It Starts at the Top: Why Leaders Matter in Times of Crisis

Volodymyr Zelenskyy Becomes a Household Name

In every age, leaders emerge from the wreckage of great conflicts to capture the loyalty of their people and captivate the world.  Roosevelt, Lincoln, Rabin, and Eisenhower—their names are emblazoned indelibly in our minds.  At this critical juncture in history, we have witnessed yet another such leader emerge: President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine. 

Before February 24, 2022, most Western citizens would not have known who the president of Ukraine was.  Now, little more than a month later, billions of people around the world know his name and wait on bated breath for his next word. In this essay, I will argue that the qualities and actions of leaders directly influence a country’s success in times of crisis.  If President Zelenskyy studies the lessons of history as he attempts to be the bulwark of liberty in Eastern Europe, he will be much more likely to achieve his objectives.

Lessons of Leadership through Time

I cannot discuss the virtues of leadership without looking to the life of President Abraham Lincoln.  His lessons are sacrosanct.  In her seminal book Leadership in Turbulent Times, Doris Kearns Goodwin provides countless lessons on good leadership.  The most impactful of these is what she says about how leaders can effectively manage anger and resentment: “When angry at a colleague, Lincoln would fling off what he called a ‘hot’ letter, releasing all his pent wrath.  He would then put the letter aside until he cooled down and could attend the matter with a clearer eye.”  As leaders are fallible human beings, they are prone to anger.  There is no getting around that.  However, there are ways of dealing with that anger without exacerbating it, as Lincoln demonstrated.  Truly effective leaders must have ways of letting off steam.  Confronting human nature with realistic expectations allows leaders to take the necessary precautions to remain calm under pressure.  No matter how angry President Zelenskyy may become—and rightfully so—he must remember that an image of steadfastness and honor will better serve his cause. 

Just as Lincoln focused on controlling himself in times of distress, General Colin Powell extended this lesson to forming a basis of trust within his organization.  In his book It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, Powell recalls a lesson from one of his former sergeants: “[Your subordinates] will follow you because they trust you.  They will follow you because they believe in you and they believe in what they have to do.  So everything you do as a leader has to focus on building trust in a team.  Trust among the leaders, trust among the followers, and trust between the leaders and the followers.  And it begins with selfless, trusting leaders.”  President Zelenskyy has internalized this widely applicable lesson with grace, understanding that trust is the glue that holds a society together, particularly at such a trying moment.  Standing with his soldiers in solidarity, wearing casual clothing throughout the conflict thus far, he has epitomized what it means to be a “man of the people.”  His now indelible line—“I need ammunition, not a ride”—referring to his refusal to flee Ukraine, has endeared him to his people and to the free world at large, galvanizing worldwide support for his cause. 

On the contrary, the actions of President Vladimir Putin of Russia have inspired nothing but distrust in his people.  From concealing his intention to invade Ukraine from even his closest advisors to cracking down on dissent within his own ranks, he has confirmed the Western world’s longstanding suspicions—that his paranoia and fear have precluded him from seeing the big picture.  This, in turn, has prevented him from changing his military strategy to improve his chances of success in Ukraine.  By squashing meaningful dissent among his followers, he has rent a hole in the fabric of his own society.  Consequently, he does not have a clear picture of the situation on the ground and will not be able to respond in a coherent manner.

Another leader who understood better than others the challenges of war was General Dwight D. Eisenhower.  In his book Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World, Evan Thomas alludes to the critical traits that effective leaders possess: “Eisenhower understood, with profound insight, the moral ambiguities, the wrenching dilemmas, the dreary expediencies, and the quiet moral courage required of a life of duty, honor, country.”  Thomas goes on to say, “Ike was humbled by a higher power, but he believed above all in himself.”  Much as President Zelenskyy is learning at this moment, it is a burden to serve as the moral figurehead of a nation.  Eisenhower understood this all too well, and yet he found the resolve within himself to trust his instincts and to rely upon his ability to discern what mattered from what did not.  As President Zelenskyy moves forward in what looks likely to become a long-running regional conflict, he must find ways of nourishing his self-confidence, even when it appears impossible.

Similarly, when, in 1992, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel went to Washington, DC, to negotiate with his old foe, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, he modeled to the world how effective leaders must adapt to changing circumstances.  In their book Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny, Dennis Ross and David Makovsky analyze what changed in Rabin’s outlook: “For Rabin, the threats to Israel had diminished, and that made it less risky to pursue peace.  With the world changing, Israel should not be out of step; it should not forgo new possibilities.  He did not dismiss the risks of pursuing peace or the need for security…Rabin saw an opening to transform the Middle East.”  Just as Rabin kept his mind open to changing circumstances, so President Zelenskyy must learn from the example set by leaders such as Rabin.  Peace and security do not need to be mutually exclusive; in fact, they must go together.  While it will be a tough road for any leader to pick up the pieces in the wake of such violence, oftentimes the most successful leaders are those who are open to evolving realities.  Old animosities must not blind leaders to the possibility of negotiating peace, no matter how profound the wounds may be.

Protecting Democracy Abroad in the Coming Days

As President Zelenskyy continues to stand stalwart against the bombardment that Russia unleashes upon his country, citizens all over Ukraine look to him for guidance and strength.  They rely upon his leadership to carry them through this most tumultuous of times.  President Zelenskyy has performed remarkably well so far.  Nevertheless, if the road ahead appears dark and unclear to him, he should take comfort in the lessons of his predecessors who survived similar circumstances.  Context matters.  The essential qualities of leadership never change, and as long as trying times occur, great men will arise to lead their nations through fire and ash—if they remain receptive to the lessons of their predecessors.  President Zelenskyy of Ukraine must be one of those leaders.  The free world is counting on him.

Ryan Lee is a graduate student in the second year of his MA in International Security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government.  He holds a BA in Political Science and Spanish from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.  He currently teaches Spanish, History, Government, and Economics at the high school level.  After earning his degree, he hopes to pursue a career in foreign policy and diplomacy.

Photo can be found here.