What business leaders can learn from Ukraine’s Zelensky

Volodymyr Zelensky has shown many qualities during the war in Ukraine. Business leaders may face very different challenges, but there’s plenty they can learn


KYIV, UKRAINE - APRIL 28, 2022 - President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy is pictured during a joint press conference with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in Kyiv, capital of Ukraine. (Photo credit should read Volodymyr Tarasov/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

In the early days of the war in Ukraine, US TV described president Volodymyr Zelensky as “Churchill with a social media account”. Since the fighting began at the end of February, he has won praise and plaudits around the world for his speeches to his people and parliamentary addresses.

The comic actor-turned-politician made his name in Servant of the People, a satire series he created and starred in as a high school teacher who is unwittingly chosen to lead the country. Four years after the first episode aired in 2015, life imitated art and he was propelled to the presidency. 

While Zelensky has a team of writers behind him who help craft his speeches, it’s his delivery and authenticity that resonates. There are clear lessons in his leadership style. Here are four qualities Zelensky has shown that businesses can learn from. 

Adaptability

Speaking to Time magazine in April, Zelensky said he had to make “fast decisions” to protect himself and his family on the first day of the invasion. The military had informed him that Russian troops had parachuted into Kyiv to kill or capture them.

“Being conversative, rusty, and unwilling to take calculated risks, means losing. Zelensky is the opposite of that,” says Maksym Liashko, CEO of Parimatch Tech, which has a large presence in Ukraine. The global marketing solutions company for the entertainment and gaming industry has donated 60m hryvnia (about £1.65m) to support the war effort. 

“Making fast decisions and being able to adjust to the situation as it unfolds has helped Ukraine to stay ahead of the enemy on the battlefield.”

The same applies in business settings. To be innovative, leaders must think quickly, adapting to changing needs.

“One of our core principles woven into the corporate DNA since our first day is adaptability,” says Liashko. “If you can analyse the market situation fast and assess the potential ways to move forward with precision, you will stay ahead of the competitors and come out on top.”

Empathy

Public confidence in politicians has arguably never been so low, but Zelensky has won people over and galvanised foreign support with his empathy and visibility. 

“For me, the stand-out lesson from his leadership is his laser focus on both protecting his people and advocating for his country on the international stage,” says Pip Hulbert, UK CEO at Wunderman Thompson. 

Being conversative, rusty, and unwilling to take calculated risks, means losing. Zelensky is the opposite of that

To take one example, Zelensky rejected President Biden’s offer to evacuate him out of Ukraine, saying he needed “ammunition, not a ride”, and vowed to stay behind to join the fight. 

“As business leaders, the choices we make may not be life and death, but it’s essential to lead with vision, advocating for both the success of your business and the people who work for it,” Hulbert adds. 

“The stakes may be lower for us, but we’d do well to learn from Zelensky’s example. Visibility and empathy build trust that decisions are being made with the interests of your team at the core.”

Trust

Zelensky’s emotional appeals have hit home, be it his nightly addresses or speeches to the US Congress or other lawmakers. They’ve also helped him and his government to build trust.

“He is after all very comfortable in front of the camera and knows how to get his message across,” argues Dominik Lipnicki, founder and director of Your Mortgage Decisions. “There isn’t a ‘do as I say and not as I do’ conflict in the messaging. He is able to communicate at all levels. This is a skill that is important for leaders in business as well as politics.”

Liashko commends Zelenksy’s ability to ensure that he has a team of trustworthy people around him, such as the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces, Valerii Zaluzhny, who has been responsible for carrying out complex operations. Having reliable people by your side is a must when dealing with a large machine, whether that’s a foreign invader or market competition, says Liashko. 

Lipnicki agrees. “Zelensky has clearly surrounded himself with people who are just as committed as he is to getting the job done,” he says.

Similarly, business leaders need to hone the art of delegation and be able to trust their employees to make difficult decisions. Giving them the authority or power to act helps develop their capabilities and responsibilities.

“It’s when every minor decision ends up being micromanaged by a single person that the problems inevitably happen,” says Liashko, noting that micromanagement is ineffective and can lead to morale and productivity dropping off. 

“What we can learn from Zelensky is that having an aim is very important, but unless you’re able to take people along with you on what will be a very testing journey, this target will be hard to hit,” says Lipnicki.

Conviction 

Zelensky’s courage and resilience have helped Ukrainians believe that victory is an eventuality. 

“We became visible, we are asking questions that get answered by the world. Thanks to that confident approach Ukraine is already [closer to] joining the European Union,” says Liashko.

The Ukrainian government’s precision and boldness in dealing with an array of military, economic, diplomatic and infrastructure challenges has been inspiring, Liashko says. Zelensky knows there will be plenty of difficult days ahead, but his conviction has helped the people of Ukraine to believe. 

Zelensky told CNN last month: “The only belief there is belief in ourselves, in our people, belief in our armed forces, and the belief that countries are going to support us not just with their words but with their actions.” 

The biggest takeaway here, according to Liashko, is that business leaders shouldn’t be afraid to be bold and ask difficult questions, regardless of how challenging the answer may be. “Everything is possible if you approach it with passion and conviction.”