Chief Executive Insights

Enlightened Leadership: Leading Like Ukrainian President Zelenskyy

In February 2022, Vladimir Putin disrupted peace in Europe. Sending Russian military troops into Ukraine, a sovereign country, he ordered the largest armed attack on another country since World War II. This marks the second Ukrainian invasion by Russia in the last decade, but this fight is unique. The key difference is a man named Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s President. Zelenskyy’s courageous stand against Putin has galvanized the will of his people to defend their homeland, even to the death. 

As Russian troops amassed at Ukraine’s borders, President Zelenskyy called upon world leaders to intervene. The international response was meager. Russia attacked multiple locations including Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. Contesting Russian claims that he fled the country and instructed Ukrainians to stop fighting, Zelenskyy spoke to his people from Kyiv by video. “I’m here. We will not lay down any weapons. We will defend our state because our weapon is our truth. Our truth is that this is our land, our country, our children. And we will defend all of this. Glory to Ukraine!”

These words captured the world’s attention. Defiant and resolved in the face of a formidable enemy, he showed a stunning display of leadership from the front. His commitment to stand side-by-side with his people, to feel their fear, and to give his life for a purpose bigger than all of them inspired Ukrainians to defend their families, culture, and country. He has moved people around the world to join their cause, potentially changing the outcome of what seemed like an inevitable loss for Ukraine. Zelenskyy’s moving entreaties to global leaders, like his live-feed address to the U.S. Congress invoking American tragedies including Pearl Harbor and 9/11, have succeeded in creating a sense of camaraderie with and obligation to support the Ukrainian people.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy

Who Is Volodymyr Zelenskyy? 

Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a 44-year old father of two, educated in law, who was a Ukrainian A-list movie and television actor, producer, writer, and comedian. He won a multitude of awards for his creative work, including his lead role in the popular television show, “Servant of the People” in which an unassuming high school teacher becomes the leader of Ukraine. Life imitates art, and this unassuming entertainer also became president.

He chose to enter politics to build greater trust between the Ukrainian people and their leaders, naming his political party “The People’s Servant Party,” same as the television show in which he played the role of president. He was elected in a democratic election in 2019, winning with more than 73% percent of the vote to become Ukraine’s sixth president since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. 

He grew up in a Jewish family in Soviet Ukraine, and his life has been inextricably linked to – and even defined by – Russia, starting with Russian being his native language. His grandfather fought for the Red Army in World War II, losing his father and three brothers in the Holocaust. Before becoming president, Zelenskyy fought for the rights of Russian-speaking artists in Ukraine, supported Ukrainian troops fighting Russian troops in the eastern Ukraine provinces, and vowed to end the war with Russia as part of his presidential campaign. He is now guiding the Ukrainian people through life-and-death disruption caused by Russia’s invasion. 

He faces the Russian challenge with courage through uncertainty and danger. The loss of life and destruction in Ukraine is unfathomable, yet he continues to lead with humanity, inclusion, unity, transparency, shared purpose, and hope. He envisions future scenarios for Ukraine and boldly spurs world leaders to action through He commits to staying despite the danger to him and his family. Volodymyr Zelenskyy is an enlightened leader who, through his determination, fearlessness, and bold, direct communications style, is creating a place in history similar to immortal leaders like Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy

Leading Like Zelenskyy: Humanity, Inclusion, Transparency, Shared Purpose, and Hope

The question is being asked how President Zelenskyy is inspiring his people and world leaders to take such an audacious stand, one much more potent than anticipated, against a force like Vladimir Putin. Zelenskyy is employing tenets of enlightened leadership including a focus on values, empowerment, and unity. He has even energized multinational CEOs to display an important facet of enlightened leadership in taking a stand on what is going on outside the walls of their companies, voluntarily ceasing business with and in Russia despite the cost. Looking closely at Zelenskyy’s words and actions, we can learn these four lessons about his enlightened leadership style for application in our professional and personal lives. 

  1. Lead with humanity.
    In his inaugural address, President Zelenskyy downplayed his power saying, “We need people in power who will serve the people. This is why I do not want my pictures in your offices, for 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.” He shows himself to be an everyday person, no more important than anyone else, especially their families. He called upon government leaders to act in the best interests of the Ukrainian people instead of their own best interests. He does not exempt himself from this mandate, making difficult personal choices (“I need ammunition, not a ride”) for the greater cause. He has developed loyalty by his humanity and humility, not by his positional authority. He is among his people, not above them.
  2. Lead with inclusion.
    In Ukraine, two-thirds of citizens speak Ukrainian and one-third speak Russian. To Zelenskyy,
    all are Ukrainian. Of his forces fighting against Russia, he stated, “I know that from the soldiers who are now defending Ukraine, our heroes, some are Ukrainian speakers, while others – Russian speakers. There, in the frontline, there is no strife and discord, there is only courage and honor. I will do everything I can to make you feel respect.” He committed to representing all Ukrainians regardless of their political party, language, or region of the country. Choosing unity over divisiveness, he believes that every individual in his country has value, a voice, and a vote.
  3. Lead with transparency.
    Ukraine has suffered from governmental corruption, and Zelenskyy campaigned to change this. He said, “My election proves that our citizens are tired of the experienced, pompous system politicians who over the [last] 28 years have created a country of opportunities – the opportunities to bribe, steal and pluck the resources.” This is one of many examples in which he speaks with candor and clarity. He lets everyone know where he stands. He has similarly tackled Russian disinformation, communicating his vision, actions, and intentions to inspire Ukrainians to remain in the fight. He has employed video and social media to engage others in open, honest dialogue, speaking directly and sincerely, even when the news is bad. He has built trust through his authenticity and vulnerability.
  4. Lead with shared purpose and hope.
    Many believed Ukraine would fall within days of Russia’s incursion. Despite casualties and immeasurable damage, Ukrainians are not backing down. Veterans from other countries have joined their cause. Through his words and actions, President Zelenskyy has built a shared vision of preserving Ukrainian culture in a free Ukraine. He has bet his life on this being possible and even probable, giving Ukrainians hope that their aim can be achieved. His conviction and personal commitment to this future have buoyed his people through incomprehensible turbulence and devastation. 

The defense of Ukraine that Volodymyr Zelenskyy is leading will impact the world order. As journalist Anne Applebaum wrote in The Atlantic, “Ukraine is now the front line and our front line.” Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people are in the fight of their lives. He understands that he represents an ideal much larger than himself, and even larger than Ukraine. By his enlightened leadership, he has inspired a powerful resistance that has captured hearts and minds around the globe and cemented his place in history. 

Authored by Rajeev Kapur, CEO of 1105 Media, Inc., is the author of Chase Greatness: Enlightened Leadership for the Next Generation of Disruption.
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Rajeev Kapur
Rajeev Kapur, CEO of 1105 Media, Inc., is the author of Chase Greatness: Enlightened Leadership for the Next Generation of Disruption. Rajeev is a seasoned high tech executive with broad global experience leading and driving innovation and the overall strategic agenda, P&L and sales for entrepreneurial start-ups, $20-$40 million midsize companies and with Fortune 500 companies such as Dell Technologies where he managed P&L’s as large as $1.6 billion domestically and internationally.

Rajeev Kapur is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.