Against all odds, Ukraine continues to resist Russia's overwhelming military might. The article examines what makes Ukrainian President Zelenskyy an inspiring leader for our times.
Throughout history, across the ideological spectrum, leaders have conditioned us to expect less of them. We have grown disappointed after they promised so much, and then in a surge of hope, fallen in line behind the next messiah only to feel let down all over again.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy seemed to be floundering these past two years, and there was every reason to think he would leave as much of an imprint on our world as a pebble skipping along the surface of water; that he would flee his homeland like Afghanistan's Ashraf Ghani did less than a year ago. But the recent events in Ukraine have revealed a hitherto unsuspected streak of character in its President.
It has quickly become apparent that Zelenskyy possesses certain magnetic traits, qualities and advantages. Leaders the world over in every sphere of life, from business and art to urban policing, would do well to pay close attention to three aspects in particular.
1) A compelling operating philosophy underpins his decision-making:
Zelenskyy's immediate purpose — to preserve the integrity and continuity of the motherland — is near-selfless and existential on a scale that, given the circumstances, naturally dwarfs the intentionality of most leaders. But 'purpose' in itself is an inadequate concept rooted in solipsistic self-awareness: at best it serves as a useful starting point and places us on a trajectory towards mature leadership. A less imaginative leader (and there are many of those around, don't we know it) might have played identity politics, pitted Russian-speakers against Ukrainian. Zelenskyy, a Russian-speaking Jewish-Ukrainian patriot, is that rare kind of leader who, in times of peril, instinctively projects a coherent, overarching operating philosophy that transcends false binaries.
For some leaders that overarching operating philosophy is empathy, for others it's relentlessness. In Zelenskyy's case, it's demonstrating nuclear-powered courage.
Facing annihilation from roaming squads of assassins, Zelenskyy is able to address his fears in real time and master them. His courage guides, codifies and unifies his decision-making, which (judging from his utterances) is remarkably lacking in neuroticism or fragmentation even amidst the fog of war. Everything else about his personal identity — his good looks, his likability, his 'sexiest man alive' body language (a complete antithesis to the semiotic stiffness of EU leaders, or for that matter, Putin's) — feeds the purpose and sustains Ukraine in its moment of reckoning.
2) His charisma is emotionally-centered:
Plenty of political and business leaders dress well, know their lines, act alpha. Their charisma is superficial, subject to the vagaries of mood. In Zelenskyy however we have found at last a 21st century male icon who has made peace with his masculinity. Zelenskyy and Putin both stand at 5 feet 7; only one of the two appears to have surrendered to his inner Napolean. As a humanitarian tragedy unfolds around him, Zelenskyy is somehow flexing to find his inner Buddha.
Unlike Putin (whose judo training really should have taught him better self-control), Zelenskyy seems remarkably effective at reconciling seemingly irreconcilable binaries — which of course is the secret to charismatic depth. He is slightly awkward and quiet, yet fiery and passionate. He mixes defiance with cautious optimism. He lets captured Russian soldiers call their mothers. He balances masculine energy with feminine to influence public sentiment like few cultural figures have in modern memory: the closest may be Jacinda Ardern. In short, 'emotionally available' meets 'got balls, will use.'
Zelensky radiates warmth, compassion, resolve. Not for him the inarticulate grunts of Rambo or the jowly toughness of Churchill or even Boris Yeltsin — remember, we are dealing with an enlightened post-Soviet who has pulled off flamingo pink on 'Dancing With the Stars.' He laughs with us; it makes him relatable, resonant, yet his wartime actions elevate his moral stature, make him a leader's leader — and as a myth, utterly inspiring.
3) He inspires his audience through genius-level communication:
Comedy at its most potent is a form of rebellion against the old guard, a trigger to jettison the status quo. A comic like Zelenskyy is especially suited to cut through the noise and help the world see new possibilities. Zelenskyy knows the value of a pithy phrase: "You will see our faces, not our backs;" "I need ammo, not a ride;" "Slava Ukraini." He addresses Russians and the world at large to build new coalitions.
The suits have made way for olive military T-shirts to match the moment. We register the emotion on his face as clear as the five-o'clock shadow in those urban guerilla-style videos. This is a man who prefers to control the controllables, from choosing to stay in Kyiv to rousing European leaders into taking action at an unprecedented pace through the sheer force of moral authority (if you can call that a controllable, but hey, Zelenskyy is setting high standards). This is a man in touch with reality even as he retains the ability to remake it; a Wikipedia-certified statesman who is, dare I say it, a servant of the people.
The right side of history
Ukraine needs him alive. It would be understandable if Zelenskyy decided to chuck it all up and relocate to safety. His survival is not guaranteed. In some ways he is less like Churchill — a problematic, divisive historical figure to say the least, from my subjective position as an Indian — and more like Imre Nagy, the Hungarian Prime Minister who ended up executed by the Soviets in the late 1950s.
Knowing that you will land on the right side of history is small consolation at life's end, but it can unleash fearlessness. If there is one thing that Zelenskyy has in common with the greatest of leaders, it is this: he has found a hill he is willing to die on.
(The author is a US-based cultural strategist and globalisation theorist with a PhD from UT Austin. The article was first published on LinkedIn and is reproduced with permission.)