns to meet survivors, and visiting the make-shift hospitals to thank injured soldiers. 

Another aspect of ethics in leadership is showing vulnerability. 

During his frequent addresses to governments across the world and in public interviews, Zelenskyy is demonstrating the human side of leadership. He is showing his emotions, admitting mistakes, and opening up about his relatively young age (44). 

One of his most vulnerable moments was when he described to the US Congress how his heart has stopped just like those of "more than 100 children" who had been killed at that point.

His ethical call to action is clear: we need weapons, and if you support the concept of freedom, it is your moral obligation to help us. 

Ethics in the workplace

Like Zelenskyy, we need to earn the trust of the people we lead.

A Forbes review article concluded that empathy tops the list of leadership attributes coming out of COVID.³ Work-related burnout was at record levels before 2020, and has only increased since. Effective leaders are embracing the human side of leadership; ie ethics.

However, that means different things to different people. 

Many leaders assume this equals scheduling more 1 on 1s, connecting personally, and making meetings about more than  just work. While this approach works for some, it does not work for all. Leaders need to take the time to understand how much “Touch” individuals on their teams not only need, but want. Different team members need different demonstrations of human leadership.  

How about demonstrating vulnerability in the workplace? 

The perfect leader does not exist. Embracing the human side of leadership, shows that you too are human. When you’re transparent about personal challenges and the mistakes you’ve made, you become more relatable to your team. You provide them the freedom to do the same. According to Patrick Lencioni in the “Five Dysfunctions of a Team”:  “Teams who are not genuinely open with one another about their mistakes and weaknesses make it impossible to build a foundation of trust.” ⁴

Here are some ideas on how to connect with your team (even if remote).

Vision- The “Could be” of Leadership

Vision in Wartime

Zelenskyy laid out a clear vision to the people of Ukraine from the outset of the war:: "The enemy will use all available forces to break the resistance of Ukrainians. We Ukrainians are a peaceful nation.

But if we remain silent today, we will be gone tomorrow!" 

Zelenskyy successfully outlined the potential consequences of Russian aggression not only to his people, but to the world. ”There is no longer someone else’s war. None of you can feel safe when there is a war in Ukraine, when there is a war in Europe.” 

He brilliantly borrowed from a great visionary, Martin Luther King Jr., and his "I Have a Dream" speech, to say "I have a need." He has systematically and consistently made the case for weapons and other support if a "Free Ukraine" is going to survive. The result has been billions of dollars in arms, funds and other resources from around the world that have provided Ukraine with a fighting chance. 

Most importantly, he has never wavered from his vision of peace. 

Zelenskyy's vision is focused more on ending the violence vs. the defeat of Russia. "It’s a victory when the weapons fall silent and people speak up." He recognizes that conversation is the most powerful weapon. He has consistently called for negotiations with Putin as the quickest path to ending the massacre of innocent people. “I was ready for (negotiations with Putin for) the last two years. And I think that without negotiations, we cannot end this war.”

Vision in the Workplace

Vision is as important in the workplace as it is on the battlefield; especially in this new hybrid world.

According to CNBC, 77% of US companies are adopting a hybrid work model. Many of the leaders we coach are being given the liberty to work with their teams to define what their hybrid world will look like. Vision is not just about being an “ideas person” it’s about exploring options, collaboration and setting direction. 

The best way to promote more vision is to provide more downtime (for yourself and your team). Post COVID, we are having even more meetings and less downtime than before.⁵ Yet, we are at our most visionary when we are not in meetings.⁶

Once you have a great idea, you need to earn advocacy for it. 

Successful visionaries embrace the importance of marrying their vision with effective storytelling. We believe the foundations of Structure, Word and Pictures are the key to telling your story. And it’s not about a Jerry McGuire moment, at least not at first. 

Announcing your vision at a town hall or emailing it company-wide at 2 am is not the answer.

To be effective, your vision needs to be communicated individually to key stakeholders. And each conversation needs to be tailored to the way they think. Set up 1 on 1s,  share your vision, get stakeholder feedback, and then incorporate their proposed changes to earn advocacy for your vision.

Zelenskyy's daily addresses to his people or a leader in the workplace tailoring how they connect with team members share this common thread:   leadership, and the qualities that embody leadership, are best demonstrated through conversations followed by actions to back them up. 

In part 2 of this article, we will review the 2 other key elements of leadership: Reality and Courage.

David Frost is fassforward’s Head of Executive Coaching and Managing Director. He strives to do good work for good people. He also focuses on business development and operational improvement. David previously spent 20 years on Wall Street. He received his A.B., magna cum laude from Princeton University.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

¹ Famous Last Words from Top CEOs Wall St Watchdog, Apr, 2018
² This tool was inspired by Peter Koestenbaum’s “Leadership Diamond”
³ Brower, Tracy. “Empathy Is The Most Important Leadership Skill According To Research.”. Forbes, 19 Sept. 2021
⁴ Lencioni, Patrick. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. John Wiley & Sons, 2012.
⁵ Chen, Chang. “Shocking Meeting Statistics In 2021 That Will Take You By SurpriseOtter.Ai.
⁶ Mikel, Betsy. “The Popular Meeting That’s the Biggest Waste of Time, According to 20,000 Workers.Inc., 16 Jan. 2020.

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