When the goals of a system, institution or state change, leadership qualities such as promoting a vision for the future and strategies for obtaining that vision, are required. Leaders have to be tuned to the pulse of society and adjust to changing conditions. At the point when social conditions necessitate change, citizens are generally ready for change and have little tolerance for prolonged reformation. A certain level of charisma and the ability to think outside the box become key elements in leadership. I write in-depth about the stages of revolution, leadership and bureaucracies in my book Facing the Moment.
Good leadership is sometimes fortuitous, catalyzed by a convergence of elements that prompt individuals to rise to the occasion. When this occurs, the veils of politics and rhetoric are pulled back exposing the philosophy, creativity, intention and motivation of those in leadership positions. The two basic types of command philosophies (democratic and authoritarian) intersect with the two methods of governance – managerial (with its focus on structure) and leadership (with its focus on people). Motivation, whether altruistic or self-interested, soon becomes apparent.
These philosophies and motivations are currently reflected in the two individuals involved in the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin and Voldodymyr Zelensky. This is a classic David and Goliath story wherein David appears as an underdog facing an undefeatable foe. The reality, however, was that David knew he had superior weaponry (a sling) for fighting, and skill in using it against the overwhelming physical force of Goliath. Putin and the Russian military, bolstered by easy wins in regional wars using overpowering conventional military force, significantly underestimated the technological quality, skill and superior weaponry (acquired through NATO) of the Ukraine military, as well as the country’s uncompromising resistance. The unexpected element that emerged, however, is the leadership of the Ukranian president. Zelensky is a reform president who has risen to extraordinary leadership and bravery, perhaps best summed in his refusal to leave Ukraine by declaring, “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition.” In addition to the demonstrable courage while risking his life daily, he has gained the respect and devotion of his people and much of the world. He understands how to effectively communicate, empathize, and adjust to changing conditions. He is focused on his people, creating change, and putting forth his vision for a free and democratic Ukraine. This is in sharp contrast to Putin who is sequestered away in Moscow and who has as much charisma as a sheet of wallpaper.
When societies become weak and are failing (such as Germany after World War I, or the corrupt government in Russia under Boris Yeltsin following the collapse of the Soviet Union), they are vulnerable to revolution. If it is a strong democracy like that of the US that has been challenged by autocracy for over 60 years, it is much more difficult (but not impossible) to overthrow them because the majority of their people are accustomed to a democratic system. Autocracies such as Russia tend to be more corrupt and rigid in their organization. A society that has been autocratic throughout its history is more willing to accept a newer version of that same type of system.
Putin has shown himself to be an effective manager in the established Russian system of rigid, top-down governance. But when decision making is not shared (as in democracies) institutions lose their capacity to make good decisions. This is particularly true in war. Although he has demonstrated managerial competency, I believe history will show that he is not a competent leader. His first goal (to reestablish a dictatorship and oligarchy under his control in Russia) has been accomplished. His second goal is to fracture the unity within the European Union (EU), particularly the political and military unity of the EU and the US. Russia also wishes to historically extend “Pan-Slavism” where Russia restores dominant influence in the former Eastern Bloc states that are culturally and historically similar; to corrode and undermine Western institutions and values; to manipulate public opinion and policy-making throughout Europe, including undermining elections in both Europe and the United States. That goal is changing in focus to the restoration of Russia to the greatest historical extent.
When Putin changed the role of executive from continuing an oligarchy to the wider goal of empire, his efficacy as a leader began to diminish. In 2000, the former KGB secret service apparatchik from Petersburg inherited a political vacuum created by a corrupt and inefficient system led by an alcoholic, bumbling Boris Yeltsin. From the beginning, Putin was an effective and brutal killer. There are two ways to organize a large social group; through fear and through hope. He used the former by gaining control of Russia through a secret coup while using the Secret Services to instill fear and mass hysteria by means of a series of bombings in Russian cities at night. He then blamed these events on Muslim separatists in Chechnya, a predominately Muslim state, which he bloodily suppressed to solidify his rule. He created wars and incidents in the states of the former Soviet Union; in Georgia, Moldavia, Azerbaijan, et al. In 2014 he invaded and annexed areas in Eastern Ukraine, including Crimea. He has created tensions in other countries of the former Soviet bloc, as well as in Japan and North Korea.
Like all autocracies, too much power rests at the top of a rigid power structure. Putin is dependent on limited informational input and has greatly over-estimated Russia’s military ability against smaller and less armed foes. Currently, morale is low for the Russians and entire battalions have refused to fight. Like Goliath, Putin’s dependence on traditional physical power has disabled his ability to prevail over agile resistance, creative determination, new technology and unexpected resourcefulness. It is the latter qualities that enabled David, a lowly shepherd, to ultimately unify Israel. These are the qualities Zelensky brings to the situation. This is what separates good leadership from management.
Zelensky models good leadership. He knows himself and the role he needs to play. He’s dealing with a crisis while realizing he needs to keep that crisis in perspective so his citizens don’t lose hope and can maintain their goal, and will, for independence. The fact that he has stayed in office while Putin repeatedly tried to assassinate him, and the bombs are falling all around him, demonstrates that balance. He’s clearly appreciative of everything that NATO and the US have done to date, yet he remains very vocal that he needs much more. He demonstrates self-confidence, excellence in communication and is forthright and direct with other leaders, yet he is humble enough to realize he’s not going to get through this without a lot of help and risk to his personal safety. He is plainspoken and unstinting with the truth. I have been studying leadership and fearlessness my whole life. I have never seen the likes of this before.
Leadership in the United States and Beyond
Confusion between management and leadership is a global issue, especially as we face worldwide problems that we haven’t encountered before. Dilemmas such as global warming, global health, economics, violence and governance, are challenging our societies in unexpected ways. Technological warfare is replacing conventional warfare, all the while opening up unlimited horizons the likes of which humanity has never seen. The old paradigms are increasingly ineffective and the evidence is all around us. Those who rigidly insist on managing the old ways lack the vision we need going forward. They are entrenched and, in my opinion, lack the agility and creativity to see, or care about, anything beyond their own vested interests. They are Goliaths, not Davids. They keep the distraction level high, the media noise turned up, the politics adversarial, as they fan the flames of extremism, all in an effort to install/manage autocratic rule, protect convention and impede the implementation of forward vision. In short, they refuse to forfeit power in favor of the greater good.
Let’s remember that societies exist for the physical, emotional and security needs of their people. The leadership we choose determines if, and how, we’re able to deal with the larger demands of a global community. In Chapter 20 of my book, I discuss Leadership at length, and further, in Chapter 17, I delve into the nature of bureaucracies. Although Ukraine and Russia are currently on the world stage, American society is now besieged by the autocratic wing of the Republican Party, which has been advancing an extremist ideology since Trump was president. The leadership within the GOP is primarily managing and maintaining the status quo rather than putting a new vision into the public conversation. They are more invested in entrenching (even regressing) and denial than they are in turning to face the very real existential threat posed by global warming and the cascade of events leading to, and resulting from, it.