The last two years have presented a revolving carousel of world leaders who’ve been brought up close with change requiring unprecedented decisions. Making daily decisions to protect the lives of many must be gruelling, and considering the effect those decisions have had on us all, it’s been a period of public judgement on a world stage.
Whatever your feeling or belief about how that’s gone, the last two weeks have provided undeniable contrast that has roused a global response. In Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the world has found a leader worth examining who appears to stand out for all the right reasons.
I don’t claim to understand all the ins and outs, history and factors governing the current war with Ukraine. I am unsettled in my opinions about who is right and wrong and who could have done what when, but the fact remains that the world has had a predominantly positive and rather visceral response to the conduct and decisions of this 44-year-old leader. I feel there are a few nuggets in there worth asking ourselves about.
The world seems increasingly polarised; full of people willing to discount others by finding reasons to dismiss them rather than reasons to respect them enough to investigate their point of view. There are many reasons to dismiss Zelenskyy. He is young compared to many world leaders. He is a law scholar turned actor-comedian, elected president. He voiced the part of Paddington Bear when the Ukrainian version was recorded and won Ukraine’s version of Dancing With the Stars” in 2006.
There are also many reasons to consider why this unlikely candidate has the hearts of his people to the degree that he has inspired them to patriotism they’re betting their lives on. How patriotic do you feel? Patriotic enough to put your life on the line for it? What would you put your life on the line for? What would you physically stand and fight for? If you find yourself an answer to that question, consider what that thought inspires in you and ask yourself what kind of a leader inspires that same desire and resolution.
I have included some pictures here as they speak expansively where words are not enough, and because these pictures have motivated many to feel deeply things they have not found elsewhere for a long time. Let’s have a brief look at a few moments of leadership brought into focus over the past two weeks and ask ourselves what we can draw from them:
OF the people
Perhaps one of our first introductions, if you’re new to President Zelenskyy, was his refusal to evacuate his country when the threat of war became imminent. Having been asked to evacuate by the United States, Zelenskyy is quoted as saying “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”
His version of leadership requires him to be present with his people, not presiding over them. It requires him to be present in the fight he’s asking them to take up, demonstrating that his own life is no more worthy than theirs. Most leaders stand at a distance and issue orders, claiming a high-level approach that allows leadership to stay protected and ensuring the longevity of that leadership.
There are definite advantages, both personal and strategic, to this approach. Understanding that, I am nonetheless inspired by a leader who puts his life alongside those he’s asking to stand with theirs. There can be no more accurate measure of the “temperature on the ground” than to be in the thick of it yourself.
There is something I don’t have words for that wells up from deep inside me when I consider someone saying to me “I support you with my life. Now let’s fight for what we believe in.”
What is our own version of this in our appointed roles today?
Leadership is not a role that everyone is called to. Not in the sense of accepting a named role and its accompanying responsibility to lead a number of other people. That said, most of us lead somewhere along the line, perhaps without realising our impact on others. We lead in our families. We lead in the confidence of our colleagues. Each person willing to offer their unique strengths and experience leads in that way. Leadership inspires different responses in people.
Today, let’s ask ourselves what kind of leadership inspires us to take an inwards look at why we’re doing what we’re doing and why we ourselves should be engaged with our aims.
During his inaugural speech in 2019, President Zelenskyy is quoted as saying “I do not want my picture in your offices. The president is not an icon, an idol or a portrait. Hang your kids’ photos instead, and look at them each time you are making a decision.”
Values-led leadership calls us to examine and operate by our own value systems. It encourages us to focus on the value systems that we’re driven by subconsciously and make them clear and forefront of our decision-making model. Values-led leadership states its own value system and then demonstrates it consistently.
For a leader to inspire others to examine and act on their value system, that leader cannot impose their own over others. Demonstrating their own value system with humility provides something of an invitation, leaving space for others to join the table and contribute too.
Are you leading in a way that issues an invitation to others to examine their own value system and live by it?
Heavily connected to the first point, “OF the people”, eye-level leadership is (in my opinion) what’s required to instil the relationships that leadership can call on when necessary. It’s not enough to become present with your people when a crisis appears and you need everyone to be on the same page. The loyalty and trust that allows people to act on what you ask of them comes from a foundational relationship built over time.
Eye-level leadership requires us to very literally pull up a chair and sit face-to-face with people on their terms. When leaders separate themselves entirely from those they lead, they may gain high-level perspective and clarity, but they lose the freedom and familiarity of banter and truth. It’s possible to have the high-level clarity without the relationship, and to order others to action based on their own wish to earn a salary or adhere to a code – based on their respect for what they do. It is another thing entirely to inspire the loyalty and trust that enables you to ask a team to draw on a collective energy of respect to move forward. One feels like dragging, whereas the other is primed and ready to leap forward.
I don’t know President Zelenskyy. But I know he sits with his people. I know he eats and laughs with them. I know he dons the same uniform and protective clothing that they do. I know he sits face-to-face with reporters, bringing his own chair with him to do so rather than speaking to them from the podium provided.
I know he has commanded the respect of many worldwide in the past two weeks – the respect of many who have themselves had to lead expansively in hard times.
I know he has caused a stir in the hearts of many who are looking for something strong yet relatable; for something vulnerable yet resolved; for something imperfect yet true.
How can you relate to the people you lead today? What does eye-level leadership look like for you?
by Christen Killick
March 7th, 2022