In recent years, I’ve written and spoken a lot about consequential leadership. History has presented us with far too many examples to share here: Abraham Lincoln, Ernest Shackleton, Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart, and John Lewis are a few names that immediately come to mind.
As we watch Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine unfold night by night, attack by attack, and tweet by tweet, the gut-wrenching and heartbreaking scenes expose an unimaginable magnitude of inhumanity. At the same time, we’re witnessing an unforeseen spirit of resilience, patriotism, and heroism emerge that reveals the best of humanity.
No one personifies the consequential leadership we are observing more than Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. It has been said that a crisis doesn’t build character—it reveals it. The heroic response to this crucible has demanded much of Zelenskyy and his people. But it has revealed even more about the character of this unfamiliar leader and country than any of us ever expected.
As I reflect on this past week, there are five virtues of consequential leadership Zelenskyy and his brave comrades are illuminating for us we can learn from.
Conviction: Consequential leaders know—and honor—their purpose. They recognize their responsibility to use the talent, health, education, opportunities, and influence they are blessed with to solve big problems and do really hard things. And in rare circumstances—like Zelenskyy’s— they are called to do things no person should ever have to do. While most of us devote our lives to preparing to be the leader we want to be, in moments of consequence, we must become the leaders the world needs us to be.
Courage: Consequential leaders have the fearlessness to live their purpose—even under life-threatening conditions. It’s easy for us to talk about our convictions when times are good from the comfort and safety of our corporate suites and government offices. But how many of us and our political leaders would, or could, summon the primal valor we’re seeing Zelenskyy and his lieutenants model?
Composure: Consequential leaders thrive under fire and in times of great uncertainty. There is no blueprint for moments of consequence like the one Zelenskyy is facing. There is no playbook for responding to the unprovoked invasion of your country by a neighboring world superpower. However, leaders of consequence like Zelenskyy don’t panic. They stay calm, rational, and in control. They know that panic fuels fear and that composure catalyzes confidence.
Communication: Consequential leaders communicate frequently, authentically, and truthfully. They speak to our minds, move our hearts, and have the intuition to know when and how to deliver the hard truth as well as realistic hope. Consequential leaders like Zelenskyy are brutally blunt about the abundance of resources they are lacking, but they also remind us of the prosperity of blessings we have—things like family, friends, country, and faith.
Compassion: Finally, consequential leaders put serving others ahead of serving themselves. Zelenskyy and leaders like him put the public interest ahead of their self-interest. While most leaders measure their success in the world, consequential leaders measure their significance on the world. It is never too late for any of us to rethink how we gauge our leadership impact.
It is unclear how the battle over Ukraine will play out. But it is unambiguously clear this moment will redefine leadership for generations. As in all moments of great consequence, history will judge Zelenskyy and Putin, as well as other world leaders, by how they acted–and the consequences of their humanity and inhumanity.
As New York Times columnist David Brooks tweeted yesterday: “Would you be Zelenskyy? Would I? What a high and heroic standard that guy has set for us in the years ahead.”