The Importance of Leaders
What is happening in Ukraine is horrible and thrilling. The people there are simply unwilling to surrender to a superior violent force. Even old women are learning to shoot rifles! From a pacifist viewpoint, this only adds to the tragedy. But I believe when another country invades yours, violence is an appropriate response.
I also see Putin as singularly evil, similar to Hitler. According to many accounts, he’s not just interested in secure borders for Russia. He has long dreamed of reconstituting the Russian empire, with himself as Czar if course.
What is happening in the rest of the world in response to the events in Ukraine is amazing and wonderful. No one could have foreseen the tremendous and universal outrage, the incredibly widespread boycott of Russia and of Russians linked to Putin by so many major economic, sport and cultural institutions.
The world is acting immediately in almost total concert (China being the major exception) to protest and boycott Putin’s catastrophic invasion of Ukraine — Russia’s “brother nation.” I don’t think the world has ever done this before so quickly and thoroughly.
The world is not waiting for the United Nations to lumber into action, although that would be greatly appreciated. The world is not sitting around, wringing its hands, bemoaning another tragic macho invasion. The world is being led by the courageous example of the Ukrainian people, who are saying, “We refuse to hand over our country to you, Putin, because you have a bigger army! We will die rather than do that!”
Wow. There are all these sayings about life not being worth living unless you have something you’re willing to die for. If you google, you’ll find a list: “Top 25 Willing to Die Quotes (of 71).” I can appreciate this on an abstract level, but I cannot say I’ve ever felt that commitment. I’m not sure I’m capable of it.
But many Ukrainians are capable of it. Usually, when countries are invaded by a superior military power, this is what happens:
- Whoever can flee does flee. One million have done that, and who can blame them?
- The citizens who remain are filled with despair.
- Some commit suicide.
- Others try to collaborate with the invader, in order to survive.
- And others begin to organize an underground resistance.
But it is very rare that the populace immediately and collectively organizes to fight the invader to the death.
What is different in Ukraine? Why are those four old women pictured at the top picking up guns?
I believe that the Ukrainians are blessed with a leader who is rising to this terrible occasion. Yes, that is President Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy, who famously refused to be blackmailed by President Trump. He is truly leading and inspiring his fellow citizens.
Three examples of Zelenskyy’s inspired leadership —
ONE: President Zelenskyy is being seen everywhere on the frontlines of the battle, assuring Ukrainians that he will not surrender to the Russians or leave the country himself. When President Biden offered to airlift Zelenskyy from Ukraine, Zelenskyy reportedly retorted, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
Now, that is leadership.
TWO: When European leaders convened an emergency summit last week to decide how far they would go with economic sanctions of Russia, they waffled and squabbled until the phone rang. It was Zelenskyy on the line. He pleaded the urgent need for the strongest sanctions. He told these high-and-mighty fellow Europeans that this might be the last time they would hear him alive, bringing many present to tears. In other words, he was saying, “Considering the fact that we Ukrainians are putting our lives on the line for peace and democracy, maybe you should risk more than a little economic suffering to support us.”
Zelenskyy’s phone call turned the tide, and the sanctions decided on were far stricter than anyone had expected.
Think of that brazen phone call. Powerful people were meeting to make a decision that would affect his country’s survival. Neither he nor any other Ukrainian was invited to speak. So he simply picked up the phone. He confronted those leaders with the humanity and desperation of his people. He reminded them of the most important thing — which was not the possibility that strict sanctions against Russia might cause a rise of gas and oil prices in their own countries.
Now, that is leadership.
THREE: Zelenskyy, who is fluent in Russian, also made a Youtube video addressing the Russian people. Click here to watch this video. Of course, he knows his video will never be shown on Russian television. But the miracle of the internet allows him to directly speak his truth to Russians in their homes. He’s brilliant, talking about what his Ukrainian home means to him, evoking the “brotherly” feeling that has existed between the two countries — and ultimately being very clear that his people will never accept Russian domination.
What an amazing idea, to speak directly and passionately to the people whose army was at that moment poised to invade your country.
Now, that is leadership.
I believe people need leadership in order to come together as the Ukrainian people are doing now.
When it comes to war, leadership is all-important. And it’s not just about making good tactical decisions on how to fight the military battle. Equally important are symbolic actions that bring the people together.
Looking back to World War II, we can see that symbolic actions by leaders made a difference.
Here are a few symbolic actions by leaders during World War II:
FDR’s Fireside Chats: I quail to think what we would have done without FDR as President during World War II. Everyone in the U.S. suffered economically during the war. Everything was rationed. But the President, in his radio fireside chats, spoke to the people and brought them together for the terrible task of defeating Hitler. The American people were unified in accepting rationing of basic needs because they understood why they were making a sacrifice.
Winston Churchill’s Passionate Oratory: Prime Minister Churchill’s moving call to the English people to persevere to victory is justly renowned. It still gives me chills. It had an enormous effect on the population’s ability to endure privation and incessant bombing. Please click to listen.
The Royal Family Remains: With the outbreak of war in 1939, many felt that the Queen (mother of the current queen, Elizabeth) and her daughters should evacuate to North America or Canada. To this, the Queen made her famous reply: “The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave the King. And the King will never leave.” And when Buckingham Palace was bombed, the Queen declared, while inspecting the damage to her home, “I’m glad we have been bombed. Now I can look the East End in the face.”
The fact that the Royal Family was enduring the same dangers as the English people strengthened the whole country.
Now, back to the current situation...
This is how I see it:
- Zelenskyy’s extraordinary leadership, both tactical (phoning the emergency meeting of European leaders) and symbolic (refusing to leave the country), inspired and united the Ukrainian people.
- Then the incredible bravery of the Ukrainian people inspired the world — and not just the world but actual government officials who are in a position to make major decisions that will truly aid Ukraine in its battle against the Russian invaders.
Zelenskyy was a major catalyst for the incredible situation we’re seeing now, of the world’s unity behind Ukraine’s struggle against the Russian invaders.
Inspired leaders can transform a crisis.
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