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.”
Despite the disparities, countries are reopening without a plan to redress these unequal harms and protect the broader community going forward. Our ethics research examines the potential for using virtues as a guide for a more moral coronavirus response.
Virtues are applied morals – actions that promote individual and collective well-being. Examples include generosity, compassion, honesty, solidarity, fortitude, justice and patience. While often embedded in religion, virtues are ultimately a secular concept. Because of their broad, longstanding relevance to human societies, these values tend to be held across cultures.
Compassion is a core virtue of all the world’s major religions and a bedrock moral principle in professions like health care and social work. The distinguishing characteristic of compassion is “shared suffering:” Compassionate people and policies recognize suffering and take actions to alleviate it.
As the French philosopher André Comte-Sponville said, compassion “means that one refuses to regard any suffering as a matter of indifference or any living being as a thing.”
Individual acts of compassion abound in the coronavirus crisis, like frontline health care professionals and neighbors who deliver food, among other examples.
A compassion-guided reopening aimed at preventing or reducing human suffering would require governments to continually monitor and alleviate the pain of their people. That includes addressing new forms of suffering that arise as circumstances change.
Public health measures like stay-at-home orders, social distancing and wearing masks reflect solidarity. While compliance in the United States has not been universal, data indicate broad approval for these measures. A new study found that 80% of Americans nationwide support staying home and social distancing and 74% support using face coverings in public.
By delivering clear information, giving simple and repeated behavioral guidance, and setting a good example, they’ve helped convince millions to take personal responsibility for protecting their community.
Justice focuses on the fair distribution of resources and the social structures that enable what the Dutch philosopher Patrick Loobuyck has called a “condition of equality.”
Justice-oriented policies would aim for equitable balancing of necessary pandemic resources. That means directing testing and health equipment toward vulnerable communities – as identified by COVID-19 tracking data and risk factors like housing density and poverty – and ensuring free, widespread vaccine distribution when it becomes available.
In the U.S., economic justice will also require aggressively investing in minority-run businesses and poorer areas to guard against further harm to owners, employees and neighborhoods.
Note that it isn’t enough to apply just one virtue in a crisis of this magnitude. Policies built on compassion, solidarity and justice should be deployed in combination.
A compassionate post-pandemic response that does not address underlying inequalities, for example, ignores certain communities’ specific needs. Meanwhile, tackling specific injustices without engaging everyone in efforts like mask-wearing endangers the public health.
Bolstered by scientific evidence, virtue ethics can help nations reopen not just economically but morally, too.
Respectful treatment of all employees at all levels was rated as very important by 67% of employees in 2015, making it the top contributor to overall employee job satisfaction for the second year in a row.
8 out of 10 employees who feel disrespected are less committed.
You could use carrots and sticks to energize performance but showing respect is simpler and less expensive.
How to show respect:
I was asked during an interview, “How do you respect your customers when all you need is for them to make a purchase?” My thoughts went beyond customers to respect in general. The word ‘compassion’ came to mind.
Compassion feels like respect.
#1. Show respect by acknowledging personal struggle. Some team members have wayward children, others have financial stress, still others struggle with their marriage.
When you learn of a person’s struggle:
Resist the urge to solve struggles for people. You disrespect the struggle when you offer off-handed solutions.
Listen with interest.
Express compassion. “I’m sorry you’re going through this difficult situation.”
Express empathy. “It must be tough to face this challenge.”
Offer kindness. “I can’t pay your bills, but is there anything I can do to make today a little better?”
Show appreciation. “I appreciate your contributions while you’re carrying these personal concerns.”
#2. Show respect by acknowledging responsibility. Employees carry important responsibilities. Leading is tough and often under-appreciated.
You show respect when you:
Appreciate the burden, even if you don’t feel it yourself.
Realize that easy for you may be heavy to another.
Notice strengths. “You’re really good at … .”
Acknowledge progress. “I believe you’re an important factor in the way our meetings are improving.”