21st-century leadership traits as shown by Ukrainian President Zelenskyy (Part 1)

Leadership Memo 2023-4

Since Feb 24, 2022, the world has taken notice of Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as he led his people through one of the biggest land invasions in recent memory. President Zelenskyy is not a seasoned politician or a military general but a former comedian. Yet he hasn’t lost! He has given the world a masterclass in leadership.

In Mar 2022, I did a high-level case study comparing 21st-century leadership and 20th-century leadership. And in May 2022, I did another case study, making a case that this 21st-century leadership is resilient, that it is yielding unimaginable success against all odds. More than a year later, the Ukrainian resistance continues. So, what makes the Ukrainian people still want to remain and fight? What makes the world continue to support Ukraine, a “far away land” (to many), when the media always comes up with the next big event to grab people’s attention?

That is thanks to Zelenskyy’s leadership traits. Let’s take a closer look.

Trait #1: Courage

In his now famous quote, Zelenskyy responded, “I need ammo, not a ride” when he was given the opportunity to flee to safety. He chose to stay and fight alongside his people. Effective leaders show courage and take personal risks. They demonstrate that they are in the fight alongside the people they lead. They lead from the front and challenge powerful figures and the status quo. That’s how great leaders affect great change, to build great countries and great companies. Remember, courage is contagious.

Trait #2: Authenticity

Monday blues are real. Zelensky’s quip that “Monday is a tough day” while showing the shelling outside his office almost makes you chuckle in its innocence and authenticity. We are likely never to witness bombardment from our office windows. But the common thread we all share despite our circumstances – our struggles, worries, mistakes, and concerns to achieve our goals, doing enough for the people that matter to us and for ourselves – are the same and very real. Great leaders do not shy away from emotions when it is warranted, put up a façade of stoicism, or hide behind a synthetic veil of denials or untruths. Instead, they are honest and forthcoming, despite the consequences, showing us that we see the same person on television as the one we meet in person.

Trait #3: Clear messaging, using simple language

Zelenskyy teaches us that effective messaging is clear and concise. His speeches are simple, plain-spoken, commanding and emotional. They are so relatable that they are difficult to ignore. His speaking style is characterized by short sentences, vivid imagery, and empathy, all of which makes him effective. He has also been extremely effective in harnessing the world’s media – and the attention of world leaders – to help him achieve his goals. He did that by repeated clear messages, making his needs clear and public, and explaining publicly how other leaders’ interests were aligned with his own.

We’ll examine the rest of the traits next month.

Are you struggling with the challenges of leadership? Do you aspire to bring your team the motivation they need to do their best? Reach out to me today, and let’s have a conversation!

Latest happenings:

Our Agile Tales launched a 2-part mini podcast series called “VUCA Masters and Leadership Agility”. In our conversation with Dr. Nick Horney, author of the book VUCA Masters: Leadership Agility in this New World of Work, we explore the traits needed by any leader at any level of the organization to navigate our constantly changing environment.

You can listen to the podcast on Spotify, Apple, Amazon, Google, and Stitcher or you can click here.

I’m excited to welcome Lizzie Benton, all the way from the UK to SFBABAM (San Francisco Bay Area Business Agility Meetup) in May. She’ll be “Demystifying Culture and Getting Real About Better Workplaces”. You don’t want to miss it! RSVP here.

When: 9 May at 11:30am Pacific Time | 19.30 BST | 20:30 CEST | 10 May 6:30am NZST.


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