Mobilizing Character

The outside world didn’t know what to expect when Vladimir Putin launched his senseless military assault on Ukraine. But with NATO on the sidelines, not many people in the West expected Russia’s dictator to get what surprised observers called “a bloody nose” during the early days of the invasion.

Amid the fog of war, reports of enemy losses should always be taken with a grain of salt. But according to independent estimates, Russian casualties are seriously mounting, along with losses in equipment. So, while Putin may eventually ruthlessly achieve a deranged sense of glory, the underestimated strength of spirit that has fueled Ukraine’s fierce resistance has clearly laid waste to his chances for an easy victory.

Things might change. But as Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko noted in “Why Ukrainians Believe They Can Win,” a New York Times article by Michelle Goldberg, “There is no fatalism, no willingness to negotiate on Russia’s terms. There is decisiveness.”

Indeed, early in the conflict, after being ordered to surrender by a Russian naval vessel, border guards on a Ukrainian island in the Black Sea became instant heroes for courageously issuing the following response: “Russian warship, go f–k yourself.” These defiant words became a national rallying cry as regular citizens defended their homeland by tossing everything from Molotov cocktails to lectures on territorial rights at their would-be oppressors.

In one recorded confrontation, which went viral after being posted online, a Ukrainian woman scolds a Russian soldier for armed trespassing, urging him to fill his pockets with sunflower seeds so at least something positive—Ukraine’s national flower—can grow out of the fact that his soon-to-be-dead body is now cursed to litter her homeland.

According to a Guardian translation, the conversation went like this:


RUSSIAN SOLDIER: We have exercises here. Please go this way.

UKRAINIAN WOMAN: What kind of exercises? Are you Russian?


UKRAINIAN WOMAN: So, what the f–k are you doing here?

RUSSIAN SOLDIER: Right now, our discussion will lead to nothing.

UKRAINIAN WOMAN: You’re occupants, you’re fascists! What the f–k are you doing on our land with all these guns? Take these seeds and put them in your pockets, so at least sunflowers will grow when you all lie down here.

As a major source of this spirit, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was also clearly underestimated by Putin and the outside world.

Previously best known for being unsuccessfully blackmailed to help former U.S. President Donald Trump manipulate American public opinion, Zelenskyy was once seen as an improbable national leader. After all, as a professional actor with a comedy background, not to mention a trophy for winning the local version of Dancing with the Stars, he came to power after creating and starring in Servant of the People—a TV show about an earnest high-school teacher who unexpectedly became president of Ukraine after a student taped him issuing a passionate rant about the need for real leadership and posted it online.

But Zelenskyy—who skillfully used social media to transform his fictional political career into the real thing—is now known as the national leader who told U.S. officials, “I need ammunition, not a ride,” when offered a chance to flee advancing Russian troops early on during the conflict.

Other leaders would have justified leaving. But Zelenskyy made the decision to stick around and put his life on the line while using social media to rally his nation and issue calls for support from the Western world.

“I’m not hiding. And I’m not afraid of anyone,” Zelenskyy courageously noted in a March 8 video that defiantly showed him leading the resistance from behind his desk in Kyiv as Russian attempts to take the capital were repeatedly frustrated. In another video, the Ukrainian president is outside on streets full of sandbags to welcome spring, noting it is harsh like war. “But everything will be fine,”  he says with a playful wink. “We will win.”

In addition to spreading calm and resolve at home, Zelenskyy’s daily social media posts have inspired foreign nationals to join the fight while moving foreign leaders to impose economic penalties previously considered unlikely, making Russia the most-sanctioned country in the world.

Zelenskyy has also mobilized aid from the so-called hactivist community, which has reportedly launched cyberattacks aimed at doing things like disrupting Russian troop movements and using Putin-controlled media to spread the truth to propaganda-fed Russians. This is a big deal. After all, while some Russians have been protesting Putin’s actions, others believe he is heroically defending their nation like a modern Hercules as bombs fall on civilian targets, including hospitals.

Ukraine’s media savvy leader has even advanced the evolution of corporate purpose. In early March, despite Putin’s decision to invade a democratic nation, Shell initially justified buying a tanker of discounted Russian oil until public opinion forced the company to apologize and announce that it would wean itself off all Russian hydrocarbons, crude oil, petroleum products, gas and liquefied natural gas in a phased manner. Shell CEO Ben van Beurden noted: “We are acutely aware that our decision last week to purchase a cargo of Russian crude oil … was not the right one and we are sorry.”

Statista infographAs the New York Times noted on March 11, some big corporate names—including Hyatt, Marriott, Citi, Bridgestone Tire, Philip Morris, and Halliburton—remain operationally neutral. This may change before this article is even posted. Either way, Shell’s forced change of heart saw it join a wave of business world support for Ukraine that is gaining momentum despite threats from Putin to nationalize assets of any Western company that shutters local operations to protest the war. As Statista’s Martin Armstrong reported, as of March 9, the ten leading companies announcing a suspension of Russian operations or plans to withdraw from the market jointly account for more than 125,000 jobs in Russia. And that was before Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase joined the exodus.

Simply put, Zelenskyy’s influence as a war-time leader has been remarkable.

According to a commentary by Globe and Mail TV critic John Doyle, Zelenskyy has become “the epitome of courage, strength, and leadership” by “weaponizing an actor’s charm, passion and wit.” But with all due respect to Doyle, effective communications are just a skill.

Knowing how to use social media and deliver a line never hurt a leader’s performance. But the strength of Zelenskyy’s leadership is based upon something else that brings to mind another entertainer.

In 1991, while working on a sinking cruise ship, musician Moss Hill watched dumfounded as the boat’s crew, including its captain, put personal safety over duty by taking seats in lifeboats and rescue helicopters away from passengers. Instead of looking after himself, Hill remained behind to take command, leading a newspaper to capture the ridiculousness of the moment in a cartoon depicting Hill directing evacuation operations from the bridge of a listing ship in pounding seas. The caption read: “Attention, attention, this is your lead guitarist speaking.”

Clearly, entertainers can make great leaders. But Zelenskyy and Hill have something more important in common—it’s called having what it takes to step up when selfless action is required.

In other words, as Kimberley Young Milani, associate director of the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at the Ivey Business School at Western University, and Gerard Seijts, executive director of the institute, point out, there is “nothing performative” behind what made former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral James Stavridis call Zelenskyy “the kind of leader I’d want to go into combat with.”

“What has distinguished Zelenskyy’s leadership is not his strategic cunning or tactical acumen, but his depth of character during a time of extreme crisis,” Young Milani and Seijts write in a recent Toronto Star opinion article entitled “Volodymyr Zelenskyy: A masterclass in leadership.

As regular IBJ readers are aware, Ivey’s leadership institute has spent more than a decade seeking to address leadership failures that persistently threaten the future of our organizations and society. Using the 2008 global financial meltdown as a laboratory, Ivey researchers deconstructed the personality traits, values, and virtues that helped distinguish good leaders from bad leaders during the crisis. This led to the development of a leader character framework that supports organizational resilience, sustainability, and long-term success.

In simple terms, Ivey research shows that selfless and effective leadership requires the ability to authentically draw on each of the following dimensions of character: courage, accountability, justice, temperance, integrity, humility, humanity, collaboration, drive, transcendence, and judgment. Without this ability, supposed virtues like confidence run the risk of becoming dangerous vices (think Putin, whose lack of character has raised the spectre of nuclear war and could prove to be his Achilles’ heel). But with this ability, leaders gain a strength of character that supports effective decision making and supplies a true sense of service.

Unfortunately, as noted in the IBJ Insight “Enough. It’s Time to Hire (and Develop) Better Judgment,” while leadership character assessment and development is critical to the sustainability of capitalism and democracy in the so-called Age of Disruption, it can be difficult and uncomfortable—and so it remains an emerging best practice instead of a universally adopted one at a time when trust in leaders has been diminished by an alarming and seemingly ever-increasing number of scandals and failure.

Enter Zelenskyy.

The world has other leaders worthy of respect. But as Young Milani and Seijts note in their Star article, Ukraine’s improbable leader is in a masterclass of his own. “Perhaps, Ukraine’s improbable leader has been a revelation unto himself,” they write, noting it “is entirely possible that Zelenskyy didn’t realize the depths of his own character until it was critically called upon.” But despite being as fallible as the rest of us, “Zelenskyy has already had a far-reaching impact on the rest of the world.”

Indeed, as he risks becoming a martyr for his nation, Ukraine’s president serves us all as a much-needed role model at a time when the world faces numerous other converging crises with examples of poor leadership being a dime a dozen in both the public and private sectors. And in addition to raising the standard for leadership globally, he has proven that character-based leadership begets character-based leadership in others, not to mention character-based followership.

For this, we owe Zelenskyy a debt. We should pay it by giving his country whatever support it needs to remain free while proactively working to follow his lead by recognizing—when we vote for, educate, hire, promote, and develop leaders—that character is as critical as competencies to excellence in leadership.

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