Ukraine has astonished the world by stalling Russia’s Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion and recapturing territory Russian troops had taken.
Retired US Army Major Gen. James “Spider” Marks recently explained why: They’re “poorly led. There’s nothing worse in any organization than crappy leadership.”
Whether you’re talking about an army, a business or a nation, success in any venture depends on leadership. While this view is far from a battlefield, as a board chair, I learn that in every organization, leadership flows from the top down.
Three lessons from business leaders tell us why Putin’s grand ambition will ultimately fail.
1. See, Feel, Change.
The key takeaway from Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations (Harvard Business Review Press, 2021), by John Kotter, Harvard Business School professor of leadership, emeritus, is this: The first step in approaching any challenge is to get buy-in by having people see and feel the need, not think or analyze it.
Check out two contrasting pictures worth a thousand words from the start of the Ukraine invasion.
On Feb. 28, a photo of Putin showed him sitting stiffly in coat and tie at the end of a 30-foot table, some 25 feet from six officials. The message? “I am separate and above everyone else.”
Compare that with the Feb. 25 video of Ukraine President Vlodymyr Zelensky the day after the invasion began. There he was, in a close video frame, standing unbowed on the streets of Kyiv in a military-green jacket and T-shirt, surrounded by his team of advisers.
The message: “I am here in harm’s way, like you, defending our country.”
Which leader do you feel drawn to follow?
2. Start with ‘Why’
Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (Portfolio, 2009), had a simple message in his 2009 TED Talk: People follow the lead of others because they are given a compelling reason to do so. Leaders inspire by expressing a gripping belief, a shared purpose.
On Feb. 24, Putin offered a plan riddled with disinformation: He invaded Ukraine to “denazify” a country whose president is Jewish. Reports are that Russian soldiers feel “duped,” some having been told that they were going on a military exercise, others that they would be greeted with flowers and cheers.
By contrast, Zelensky’s March 16 speech to the US Congress set out his belief in eternal values: “Strong doesn’t mean big. Strong is…ready to fight for..for freedom, for the right to live decently and to die when your time comes, and not when it’s wanted by someone else….”
Which leader inspires you to sacrifice?
3. Humility and Resolve
Leadership author Jim Collins, in his bestseller Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t (HarperBusiness, 2001), describes the “paradoxical mix” truly great leaders possess: personal humility and unwavering will in pursuit of the mission.
Think about Abraham Lincoln. He longed for peace upon his 1860 election, but he was single-minded in his belief that a house divided by slavery could not stand. Hence, in the early months after his election, Lincoln rejected compromises proposed by his cabinet and Congress to appease Southern slaveholders.
Notwithstanding the ferocity of his commitment to the antislavery cause, his humble roots were always evident, as in these words–rebutted by history–from his Gettysburg Address: “The world will little note nor long what we say here.”
Now consider Zelensky and Putin. The Ukraine president presents as an everyman. By contrast, Putin elevates himself above others, minimizing his opponents in language as “gnats” and “midges,” and then purging, jailing or killing them.
Collins’s studies of companies demonstrated that, more often than not, a flawed leader’s “gargantuan ego…contributed to the demise or continued mediocrity of the company.”
Gen. Marks and others have emphasized that in war, the will to fight can overcome greater military force. In Ukraine, on one side are defenders of their homes and families, motivated by a leader who ready to die with them. On the other side are invading troops, conscripts, and mercenaries without an understanding of their “why,” propelled to the battlefield by compulsion and mistruths.
Whether superior firepower will prevail over a galvanized people is not yet known. In the long run, the consequences of leadership strengths and faults imprint themselves on outcomes. Whether tomorrow or in the not-distant future, Putin’s leadership defects will seal his fate.