What Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy can teach corporate America about leading through crisis

When Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected president of Ukraine in 2019, many citizens expressed skepticism. Though he won the vote by a wide margin, the closest he’d ever come to holding political office was as an actor, playing the role of president in a popular sitcom.

Today, he has shaken off many of those reservations and established himself as a respected leader who’s been praised globally for his calm demeanor, clear communication, and loyalty to Ukrainian citizens as Russia ramps up attacks. His roll-up-your-sleeves attitude and commitment to remain in the trenches was on full display Saturday when he refused a U.S. offer for evacuation.

“The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride,” Zelenskyy told the U.S., according to a tweet from the Ukraine embassy in Britain. Later, in a 40-second clip shared on his personal Twitter, he said, “We are not putting down arms. We will be defending our country.”

Zelenskyy’s approach to leadership offers several takeaways for corporate America on how to effectively lead through a period of immense crisis and illuminates the management traits that inspire teams to collaborate and thrive. David Rock, founder and CEO of the workplace consultancy NeuroLeadership Institute, says Zelenskyy “is showing evidence of strong self-regulation, or the ability to stay cool under pressure. This is critical for good decision-making in a crisis, as overwhelming emotions shut down the resources we need for deep thinking.”

In several speeches, since Russia invaded the neighboring country last week, Zelenskyy has expressed solidarity with everyday Ukranians, communicating with urgency, transparency, and empathy—in an effort to allay fears and restore a sense of control—and cultivating a sense of trust that has spurred citizens into action.

“He is leading from the front, despite knowing that he has a target on his head,” Rock says. “Putting himself in harm’s way is inspiring many others to do the same, far more than if he had left the country.”

The people of Ukraine are rallying behind their leader with an immense outpouring of citizen and volunteer resistance fighters after Zelenskyy urged citizens to join the war effort. His guidance has produced new loyalists and helped cement his public image as a people-oriented leader within his home country and abroad.

Solomia Kozak, a public relations manager from the Ukraine-based Gogola Agency, tells Fortune that the war has become a “tragic but powerful moment to bring about solidarity, unity and trust.”

Zelenskyy’s ascension from comedian to wartime leader spotlights yet another lesson: Good leaders can come from unexpected places. His background stands in stark contrast to his predecessor Petro Poroshenko, who had experience in the political arena, and most people who run for the top office in democratic elections.

“President Zelenskyy is leading with the principles of freedom and democracy rather than fear and control,” says Traci Fenton, CEO of WorldBlu, a management consultancy that champions a Freedom at Work approach and counts Zappos, DaVita, and the WD-40 Company as clients.  “He is a man of the people, leading in a way that is collaborative and based on integrity and moral courage.”

Donato Tramuto, former CEO of Tivity Health and author of The Double Bottom Line, which touts the financial benefits of compassionate leadership, echoes these sentiments, telling Fortune that Zelenskyy’s actions demonstrate the ability to listen to and interpret the needs of his people. “This should serve as an example to all of us that the old order of leadership is no longer sustainable.”

Still, Zelenskyy’s blind spots reflect that of corporate America’s. While Ukrainians have been on the receiving end of sympathy, support, and aid, its Black residents have reported harrowing conditions and racist treatment as they attempt to flee the country. Zelenskyy, many have noted, can and should demonstrate stronger solidarity along racial lines.

Corporate executives often quote famous historical figures, like Winston Churchill or Nelson Mandela, as emblematic of good leadership. Zelenskyy could very well be on his way to garnering similar levels of respect. And for business leaders, tasked with leading people through tough times, Zelenskyy’s deportment offers lessons that are transferable even when the stakes aren’t as high.

The practice of creating and repeating shared common goals “helps people do difficult and—in this case—dangerous things, and deal with large amounts of uncertainty and a feeling of powerlessness,” Rock says. “Bringing people together like this, and leading from the front, has inspired not only his country but also people from all over the world to join in the fight.”

Similarly, Fenton says that corporate heads must learn to lead their companies with the principles of freedom and organizational democracy in order to maximize engagement, attract and retain top talent, and boost the bottom line. “Just look at the level of commitment and courage that President Zelenskyy has realized from his people as a result.”

Never miss a story: Follow your favorite topics and authors to get a personalized email with the journalism that matters most to you.

Read More

Great ResignationDiversity and InclusionCompensationCEO DailyCFO DailyModern Board