As a student of leadership, it is impossible to observe the conflict in the Ukraine and fail to see the obvious contrast in leadership styles between the leaders of the two sides and the profound impact of those leadership styles.

In 333BC Alexander the Great led his army on the Plains of Issus against the larger and presumably more powerful Persian Army of King Darius. Before the battle commenced Alexander rode his horse up and down the line of his Macedonian soldiers speaking to them directly about the glory of their cause. Alexander then took his position at the front of the Cavalry on the right flank and led them across a river and up a bank into battle. At first it didn’t go well. Alexander retreated to then take a position personally at the front of the infantry and led them on foot into battle. Finally, he returned to his “Companions”, his elite cavalry and led their charge on horseback into the center of the Persian line, forcing the retreat of King Darius. As soon as the Persians could see that their king had retreated, they all began their retreat. Alexander was wounded on every limb of his body. Here is where the Empire and the mythology of Alexander was formed.

 Alexander is the archetype, the model of the heroic leader. Every well-educated general is taught the lessons of Alexander. Napoleon imagined himself to be like Alexander. General Patton believed he was the re-incarnation of Alexander. Each sought to replicate the love affair between leader and led, the affection and affiliation that the leader creates when he demonstrates his love for his army, and his army returns that love as we now call loyalty. The will to sacrifice, even die, for a cause is generated when the leader demonstrates his own willingness to sacrifice and speaks to his followers of the greatness of their cause. Great leaders are never distant and aloof, but always close to those who fight, if not physically, then in spirit.

I suspect these lessons are not taught in KGB school.

Many have thought that there was no possibility that the Ukrainians could defeat the much more powerful army of the Russians. But history his filled with David and Goliath stories, the weaker defeating the stronger. In every case, it is leadership and the will to win that turns the battle. In Vietnam, where I served, we had superior numbers, superior technology, superior equipment. We controlled the skies and the sea. Ho Chi Minh is quoted as saying “You will kill ten of my men for every one of yours that I kill. But it is you who will tire of it.”

There is little else one needs to know about the contrasting Russian and Ukrainian leadership styles than the image of Putin sitting at the end of a very long conference table in a gold ornate marble room with his two top generals seated all the way at the other end of the table: and the image of President Zelensky, in military clothing, visiting hospitals and speaking intimately with his soldiers and citizens. One is the picture of aristocratic alienation and aloofness, the other the picture of affection and affiliation. One is not only isolating himself from his comrades but is isolating his entire country from every other country. The other is creating affection with his comrades and is creating commitment to his cause from the majority of civilized countries.

In my course on Transformational Leadership, I offer nine principles of transformational leaders. Here’s a very quick review of just four of them in light of the current contest.

The Purpose Principle: Ukrainian soldiers and citizens have no confusion about their purpose. They are passionately committed to preserving their independence as a democratic nation. Russian troops are confused as to their own mission, many believing it was a training exercise. Desertions and retreat are not a surprising result of a lack of purpose.

The Integrity Principle: Leaders do not maintain loyalty by lying! Putin and his spokesmen have been dishonest at every stage of this conflict, claiming they were fighting Nazis and liberating Ukraine, claiming they were not going to invade and ten doing just that. It is impossible to believe anything they say. This makes negotiations extremely difficult when any settlement will have to be enforced with might and not trust.

The Unity Principle: Unity is strength. When Alexander conquered Persia he decided to wear Persian dress and married one thousand Greek soldiers to one thousand Persian women. This may seem absurd in our age, but at that time it was a powerful statement of unification. He made several top generals in the conquered army his own generals. Zelensky has done an incredible job of unifying his cause with the cause of the NATO countries and his people, who had their internal differences before, and are now completely unified in their support of their leader.

The Humility Principle: Autocratic leaders develop a belief in their own superior wisdom and judgment and dismiss those with contrary views. This is a prescription for failure, whether in the military or in business. Truly great leaders are psychologically secure enough to listen to and respect differing opinions. The spark of truth emerges from the clash of differing opinions. Humility encourages others to tell you the truth. The opposite is hubris which is very often the cause of defeat. Hubris is what caused Gen. Robert E. Lee to attack cemetery ridge at Gettysburg despite his second in command, Gen. Longstreet, an engineer who had computed the death toll that would result from the number of canons on the ridge and the length of the march in an open field. Longstreet advised that it was a mathematical certainty that their losses would be devastating. Lee didn’t listen.

The Empiricism Principle: Every good manager I have known has had a love for the facts. Much of lean management is based on a thirst for the data, analysis of the data, and respect for the data. Empiricism and is the principle of the scientific mind. It is somewhat amazing that an experienced intelligence officer as Putin was, failed to accurately gather the facts and respect those facts. There was no evidence of Nazis in control of the Ukrainian government. He apparently didn’t even know the fact that Zelensky was of Jewish background. Putin’s passion for his own vision of a restored empire was more important than a respect for the facts.

You can study the leadership of your own company through the lens of these principles and consider the lessons of history that might guide your own choices.


ESG and Principled Leadership