“I need ammunition, not a ride” – Volodymyr Zelensky
While much of the Western world was busy bemoaning the surging summer temperatures, the economics of inflation, and whatever Elon Musk is doing this week, the president of Ukraine was busy cleaning house. Metaphorically. Even as Russia’s invasion forces busied themselves trying to shell the Donbas region into oblivion, Volodymyr Zelensky continued his purge of senior officials within his own government. “Different levels, different areas of focus,” he said on his nightly video address. “But the reasons are similar – unsatisfactory results.”
With his country facing an existential crisis, he is laser focused on the fight at hand. On July 17, he fired both Ivan Bakanov, the chief of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), and Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova. Bakanov, a longtime friend of Zelensky who ran his presidential campaign, proved ill-suited to lead the agency in wartime. Russian attempts to subvert Ukraine’s government with a “fifth column” have been supported by more than 60 members of the prosecutor’s office and the SBU, all of whom have “remained in the occupied territory and are working against” the aims of the government. He followed those dismissals with the termination of 28 other officials.
Oh, man, this heat is killing me. And the price of gas? Insane.
THE LION OF KYIV
Five months into this war, Zelensky has emerged as an unlikely wartime commander-in-chief. Actors sometimes rise to the occasion on the world stage. Ronald Reagan taught us that. But comedians? While I personally think George Carlin would have raised the roof on the White House, I can’t think of too many stand-up comics who successfully transitioned to politics. The kinds of things that make us laugh until we cry are often shamed in the halls of power. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian voice of Paddington made it work. In a big way.
From the outset, Zelensky has proved his mettle beyond anyone’s expectations. While Russia clearly expected one outcome – the rapid capitulation of an obstinate puppet state, what they found was a leader defiant, determined, and far from defeated. Where Vladimir Putin predicted weakness, he instead found strength. Since invading on February 24, Russian forces have lost an estimated 15,000 killed and another 45,000 wounded. As many as 14 Russian generals have fallen in Ukraine. Equipment losses are high, as well, with some 1,600 tanks and 3,800 armored vehicles reported destroyed or captured.
The Lion of Kyiv not only has a roar, he has a bite as well.
THE Great Balancer
In many ways, Zelensky’s leadership during a time of crisis is reminiscent of another wartime leader: Dwight Eisenhower. In 1939, when German tanks crossed into Poland, no one expected that the newly-promoted lieutenant colonel would one day lead the Allies to victory in Europe, let alone lead his own country through a time of great uncertain and radical change. But he did.
Like Eisenhower, Zelensky is a uniquely inspirational leader. In his bestselling book, The Age of Eisenhower, author and historian William Hitchcock recounts how Eisenhower’s presidency – much like Zelensky’s today – was distinguished by his practiced ability to maintain balance among priorities, personalities, and interests, all while maintaining an absolute focus on the mission at hand. He was, according to Hitchcock, the great “balancer-in-chief.” Since his election in 2019, Zelensky’s deft hand at maintaining balance in the face of crisis has been the hallmark of his leadership.
The comparisons don’t stop there. John Addison, the chief executive officer of Addison Leadership Group, noted five remarkable qualities that Eisenhower possessed, all of which have been reflected in Zelensky since the February day when Russian forces crossed into his country.
1. Being a Likable Leader.
“I Like Ike” was more than a campaign slogan, it defined Eisenhower’s iconic likeability. Zelensky possesses that same everyman To the average person, he’s relatable in a way few world leaders are, and that makes him likeable.
2. Practicing Optimism.
One of Eisenhower’s most memorable statements – “Optimism and pessimism are infectious, and they spread more rapidly from the head downward than in any other direction.” – seems to drive Zelensky in the face of overwhelming odds. Maybe it’s those odds that compel him forward, but his never say quit attitude has Ukraine punching well above its weight class.
3. Controlling Your Ego.
Under the circumstances, with much of the world showering him with adulation, it would be understandable for Zelensky’s ego to bleed out a little. But, like Eisenhower, he keeps his ego in check. It’s almost as if he’s channeling Ike: “Always take your job seriously, but never yourself.”
4. Knowing Your Purpose.
Regardless of what stood before him, Eisenhower never lost focus on the mission. Neither does Zelensky. He understands all too well what’s at stake and maintains an absolutely unwavering focus on what’s best for Ukraine. Nothing has distracted Zelensky from his greater purpose: persevere in the face of overwhelming odds.
5. Taking Responsibility.
As leaders, not everything is going to go our way. Eisenhower knew that, and never failed to accept blame when events turned against him. In nearly six months of war, Ukraine has faced plenty of failures; death, destruction, and devastation. Zelensky has faced down his critics while keeping his country – and his people – focused on the future.
Years ago, when I was just getting my start as a young leader, a mentor of mine offered some advice that I keep close to this day: Never let ‘em see you sweat.” No matter how tough the situation, no matter how great the stress, keep your cool. Nothing pulls a team – or a country – together quite like a leader who maintains grace under pressure. If you crack, they crack. Like a man born to lead his country through a war no one thought they could win, Zelensky didn’t waver once. He cinched up his cargo belt and led.