The Zelensky Lesson

This week we were going to dissect the topic of “engagement” versus “employee satisfaction” or “experience” and ultimately against the topic of emotional engagement which should be its true meaning but we have to pause that and talk about something else entirely: fear, courage and true leadership. 

I found writing this near impossible. I made the mistake of looking at the news before finishing it and it became almost impossible to focus on anything other than the extreme suffering happening a few thousands of kilometres away. Today’s press is brimming with images of bloodied children and heartbroken parents. Fearing for your child’s life - is there anything worse? And today we all have reasons to feel that way. It almost defies belief that any of us find the energy and the bravery to go through life at all when our children’s safety is under threat. 

Some of the developer teams we work with in PeopleNotTech are right there, in the Ukraine, in the belly of the beast, caught in this absurd and vile moment in history. They are frightened, they are in shock and incredulous that they have been left alone to fight this and some are even working online with colleagues elsewhere trying to maintain composure on dailies or commit code. And their teammates in their safe homes feel it too. The shock, the fear, the extreme guilt to be this ok when they are not. At least for now. And collectively we do the best we can to not break down, what good would that do? They have no other option but to be strong. 

What they do have, what they can be extremely thankful for and what we all need to stop and take in, is our generation's best example of true leadership. 

The power of inspiration and momentum that witnessing such determination, vision and sheer courage bring, can not be underestimated - it is what makes their entire country so incredibly able to single-handedly stave off the deluded and psychopathic ambitions of a madman for all the rest of us, not the Ukraine only. 

And with a global pandemic barely behind us, we needn’t wonder whether our own leaders would have been able to rise to the challenge and rival Zelensky. We *know* they wouldn’t have. 

We only need to look at the last few years in our respective leadership to notice a sea of indecision, blunders, analysis paralysis or misinformed knee jerk reactions, in-fighting, political agendas, corruption, misinformation, lack of international cooperation and common sense, command and control that’s quite frankly out of control altogether, and every other error in judgement and lapse in bravery all displayed prominently for us all to bemoan. This blanket accusatory statement applies to every geography, unfortunately. 

No leader of the world covered themselves in glory over the pandemic (with the exception of perhaps Jacinda’s initial stance and Her Majesty the Queen of England’s latest work-ethic demonstration that saw her working *with* Covid at 95 over the last few weeks). For the most part, they barely responded and they failed us stupendously. 

I bet, when history goes to probe why, it will find it was much to do with the intricacies of bureaucracy and even more to do with an enemy we keep denouncing in this newsletter: fear. 

There must be tens, hundreds or even thousands of examples of a complete lack of psychological safety at every level which translated into wishy-washy decisions or lack of honesty towards mistakes. There must have been instances where prime ministers wouldn’t have been told real hard truths, there would have been times when everyone involved was desperately trying to ensure they don’t look incompetent or unprofessional and there must have been many textbook examples where there was no speaking up to write home about. I’m certain almost every failure in displaying decisive and courageous leadership over the pandemic no matter of geography or culprit, can probably be attributed to some of these moments when fear won. 

This, by contrast, is a live lesson in real leadership. A real-life hero. We have been reeling for one. Is he uncomfortably media savvy for some? Perhaps. Is he too quick to secure some of the in-principle wins he seems to be after such as his social media campaign about entering the EU? No, that’s not “quick”. He doesn’t have the time to appease our collective need for political correctness, politeness and general paralysis we too often expect. He can’t afford the politics, the games, the wooden language. 

He has put his life and that of his family and country on the line and is holding nothing back and from all over the world we can feel this man’s heart and while we can feel him be afraid -his children are at risk just like everyone else’s or even more so- we see him be stupendously brave and act in the presence of the fear and despite it or even thanks to it. 

What an amazing lesson we ought to all be grateful for. 

This is not a movie or a workshop, not a Ted talk about bravery, this is not Brene Brown telling us we have to be vulnerable, this is a real man, a human being who stepped up -as we so often wrongly would have presumed anyone would and yet they let us down over and again- and who isn’t hiding anything, isn’t following an agenda and isn’t playing to an audience, but doing the right thing on all our behalf. 

This is not a drill, this is a life that is so authentically inspiring it is literally -so far and may it long continue- winning battles no one thought were “winnable”. 

Let’s hope the kills squads or a wayward bomb don’t put a stop to his fight and that his tweets do not abruptly stop but we somehow, miraculously manage to stop this madness before all of our children are in the same danger, but even if that silence arrives, -and let’s face it, that day can come any time, by the time this newsletter rolls around again that could sadly be the reality, the glimpse of greatness would have been extinguished so it’s even more crucially important that we take stock-, the sound of courage should have been loud enough to have touched us all. 

What Volodymyr Zelensky is teaching the world is that truly inspiring, deeply courageous, in-the-face-of-abject-fear leadership is still, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, possible and that is the biggest gift. So if we take nothing else from this tragedy but we can speak about him to our kids, sit them down and show them his messages, let them see the fear in his eyes and then show them his actions so they understand it isn’t its absence that constitutes courage but how you use it to power what you believe and how you act despite it, then we would hopefully be closer to a world where the evil and fear that underpin this tragedy will be less likely to happen again. 

The 3 “commandments of Psychological Safety” to build high performing teams are: Understand, Measure and Improve

Related: The Humiliation of Vladimir Putin

Photo: Johanna Geron / AP