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When Vladimir Putin announced his purported ‘Special Operation’ in the Donbass region, my mind immediately raced to the President of Ukraine. I was compelled to muster all of my knowledge to rationalize a circumstance where a former comedian with zero experience in political leadership, could stand a chance in hell against one of the world’s most seasoned, shrewd and vicious heads of state. Certainly, the literature that I have seen, did not adequately prepare me to interpret this circumstance. Rhian Jones of ‘Red Pepper’ sought to provide a list of satirists who became statesmen but this writer struggled to come up with a comprehensive list of examples. She barely produced a few notable cases: Beppe Grillo (Italy), Tirrica (Brazil) Marjan Sarec (Slovenia) and Luka Maksimovic (Serbia). Professor Christian Gaus presented the ‘Comedy of Leadership’ that complained about the emphasis on leadership characteristics to enter American colleges and Universities. BJ Avolio et al submitted ‘Humor as a Moderator of Leadership Style Effects’ in the Academy of Management Journal. They argued that humor could be used by leaders to have a positive impact on followers but their study did remotely touch on a comedian turn head of state in times of war.
THE ENIGMA OF ZELENSKYY
Most political pundits completely wrote off Zelenskyy from day one, some even suggested that he will fold and a more seasoned leader in his Cabinet will lead the effort. Some theorized that he will surrender and Putin’s mission will be accomplished in record time. I postulated that he might run to Poland and lead a government in exile from Warsaw. This seemed logical. These positions appeared to be conventional wisdom. However, as the Russian invasion enters its 22nd from the time this column is being written, Zelenskyy stands, nay, thrives. We have been proved wrong. Hence, there is a need to understand why. Is it more about Putin’s miscalculations and the ineptitude of the Russian army than the unexpected leadership skills being displayed by Zelenskyy? In my estimation, what the Ukrainian President has done thus far, has absolutely nothing to do with Putin and his army. By his mere presence and what he has accomplished thus far, it is enigmatic. Norpoth (1987) put this matter this way: ‘War and economics have few rivals when it comes to making or breaking governments’. Can you imagine Zelenskyy’s everyday challenges: assassinations plots, providing resources for the people, seeking international help, lack of sleep, secret communications, managing a war Cabinet, planning war strategies, keeping the morale of your followers and troops high during the most daunting times, trying to stay alive, surviving an open sky of incoming bombs. Through these seemingly insurmountable challenges, the comedian bestrides war-ravaged Kyiv like a colossus, it is indeed an enigma.
The optics is Zelenskyy and he is the optics. There can no better motivation during times of war when the national face of humor is not smiling. When the man who constantly laughs, is now crying and when the face of satire becomes the face of action, this must be a compelling message to the people of Ukraine. Few may have anticipated that during this unprecedented crisis, a comedian would metamorphose into De Gaulle or Churchill. Indeed, Zelenskyy is proving that the real leader appears when the crisis comes. It is all about what the people are seeing. They are seeing that the President dressed in military fatigues. They are seeing constant visits to wounded Ukrainian soldiers. They are witnessing a man who refuses to be broken. The optics are spot on. In the complex web of relations and connections between leaders and their followers, imaging is paramount. If you fail to capture the values, expectations and mood of the people through dress, oratory and non-verbal communication, the leadership task is made more difficult. In this regard, Zelenskyy has excellently captured the zeitgeist through dress, posture, imagery and his appearances.
When Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the 40th President of the United States of America on January 20th, 1981, the experts were flummoxed. Understandably so, before this ascension, he was an actor. When he was asked: “How can an actor be a President, he replied: “How can a president not be an actor?”. Throughout his Presidency, Reagan philosophized about the nexus between politics and acting. Most notably, he argued: “Politics is just like show business, you have a hell of opening, you coast for awhile, you have a hell of a closing”. In 2016, television personality and billionaire businessman, Donald J. Trump clinched the 1,237 delegates needed to become the presidential nominee for the Republic Party. Again, conventional political forecasting wisdom wrote him off immediately. A few years later, he rocked the foundation of western democracy and continues to be a political force of much significance. Besides the historical developments that aided the aforementioned gentlemen into office, the key denominator was their ability to play the role and convince the people about a specific idea. President Zelenkyy is the new addition to the tradition of television personalities becoming statesmen and it appears, communication is at the heart of the phenomenon. He has masterfully used the art of modern communication to give Putin an unanticipated conundrum. He tweets daily, he delivers convincing speeches, he creates compelling videos and he utilizes every available communication platform to send clear and simple messages. Very Trumpian, I dare say. I doubt that we need more evidence to drive home the point: communication is a critical aspect of effective leadership.