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Lessons in leadership from Ukraine
Issue 47: The role of identity leadership in fostering solidarity and collective action
“The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”
With these simple words, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declined Washington’s offer of personal rescue and a flight out of his country. As Russian troops closed in on Kyiv and other major cities, Zelensky rejected the prerogative of a head of government, to remove oneself from immediate danger in order to try to lead from afar. He stood his ground alongside his fellow citizens—an act of identity leadership that has rallied the Ukrainian people and inspired the world.
Shortly thereafter, he released this video (see below) from the streets of Kyiv surrounding by the leadership of the country. He was saying, and showing, “We are all here. Defending our independence.” These words and images were matched by the stories of brave of Ukranian men and women from all ages and walks of life who volunteered to take up arms against against Putin’s menacing military force.
The reason Zelensky videos and words seemed to resonate with his citizens struck us as a remarkable case of identity leadership. From refusing a ride and leading from the streets of Kyiv to the collective rhetoric of his speeches and viral videos, Zelensky was signaling that he was “one of us”. And this appeared to motivated people to support the cause of Ukrainian independence and democracy.
In his classic analysis of leadership, psychologist Howard Gardner suggested that what effective leaders do, most fundamentally, is tell stories about identity. Leaders articulate for their followers a narrative about who we are, where we are going, and how we can get there together. But, he argued, simply telling stories is not enough. Talk is often cheap. To lead effectively, leaders must embody—must truly live—their stories.
“Leaders,” Gardner wrote, “convey their stories by the kinds of lives they them- selves lead and, through example, seek to inspire in their followers. The ways in which direct leaders conduct their lives— their embodiments—must be clearly perceptible by those they seek to influence.”
In the midst of ongoing tragedy, the world has watched President Zelensky embody a particular story about Ukrainian identity: a story about a strong and independent nation, a county of proud citizens, willing to fight in the face of great danger for their right to self-determination. His actions, which have mirrored his words, have had dramatic consequences.
“A week ago it wasn’t at all obvious that the world would rally to Ukraine’s cause. Nor was it clear that the Ukrainian people would mount a collective resistance to the invasion of their country. There are many reasons why the tide has turned like it has, of course. But it is hard to think of another recent instance in which one human being has defied the collective expectations for his behavior and provided such an inspiring moment of service to the people, clarifying the terms of the conflict through his example.”
Zelensky is, in many ways, an unlikely leader. Before becoming President, he was a successful actor and comedian—once playing a character who accidentally got himself elected President. But from the moment Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to invade Ukraine, Zelensky, now the actual President, has embodied core elements of identity leadership we described in our book:
“Iconic moments of leadership…are powerful because they capture an essence. But it is an essence not simply of the leaders themselves—their particular dynamism or brilliance or charisma— it is an essence of us, of the group as a whole. They are moments in which the actions of a leader exemplify something about who we are or perhaps who we aspire to be.”
There are no leaders without followers, of course. Especially when the stakes are high, followers are highly attuned to which would-be leaders genuinely embody their group and represent them. We are inspired by leaders who convince us by their actions that they are one of us and that when they act, they are for us.
By opting to stay in Ukraine and lead from the streets among his people, Zelensky has convinced Ukrainians and, indeed, much of the world that he is both of these things. It is a lesson for leaders in any democracy—or any organization, for that matter. Embodying the will of the group is a powerful tool for inspiring collective action.
News and updates
Dominic recently appeared on the Behavioral Grooves podcast. We posted a short snippet of the audio from the podcast on our social media accounts. You can listen to it using the link below.
Last week, we hosted an interview with Todd Kashdan about his new book on The Art of Insubordination. Jon Haidt and others shared some quotes from the interview on social media. Our newsletter is free, so we invite anyone to share their favorite quotes and content on their platforms of choice.
Andrea Colasanti won an autographed copy of our book in our last contest—we hope you enjoy it Andrea! We sent five copies to the winners around the world and plan to hold more contests once our paperback comes out. Watch this space for details.
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