A master class in leadership and courage!

ABOVE: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is pictured on Twitter as he appeals to Ukrainian citizens. 

Watching Ukrainians fight the Russians all alone pulls at our heartstrings. And witnessing the death, destruction, and dislocation of millions of Ukrainians adds to a feeling of misery and helplessness. Moreover, we fear the worst is still to come as the 40-mile Russian convoy prepares to encircle Kiev, unless it is somehow thwarted.

Yet, the flip side of this bitter coin is the stoic leadership and courage of the Ukrainian people. Every day, individual acts of bravery inspire the world. It renews our faith in how people can rise to the occasion and, without wanting to, embrace hero status.

Individuals standing in front of tanks. Average citizens, rifles in hand, guarding their communities. Welders building anti-tank devices. Seniors cooking food for their young fighters. Mothers, nursing babies in bomb shelters, committed to staying. Individuals from Canada and elsewhere, giving up their comfortable lives and returning to Ukraine to help their brothers and sisters. These and countless other deeds are both breathtaking and moving. It stirs us into guilt as we contemplate our own so-called challenges.

Then, there is the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Prior to the unprovoked invasion of his country, if we are to be candid, he was viewed as an ordinary leader. Professionally, he was a comic actor before being catapulted into the top political office in the land. Not steeped in statecraft, to say the least. However, during this crisis, he refuses to hide or flee. Instead, he is standing his ground and is rallying his fellow citizens to fight back with everything they have.

When offered a flight to safety by the US, his response was, “I need ammunition, not a ride!” Talk about a quote for the ages.

In regular videos to his citizens, he is dressed in a simple t-shirt or army fatigues, prepared to do his part, not as President, but as an individual citizen. He epitomizes courage, integrity, and commitment. And in the process, he energizes a people that are widely out-gunned by the Russian army.  

Accordingly, his political stock has soared to the heavens.

Zelenskyy endears himself not only to Ukrainians but to democracy-loving peoples around the world. Admiration for him and Ukraine is flowing from all corners, and millions of people are motivated to contribute, big and small, to support their struggle. Every day brings a new list of impressive initiatives by individuals, businesses, governments at all levels, NGOs, humanitarian organizations, sports teams, schools, churches, and others — all in solidarity with Ukraine.

The noted US historian and biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, defined leadership in the following way: “Leadership is not easily defined. But if I had to define it, leadership is the ability to use your talents, skills and emotional intelligence, to mobilize people to a common purpose.”

That is precisely what Zelenskyy is doing. He is using his God-given abilities, complemented by a formidable emotional intelligence, to move his countrymen and women to common ground, under a common purpose — namely, to believe in themselves and their homeland, and to defend it. La Patria!

Furthermore, his leadership is not conducted on a grand scale. He uses simple words to express his thoughts. He moves and eats with everyday folks. He is humble. He shows great empathy. He always manages a smile, despite the reality that his country is going through hell.

In short, he radiates a genuine authenticity that touches people in a powerful way which, in turn, inspires them to carry on, notwithstanding the hardships.

For years, people have debated whether leaders are born or made? No doubt, some of the world’s giants — Winston Churchill, Napoleon Bonaparte, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela — came to life with special gifts. But for the most part, I have always believed leaders are made. They work hard at developing, improving, and evolving their skill sets.

This Ukraine crisis has shown us how leaders are indeed made.

Zelenskyy and his compatriots have emerged from the shadows and accomplished heroic acts of leadership under the harshest of conditions: to persevere, despite the odds; to radiate hope, despite the despair around them; to stand back up, despite the body blows; to talk up their country and countrymen and women, despite missiles raining on them; to not quit, despite the ominous days ahead.

Everything they do is leadership personified.

We watch them with enormous reverence. But Canada and the West should also draw some lessons for our own public good. Political cynicism is at an all-time high. People are tired of the scandals, the lies, the broken promises. Voters are demoralized by the divisive and hyper-partisan political discourse. They wonder if their elected representatives are listening to them or whether special interest groups are really driving the political agenda. They note with disdain the increasing nastiness between political parties and wonder how solutions to difficult policy issues can possibly be found. They loathe how political fundraising and big money are corroding the decision-making process.

Citizens are starving for honest, competent leadership. And when politicos fall short, it is so easy for them to tap out: to lose confidence and trust in their political class, and institutions; to pull back from civic obligations and discussions; to not vote.

This leadership malaise is one critical reason why democracies are struggling.

In their hour of darkness, may the actions of the Ukrainian people shine a hopeful light in all countries and communities to help remind us about the values of nationhood and nation building, and to foster a political dialogue that is more civil and united. May it also spur us into forms of higher cooperation and collaboration, while expanding our empathy and understanding. Let it renew and reinvigorate our democracies.

Yes, in this tragic and senseless war, the Ukrainian President and his people are conducting a master class in leadership and courage. May it continue to buoy their spirits and their survival. And may it also prove contagious.

Glory to Ukraine.