War is horrible. But it does highlight the best and worst of human behavior, and is a great lens for viewing leadership styles and actions. Since I’m passionate about leadership, I thought I would share some thoughts on current events through that lens. So let’s examine the leadership styles of the two leaders on everyone’s mind.
Vladimir Putin is a leader acting like a Bear protecting his turf. His mind is operating with a pre-conventional egoic structure, untamed by meditation or failure. That ego drives him to be compared to, and remembered as, a Stalin or Lenin (not unlike China’s Xi wanting to be seen on par with Mao Tse Tung). As a past-oriented thinker, Putin believes he is the Czar destined to restore Russia to greatness.
Putin’s very life has been proof (to him) of his timely importance on the world stage, and he is acting his part with the precision of a method actor. Bringing Russia back to a nostalgic sense of U.S.S.R. greatness has become his self-adopted duty to his country. His invasion of Ukraine was long planned, and could only have been avoided had Ukraine maintained alliance with Russia, or at a minimum the neutrality of Finland. The Bear is now wreaking havoc because he was poked. He embarked upon a very dangerous leadership act for the world at large given his ruthlessness, and – oh yeah – those nuclear weapons.
Zelenskyy is like a young Fox, clever, quick and dashing. He is a post-conventional leader who displays behaviors several ego structures beyond Putin (through a developmental psychology lens). Though he has strong ethnocentric care for his people, the Fox values life and freedom, embodying a world-centric point of view. He is a future-oriented thinker and communicates a positive future vision for Ukraine. After the invasion, his game shifted from moving the country toward an abundant future to mobilizing for survival. Lacking the hard power at Putin’s disposal, he must wield his persuasion power with finesse as a charismatic leader.
Can the Fox Outsmart the Bear?
While Putin and Zelenskyy are both highly intelligent, their leadership capacities are completely opposite, which makes this very interesting. Zelenskyy’s leadership was not what the Bear expected, which has backed it into a corner. The only way for the Fox to win with his charisma and cleverness is for the entire country of foxes to mobilize and fight the predator. And that is still not enough, which is why he is working social media and public opinion to sway other world leaders to back Ukraine with weapons and sanctions. It may work, but time is not on Zelenskyy’s side.
Putin has been exposed as negative and destructive, lacking a universal moral compass that values life. Zelenskyy, by contrast, is a champion of life and freedom. The rest of the world has lined up against Putin, and for Ukraine. Those who do NOT support Ukraine will be dealt a serious blow by a global community now inter-connected and able to vote with their pocket books and fingers. This will likely impact Putin’s staying power in a way that he did not calculate with his past-oriented style.
The third major leader in this fight is in the role of the firefighter. The firefighter leader must be a pragmatist and decide where to build the fire-lines, mobilize outsiders to dowse the source of the fire with sanctions, and provide equipment and resources to the inhabitants. The pragmatic leadership of Biden is prudent… to a point. It is a natural role for a late-stage empire leader who can’t (or won’t) stick his neck out too far for others. The fact that this is an existential fight for freedom is the catch.
While Putin is past-focused, and Zelenskyy future-focused, Biden is present-focused. This means he must play a daily game of “whack a mole” against a never-ending string of crises. He will get some right and some wrong, and will evolve his stance as public opinion shifts. If the war goes on as long as I think it will, the Fox’s ability to outsmart the Bear, and mobilize his citizen army, may put so much public pressure on Biden and Europe that they will be forced to engage deeper. Or, the cornered Bear will lash out against both. There is no scenario where this plays out well – besides Putin or Zelenskyy backing down in a face-saving way. Let’s pray for that.