10 Leadership Lessons from Zelenskyy

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Perhaps, no one in the world would have predicted that Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a popular TV comedian starring in a satirical TV show, would stand up to Russians someday in the future. Big call!

In crisis, sometimes the cream rises to the top and this is clearly the case here, but where did he come from? For Zelenskyy, it all began with a satirical TV show – ‘Servant of the People’, in which he played a character named Vasily Goloborodko, a mid-30s high school teacher who wakes up one morning to realise that he has been elected the country’s president (Interestingly, as part of his comedy he once played piano for 5 minutes on national television – with his penis). 

As a result of his popularly and turning his personal image to that matching his onscreen character – a crusader against oligarchs – he became a household hero in Ukraine, landing him in the president’s seat. 

Lesson number 1 – have a clear message

Lesson number 2 – be seen saying it

To gain support from the Ukrainians, Zelenskyy also transformed his image from being a native Russian-speaker brought up in pro-Russian eastern Ukraine into more of a nationalist. In other words he moved to a second langauge (Ukranian) AND changed his accent.

Lesson number 3 – your accent is not an unsolvable barrier

Often I will be asked the questions about changing other patterns beyond accent – our behaviour – which are believed to be natural and also deemed authentic. Three words stand out: natural, habitual and authentic.

We tend to think that what is natural is God-given and not changeable, therefore the only authentic option.

In fact, much of what we do is habitual, not natural, and it is only its familiarity that makes it feel authentic. 

We can in fact identify habitual patterns, learn new, more effective ones and practice them until ‘you own them’ (as they say in the theatre). Then they become familiar and authentically part of you.  

You can not ignore the fact that Zelenskyy’s training is now part of him and he exudes it. Douglas Brinkley, the American presidential historian points to another example in Ronald Reagan, who “was making movies with chimpanzees — ‘Bedtime for Bonzo’ — and he ended up being the president to preside over the breakdown of the Berlin Wall.”

Of Zelenskyy he says: “He’s holed up, surrounded by enemy forces and is able to communicate with the world in such a smart, a charismatic, passionate and visceral way.”

Lesson number 4 – Accept your ability to change and master your patterns

Let’s look at the 40 second video he posted to social media and note some of those skills. 

See if you can see what I see. 

Firstly, how is he placed on screen:

  • He is aware of the visual presence in the picture and, although he is speaking, he is also videoing himself and adjusting the camera as required
  • His background is the magnificent building in Kiev
  • There is just a little space above his head 
  • He is in 1/3 of the screen
  • His chest is visible
  • His camera is at eye level

Lesson number 5: be performer and producer of your video

Next, what is his body telling us:

  • He turns his body towards the building as a sign of respect and to draw our vision towards the building
  • He turns his head fully frontal to the audience 
  • He nods his head (he does not jam his neck in a defensive way or throw his head forward as a sign of aggression. 
  • His breath remains low in his body. At no time do his shoulders raise
  • His face remains earnest, but unfurrowed in his brow

Lesson number 6: know your body

Then, what is his voice telling us:

  • He has a deep captivating voice
  • He has a downwards inflection on almost every sentence
  • His uses excess breathiness as a sign of caring and warmth at the end 
  • His gesture is one that comes from power of the whole body, not just a thrusting of the upper body (which would display tension, not power)

Lesson number 7: know your voice

When it comes to structure, I turn to Mr Zedenskyy’s address to his parliament, filmed and replayed to the house over the last week.

According to the translation, the former comedian started things off with what seemed to be an unrelated story about work:  

“You know, we used to say: Monday is a hard day,” he said,  “There is a war in the country. So every day is Monday. And now we are used to the fact that every day and every night are like that.”

For those of you who know my work, I speak of a ‘creative link’. Often I hear the resistance that it may not be relevant to everyone’s work role. Hello! Here we have a creative link used in the most serious circumstance and earnest of presentation.  Do not reject these ideas. They work.

Lesson number 8: Use the creative link

Taking his words further we hear him say:

“We will not give up and we will not lose. We will fight until the end at sea, in the air. We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost,” 

And blind Freddy can see the immediate reference to Churchill’s “We will fight them on the beaches” speech.

Lesson number 9: Look at what others have done and make it your own

Brinkley says Zelensky will go down in history as the Ukrainian President’s bravery in the face of impossible odds can be compared  to the lone protester in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, George Washington in Valley Forge or Davy Crockett at the Alamo.

If one thing is clear from the last two years, it is the challenges of leadership. Zelenskyy has met the challenge. Yet, surprisingly at these incredibly difficult times, not just with the Ukranian crisis, but with our own floods and pandemic, Harvard Business Review (March-April 2022) tells us that when they asked executives from 60 companies around the world how their managers/executives were doing, they got unanimous reports of frustration and exhaustion. 

Similarly, when the research firm Gartner asked 75 HR leaders from companies worldwide how their managers were faring, 68% reported that they were overwhelmed. Nonetheless, according to Gartner, only 14% of those companies had taken steps to help alleviate their managers’/leaders’ burdens.

Accordingly, as brilliant as you may be at your work, I hear endless stories of ‘read presentations’, ‘looking at a screen off to the side’ and ‘waffling, waffling and more waffling’. 

For one client, who was overwhelmed with poor feedback about aggression from a new team, I was able to sort out quickly what was going on with the language, the structure and the body and vocal language. Bingo, problem solved.

With another client, who was not gaining the gravitas required, in dealing with stakeholders, we worked out the underlying vocal weakness and added clever structures to gain attention.

With another we were able to rehearse difficult situations for very difficult client interactions. 

Lesson number 10: get help from an expert

The actor-comedian-politician Volodymyr Zelenskyy has now emerged as a hope for the Ukrainians, who have now rallied around him to fight the most decisive battles of their live

When you get your opportunity – be ready.

Dr. Louise Mahler

Dr. Louise Mahler

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About Me

Dr Louise Mahler is a body language expert. With a focus on study of the mind-body relationship and business applications; providing practical inspiring improvement to global leaders.

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